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

Interpretive Essays

Browse Photos and Film

Expedition Source Material

About this Project

expedition source material

Journal of Matthew Stirling
Select a Date:
Select a location/subject:
Current Date and Location/Subject:  

July 22, 1926 : Rouffaer River

July 22nd

We got away from camp at 6:30 this morning as a canoe load of Papuans were flirting with us from the opposite side of the river, trying to get up courage to come over to us. There are many islands in this part of the river. Most of them are inhabited and have plenty of bananas growing on them. The Papuans seem to have three articles of currency which they always offer us first, until they find out that we want other things. These three things are the crowned heads of crowned pigeons, bananas and lumps of sago wrapped in leaves. There are many breadfruit trees which grow wild all through here and the fruit on them is much larger than on the Mamberamo. {p. 175} Perhaps seasons are a bit later here, as on the Rouffar there are many blossoms of the scarlet climbing vine that we saw when we first came up the Mamberamo but which were all gone there two months ago. There are also lots of wild figs almost everywhere along the river and they are quite palatable. I have always heard it said, particularly in Java, that there is nothing to eat in the jungles of New Guinea. This is far from the case. Leaving out the fish and wild game and domesticated plants, one has in addition to the breadfruit and figs, the many species of palms, the upper portion of the stalks of which are excellent eating. A sort of wild cane which grows abundantly all along the river is also quite fair eating. The root of a sort of water lily is eaten by the Papuans, and wild sago, which is very abundant in the lake plain, is their staple food. I have also seen the Dyaks and the Papuans eating a number of different sorts of leaves and roots. It seems to me that the food quest, particularly in the lake plain is an easy one. When it is considered that lizards and insects are also eaten by the Papuans it should seem that a full meal is always at hand. During the course of the day we saw a good many Papuans along the river but did not stop to have contact with any of them. Their banana plantations continue at frequent intervals along the river. For the first time we saw some women and children today but it was at a considerable distance and I could not make out what their costume and ornaments were, if any. In the canoes the two most conspicuous incidents were the losing overboard of one of our rifles and the passing out of Oompah from sunstroke, the {p. 176} second case we have had in two or three days. In the evening we made bivouac on a low island. There seem to be a great many Papuans in the neighborhood as they started making a great racket as soon as we tied up our boats and began clearing. The view of the Central mountains from our camp is the finest we have yet had. As we have noted before, they rise from the lake plain with surprising abruptness and are very rugged. From this place we can see into a big gap which we surmise is the one from which the Van Daalen river emerges. On rare evenings like this one, when there is no rain, the cloud effects are really spectacular. While we were making camp some Papuans in a canoe were poling up and down by the side of another island across the river, shouting. I stood on the prow of the motor boat and shouted back waving. Finally with the usual combination of uneasiness and eagerness they slowly came up to us, le Roux and I greeted them with broad smiles and exhibited a small knife. They were at once all smiles and such few things as they had with them, they at once gave over. They were without bows and arrows in their canoe, the first time we have seen Papuans unarmed. Their hair is cut short excepting for a round tuft on the top of the head. These men were not wearing the "tails" that were an indispensable article of apparel with all the other Papuans we have seen. The only similarity was in the bark aprons and a few strands of the braided string around their waists. One of them was wearing a brand new bark apron which I tried to obtain but which with much coyness on his part he {p. 177} refused to remove. This display of modesty seemed a little peculiar, insomuch as 2 of the four men were not wearing anything. They had no paddles in their canoe, using long bamboo poles and a piece of the midrib of a palm leaf. I exhibited another knife and showed them a net bag we had obtained below and indicated by signs that I wanted the crescent shaped forehead ornaments. They became greatly excited and set up a great shouting across the river to which there were answering shouts. It was now dark but there was a fine moon. Shortly another canoe appeared with a load of net bags, fish nets {*} and shell ornaments, which were soon in our possession for a few small knives. The eagerness with which they received these can scarcely be described. Finally we showed them a big parang and their excitement redoubled; we gave it to them to try and they danced, sang and shouted. They again shouted across the river and almost died it seemed of nervous anticipation until a third canoe arrived loaded with more net bags, nets and ornaments which must have cleaned out the village. They turned them over to us and we gave them the parang. Their actions can only be compared to those of a demonstrative small girl whose whole ambition has been to own a doll and who has just received a finer one than she ever expected. They danced around chopping at trees promiscuously with it, taking it out of each other's hands and then waiting impatiently for their turn to try it again. We could not resist their childlike joy and gave them another. It was evidently the big day of their lives. We again inquired {p. 178} if they had seen the plane and they at once understood our signs. They imitated the noise and flying position, pointed out the direction from which it came and the direction it went on its return. I was pointed out as having been up there and, as with the others, the expression on their faces underwent a sudden change, exhibiting more fear then anything else, as tho' they could not comprehend such a metamorphosis taking place. I had to smile and pat them on the backs in a reassuring way before their smiles and their confidence returned. We tried to get them to bring stone axes, but could not get the idea across - probably they could not comprehend that we would want them when we had axes obviously so infinitely superior. We had a hard time getting rid of them when it came time to sleep but we finally sent them off and went to bed. As I write in my klambu there is a great hullabaloo of celebration going on across the river.

CreditsPermissionsMore Expeditions & Voyages