I just finished this account of a journalist’s encounter with a “lost tribe” in New Guinea, that is, a group of people who had not encountered Europeans prior to 1993.
The book is riveting, almost despite itself. Marriott strikes me as naive, foolish, and often obtuse, but, boy, can he write a story. He decides to march into a thick, deadly jungle, led by some local guides, in search of some barbaric people who are known to be cannibals in order to ask them how things are going. He encounters several drunken, disillusioned westerners along the way, who all chastise him for calling the tribe “lost” out of some bizarrely misplaced concern for political correctness. The New Guinea infrastructure appears pretty much nonexistent, certainly once you leave what passes for a city. If you break an ankle in a New Guinea rainforest, you may as well just lay down and die, or wait for the cannibals to come; no life flight will be on its way. (I know, this is an overly snobbish take on my part; I don’t deal well with societies in which I cannot find a good martini. Utah is a even a bit of a stretch for me.)
As Marriott and his guides tramp, slip, and slide their way through the heart of darkness, they come across a little pig, which the guides gleefully strangle, pack up in leaves, and later toss into a fire so that they can break apart its flesh and bones and savor the fat little strips of undercooked meat in their black teeth, grease dripping into their beards. It’s that kind of place.
They encounter the lost tribe, and guess what? They are destitute and barbaric. But this is what I found most fascinating of all. The tribe is only partly accessible, culturally and emotionally. Meaning: by Marriott’s account, you can’t safely trust any of your assumptions about what people will do or how to interact with them. It’s bewildering and disorienting. In one scene, Marriott is talking with the village men who are psyching themselves up for a hunt (more little piggies), and these guys, who had been somewhat friendly, are now starting to get scary. They brag about their cannibalistic past and start taking on fierce attitudes. Marriott starts to back away, and rightly so: there really is no telling what’s about to happen. The guys are hovering in a kind of waking dream state, where whims are not likely to be overriden by any rational or emotional commitments. Indeed, that’s the whole lost tribe for you — a group of people in a strange, impressionistic swirl of superstitions and quasi-knowledge, fed by raw emotions and desires. You can see why some people ended up calling such native people “childlike,” since children have a similar kind of impetuousness, but this is an impetuousness coupled with very violent adult passions and adapted to a harsh environment.
The first Westerner to encounter these folks gave them a smattering of gifts and appointed one of them as being in charge. This, despite the fact that there already was a chief. Marriott now finds the chief totally disoriented and aloof. He has no sense of his own place, and wanders the village silent and alone. There is also a strange man living among the tribe and trying to impart Christianity to them. He’s self-important and stupid and cruel, though Marriott finds some empathy for him and his bleak situation.
Just before Marriott and his guides are about to leave there is a terrible thunderstorm. Everyone huddles in the makeshift houses as lightning pounds down around them. One house is struck, and five women and children are killed. Marriott and his guides know they had better get out of town fast before the hunters return, since they will surely be blamed for the accident, and certainly killed. So they flee, but in their escape they encounter the tribe’s hunting party, led by a man Marriott has befriended, whose wife and children have just been killed. What do you do? Break the news to your friend that his wife and daughters have been fried by lightning? No, because if you do he and his buddies will kill you and eat you. So you lie, congratulate them on their hunt, shake hands, and off you go. You simply can’t count on reason and heartfelt emotion to carry the day.
Marriott ends up feeling guilty, as if he did indeed bring harm to the tribe. But that’s nonsense. And so far as I can see, there is no “indictment of colonialism and its lingering legacy of cultural annihilation,” as the book jacket suggests. The lost tribe, having had a taste of civilization, wants an airstrip and a hospital and a gold mine to be brought to them. But, bloody hell, they can all march out of that godforsaken place anytime they want, and make use of what little civilized amenities New Guinea has to offer. And I can’t see that anything beautiful would have been lost: these people are living at the margin of existence, shutting up women into huts and trading them for pigs and watching their children die of malaria. Nothing noble about the savagery here.
I know: spoken like a true cultural imperialist. I can’t help but feel that some forms of life are better than others, and the one ridden with superstition, malaria, and cannibalism is pretty low in the rankings.