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A Primal Place

Debra Lambert

The upper Sepik remains one of the most remote areas of Papua New Guinea. The absence of roads and other infrastructure has isolated the region for centuries. Although Christian missionaries arrived in the 1950s, most people of the Upper Sepik have had little contact with global culture.

But the enduring image of PNG as the last outpost of “primitive,” Stone Age society obscures the complex truth of its history. Archaeologists identify ancient New Guineans as one of the first peoples to domesticate plants for human consumption. But unlike other early farming societies, they didn’t progress through the technological stages—population expansion, metallurgy, writing, political organization—that transformed other regions of the world. The geography of the island prevented the spread of early agriculture beyond the cool, fertile highlands in the deepest interior of the country.

The same fragmented microenvironments that limited the spread of agriculture also led to the development here of more than 1,000 of the world’s 6,000 languages. The isolated New Guinean rainforests gave rise to unusual species like the cassowary, tree kangaroo and bandicoot. PNG is home to more species of birds of paradise than any other place on earth.

Despite the European “discovery” of PNG 500 years ago, much of New Guinean culture remained unchanged until the 20th century. At different times the Dutch, British, Germans and Australians laid claim to portions of the island. But disease—especially malaria—kept Westerners out of the interior until the 1930s. What they saw astounded them. Mapmakers sent home reports of villagers adorned with cassowary plumes and bird-of-paradise feathers, their noses pierced with bamboo or pig tusk. They told tales of tribes who honored dead relatives by wrapping their bodies in banana leaves before roasting and eating them. Cannibalism and headhunting were, in fact, integral parts of tribal warfare in some regions until the 1960s, when Australian officials made a concerted effort to curb these practices.

Today, the nation of 5 million is in its third decade of independence. In 1975, at the urging of the United Nations, PNG officially broke away from Australia and formed a democracy that has performed well in its infancy. But problems with law and order continue to plague the country. The certainty of the Stanford trip was thrown into question two months before departure when an attempted coup in the capital, Port Moresby, threatened to shut down the airport. Just three weeks before the Stanford team arrived, the Peace Corps announced it would be evacuating volunteers from the country, citing “the difficult security climate in PNG.” Even as the Stanford team ran clinics in Sepik villages this summer, police in Port Moresby were firing on New Guinean university students protesting the privatization of the national bank. Four protesters were killed and 15 wounded.

Poorly developed transportation and communication networks and serious health risks also pose significant challenges for the Stanford project. Between them, project leaders Peter Lu and Kelly Murphy have suffered from scabies, dengue fever, tinea imbricata, serum sickness and giardia from exposure to pathogens in PNG. Past team members have had yaws (a bacterial skin and bone infection) and worms. Without roads, volunteers must travel by foot, canoe and chartered planes, in an area where fuel costs $8 to $12 a gallon. Even in this isolated corner of the globe, the laws of supply and demand apply.

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