"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 27, 1926 : Brown River ; Motor Camp ; Rouffaer River

July 27th

Early this morning Peck and le Roux and I, with Anji Ipoei and five Dyaks strapped on our guns and started out to explore our newly found stream. We entered the mouth and about half a mile beyond the point we turned back yesterday {p. 186} we found a good sized river of very clear coffee colored water entering our branch from the west bank. Its existence as well as our branch is a great mystery as there would seem to be no room for a river of this size between the upper Rouffaer and the upper Van Daalen, but then this hastily made map contains many errors, of necessity. We debated a moment and decided to follow our Rouffaer arm as per our original purpose. We went downstream swiftly, the river finally turning in an eastern direction and practically paralleling the Rouffaer and Van Daalen. We stopped to investigate two or three recently abandoned Papuan villages. This area seems to have been recently rather densely populated and there are many banana groves along both shores. Finally, as we had only a food supply for a midday meal and we had determined the course of this river and that if it enters the Van Daalen it does so too far east for our purpose, we turned back. It will be a most interesting piece of work for the future to explore this big arm of the Rouffaer, the existence of which was quite unknown. The Dyaks paddled hard, and at one o'clock in the afternoon we reached the mouth of our little coffee colored river. We turned into it and found it to be a veritable dream of tropical beauty. The river is very deep and maintains a fairly constant breadth of about 75 feet. The current is fairly strong and it carries a very good quantity of water. Sago, pandanus and other trees grow in profusion. In no part of New Guinea have we seen so many birds - gorgeous red parrots, green and blue ones, birds of paradise, kingfishers and countless other varieties. {p. 187}

"...we reached the mouth of our little coffee colored river. We turned into it and found it to be a veritable dream of tropical beauty."

Every now and then the harsh cries of the white cockatoos would disturb the silence with a raucous note. The course of the river while winding, kept a due south direction in general, the exact direction we wish to go. The banks are very low and both sides appear to be principally swamp. We rounded a turn and saw a Papuan canoe tied to the shore. The Dyaks all adjusted their shields by their sides so that they were in a convenient position and paddled silently without touching the handles of the paddles to the sides of the canoe. We saw no one however but a mile farther on we suddenly came upon two houses built on stilts on a little raised spot on the east bank. All of the house furnishings, net bags, personal articles, etc.[,] were in the house but we saw no one and heard nothing. We could not help thinking what an excellent ambush either shore would make for a bowman on our narrow little jungle fringed river. The Dyaks were thinking of it too and I have never seen them more watchful. We passed two or three more single houses, but saw no one. After we had progressed for about three hours in this manner we decided that we would have to turn back if we wished to return to camp before dark. We decided to go on for 10 minutes more. We had progressed about 5 when we saw the end of a very large Papuan canoe projecting from the undergrowth at the side of the stream. We slid along as silently as ghosts; for le Roux had shot a large waterfowl about 5 minutes before and we felt that our presence must be known. As we drew abreast we saw another canoe alongside the first, then another and another. When opposite, we saw that there was a little opening in the jungle about six feet wide {p. 188} with a little basin back of it and a low knoll in the swamp back of this only about twenty five yards from the river, on which were two Papuan houses with smoke rising from them; in the little basin were twenty canoes. The Dyaks stopped paddling and looked inquiringly. We motioned them to continue and they kept on for about a quarter of a mile. There we talked it over and decided that we would take the chance of trying an overture of peace, so we turned back to the little basin. We slid through the little bottle neck opening alongside the Papuan canoes in a silence that could have been cut with a knife. Dick had the rifle and le Roux and I each held our [.]45's in our hands. We stepped out and the Dyaks holding their shields in front of them crept as silently as cats up to the houses. In each house a fire was burning on the hearth but not a person was seen and no sound could be heard in the jungle, though we felt in the tiny clearing that we were being watched. Several trails lead from the little clearing in various directions and the Dyaks with no word of instructions, with their shields in one hand in front of them and holding their lances in the other, spread out fanwise facing these different trails. Not more than five yards back of each house was a fresh platform burial. The two corpses were covered with leaves of sawgrass which in turn were covered with flies. The air was filled with a horrible stench from the decomposing bodies. We wondered if they were not the two Papuans killed by our men in the recent attack. Everything seemed to indicate that they were; the stage of decomposition {p. 189} was right, and both burials were of the same age. The platforms were on four poles about five feet off the ground. The horizontal pieces of the platform projected about a foot from the platform itself and from these projections hung many yards of green split rattan and green leaves. In the ground by one of the poles supporting the platform, a bow, gaily decorated with feathers, was up-ended. Beside it, there was a sheaf of arrows, also decorated, points upward. From one of the platform projections hung a net bag. The other platform was quite similar. Instead of being placed in the ground, the bow was hung from the platform and the sheaf of arrows tied to it. The bow was decorated profusely for half of its length with crowned pigeon feathers. The net bag hanging from this platform was elaborately made and appeared to contain meat for food. It was hung with about a dozen pigs' tails, hornbill beaks and legs of some large bird of prey, with claws extended. One of the houses was considerably larger than the other and was literally filled with net bags full of personal belongings and many other articles. On the platform over the floor were a set of bull-roarers which seemed to indicate that it was a men's club house for secret meetings and rituals. Some of the bags and other articles were better than any we have seen, one in particular was completely covered with the crowns of crowned pigeons. The other house was a smaller, more flimsy affair and looked more like a family house. Possibly it was for women and children. We followed one of the paths a few yards into the swamp and to our surprise saw about a dozen more canoes, tied together in a {p. 190} cluster. We returned and on the front hearth of the small house, which was open at the ends, we laid a large parang and a few red beads which I happened to have in my pocket. During all of this time we heard not a sound of either men or dog; and Papuan dogs have a habit of making a great uproar when a stranger approaches their neighborhood. The houses filled with personal belongings; the 30 or more canoes and the two burial platforms were eloquent. Evidently there in the heart of this great swamp we had stumbled upon the rendezvous of the tribe, which had so recently deserted all of their villages for miles on either side of the Rouffaer and so we disturbed nothing, took a few pictures, returned to our canoe and slid out of the bottle-neck back into our little river. With our prow headed downstream the Dyaks for twenty minutes paddled silently at full speed, before easing up and about sunset we were back in the Rouffaer and across to camp.

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