"By Aeroplane to Pygmyland" Accounts of the 1926 Smithsonian-Dutch Expedition to New Guinea

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Journal of Matthew Stirling
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July 18, 1926 : Batavia Camp ; Mamberamo River ; Sebit Tribe ; Van der Willigen River

July 18th

This morning we left after calking the big canoe, - Stan, Dick, le Roux and I, with Becker running the motor boat. Saleh, Anji Ipoei, with four other Dyaks, 5 soldiers, [and] 6 convicts rode in our two small canoes which we towed behind lashed together. The big canoe with only a small load was lashed alongside the motor boat and we were off. We made good time {p. 157} and in the middle of the afternoon passed Kalong island and the junction of the Idenberg and Van der Willigen rivers, which marks the beginning of the Mamberamo. Behind Kalong island is a beautiful little circular lake about half a mile in diameter with fine clear water. It has many waterfowl of numerous species in and about it. They are surprisingly tame and evidently not acquainted with guns. We saw some geese of a white color with black markings, ducks of two or three kinds and many waterfowl of the heron and bittern family.

"...a Papuan canoe with seven men came out in the stream to meet us. They belong to the Sebit tribe..."

All along the river in this region are flocks of a kind of bird like a small white gull. We saw a number of crocodiles along the river[,] some of a very large size. They are of a light greenish yellow color and seem to like to lie in the mouth of little streams at the edge of swamps, where they enter the river. Just before we reached the junction of the two rivers a Papuan canoe with seven men came out in the stream to meet us. They belong to the Sebit tribe, the same tribe that visits Batavia camp. Their canoe is a very crude affair, the sides are the natural contour of a none too straight log. The ends are low and are made by hacking off the under side of the log. They dress in a similar fashion to the Papuans of the Van Rees mountains. They are larger, however, and have pleasant faces. They do not seem to have as much scrofula. They wear the rolls of braided fiber around their waists, the same type of hair dress and some of them have the vertical nose ornaments. A couple were wearing boar's tusks through the septum of the nose. They were very anxious to trade and for a couple of safety razor blades {p. 158} we soon had four bows, about a dozen arrows, a roll of {*} armor, two decorated bamboo tobacco boxes, three or four braided armlets, etc. They wore bark cloth aprons like those of the Takutemesa. They tied their canoe alongside our big canoe and we towed them a couple of miles upstream with us as we traded with them. They do not care for beads, mirrors or ornaments of any sort but seem to want only something useful, particularly iron. Knives and fishhooks have great value in their eyes and for one fishhook they will trade anything they possess. They learned the use of fishhooks watching the Dyaks at Batavia camp. It was a new idea to them as heretofore the only method they knew was to shoot them with arrows. Hans and Prince said they used to paddle slowly up and down the river - usually 2 men in a canoe, one in the rear paddling, the other standing in the front with arrow fitted to bow watching for the swirl the fish make in the water. It is a tedious business as the opportunity to shoot does not come frequently. They are expert pantominists [sic, = pantomimists] and can talk with their hands better than any Jewish 2nd hand shopkeeper. They know of both the Boromesa and Takutamesa and are very much afraid of the former. Their expression of distaste is to screw up the face as though they had tasted something sour and make explosive sounds with the lips. Like the Takutamesa, they are expert at imitating bird calls. They seem to be much more industrious than the latter and have not yet learned to be beggars. They are a much more numerous people and evidently have no fear of any near neighbors {p. 159} as they willingly part with their weapons - a thing which the Takutamesa would never do if they did not have others at hand. Their industry is evidenced by the fact that they have many plantations along the river where they raise bananas, papayas, oboes and squash. In spite of this, their staple food is sago from the many palms in the lake plain. It is due to this that the lake plain is so much more populous than the mountains. When approaching one of their villages the whole populace comes out in front and indulge[s] in a wild dance. They have many yellow dogs in their villages and these make a terrific uproar as the canoe draws near.

"They tied their canoe alongside our big canoe and we towed them a couple of miles upstream with us as we traded with them."

Hans and Prince visited one of their villages near Batavia camp and were received in this fashion. As Moon was the only other occupant of the canoe they did not land, though they felt sure they would have had a friendly welcome. While we were at Batavia camp a number of them visited there. Prince had made good friends of them and had overcome their fears to a large extent. He and I collected a vocabulary of a hundred or more words. They are very good people to work with as they have a quick comprehension and do not appear to tire quickly. Their lack of iron tools is evident in the crudity of their canoes, bows and other articles. In the same manner they have not the elaborate ornaments worn by the Takutamesa and do not seem to be as "dressy". Even their hair coiffeur [sic], which is done in the same fashion, is not as elaborate or as neatly done. Prince painted a big U.S.A. on the chest of one of them and he was very proud of it. The others being envious, he had to paint them also. Prince that afternoon had taken the storage {p. 160} batteries out of the plane. Moon, who is full of bright ideas, took a piece of wire and "shorted" them, making a crackling spark. This was too much for the Papuans and they fled into the open and would not enter the house again. Moon, incidentally, is the best trader in camp and because he can get the most ethnological material for the least trade goods, Prince always delegates him to do the trading after Prince has indicated what he wants. While we were there Moon undressed one Papuan completely, taking his armor, his ear ornaments, his nose ornament, his net bag, his seed jacket and his bark cloth apron for one home-made fishhook which Moon himself made out of a piece of steel from the plane. Moon insists that the real fishhooks are too good for the Papuans. At first when the price is high they are unwilling to trade but they cannot resist temptation. Prince's method is to first make his proposition, then let his victim hold the fishhook for a minute. He then takes it back and pins it in a conspicuous position on the front of his shirt and proceeds to lose all interest in it; occupying himself with other things. In the meantime the eyes of the Papuans never leave the hook. Their gaze remains glued upon it, desire written all over their faces. In about ten minutes the goods originally demanded, no matter how many, are taken off and handed over and the hook is theirs. They raise tobacco themselves and make cigars from it by rolling up a leaf. The roll is then tied into shape at each end and the middle by wrapping it with a small strip of rattan. However they like the trade tobacco very much and will willingly trade for it. However, to return to the Van {p. 161} der Willigen river. After we had definitely left the mountains the banks of the stream were fairly low and probably at the highest point of the river's rise; a good deal of it is inundated. At the present time though the land on both sides of the river is quite firm and fairly dry. About the middle of the afternoon le Roux provided a little variation to the monotony by falling in the river out of the "catamaran" whither he had gone to visit Saleh, who is mapping the river as we go along. Incidentally as Hans and I noted from our air flight, the course of the river has changed completely since Doorman made his trip. The river is continually meandering and cutting off loops, so that now Doorman's chart could just as well be another river. About four o'clock we made camp in a nice site on a high point on the river bank some distance above Kalong island. There were a good many mosquitoes even before sunset, and after sunset they came apparently by the millions. We were lulled to sleep under our klambus to the music of a buzz saw cutting through a hard knot.

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