"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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May 17, 1926 : Albatross Camp (Base Camp) ; Mamberamo River ; Papuans of Bisano

May 17th

"These giant bats have a wing spread of about four or five feet."

This morning le Roux, Dr. Van Leeuwen and I, with Van Leeuwen and le Roux'[s] mantris, two soldiers and 2 Dyak canoes with Dyak rowers went up the river to see if we could locate some Papuans at a village we had seen from the plane about five miles above camp. We stopped at a sand bar on the way to shoot some flying foxes. These giant bats have a wing spread of about four or five feet. The wings are brownish-black leathery membrane, while the body is covered with a reddish brown fur. The head is dog-like with sharp teeth in the {p. 73} mouth. They emit rather disagreeable odor of musk. They are eaten with relish by the soldiers and Dyaks and are said to be quite good when young. While this was going on, our Dyak paddlers undertook to drain a large pool of water left on the sand bar by the falling of the river. Up to their waists in mud, they had more fun than a bunch of small boys collecting the two dozen or more fish that had been left in the pool. There were three or four different varieties of fish in this pool. While heretofore I have seen only catfish caught with hook and line in the river. When we had collected our plants, fish and flying foxes we continued upstream. Finally one of the Dyaks said "orang" and after much pointing we too finally saw a canoe containing nine men, lying close inshore by a small island. We waved to them and shouted and they waited, poised for flight. As we drew alongside them we gave them a couple of knives and some tobacco and they in turn gave us some cocoanuts and sugar cane which they had in their canoe. One of the men was old and undersized, and was afflicted with a dry skin disease. One was a boy of about seven or eight years and he too had the skin affliction. Only two of the men were really strong and well built. The rest looked as though they were somewhat underfed. They all carried long bows of palm wood, and a sheaf of arrows. Some of these had broad heads of barbed bamboo, others were tipped with pointed bone. Most of the arrows were decorated with rather artistic geometric incised patterns on the cane shafts {p. 74} and bamboo heads. Most of them had two small perforations through the upper part of the nostrils through which a long hairpin shaped ornament of cassowary leg bone was thrust, points upward. The septum of the nose was also pierced and through this they wore a curved piece of shell, bone, wood or glass. Some of them had on necklaces of large blue glass beads. The hair of some was ornamented only with a small bamboo comb stuck in front. Others had an elaborate spiral coiffure made by wrapping their hair in rolls with rattan.

"...we too finally saw a canoe containing nine men..."

A fillet fringed with cassowary feathers was worn below this, around the forehead and back of the head, partly shading the eyes. The most conspicuous article of attire worn by all was a bulging mass of braided rattan cord worn about the abdomen as a protection against arrows. In the back of this was thrust a curious tail-like ornament made of palm leaves and shaped like a curved feather duster with the handle upwards. The penis was drawn upwards and lashed to a cord around the middle. Bracelets of shell and bone completed the articles of attire. The canoe was simply fashioned with rather abrupt ends, but on the whole quite well made. Two of the men had knives thrust in their abdomen roll. We tried to induce them to go with us to their village, but as soon as they comprehended they looked worried and would not do so. We continued upstream a short distance, hoping they would follow, but they held their place and would not do so. When we turned back and asked them to accompany us to camp they quite {p. 75} readily consented. As we did not thoroughly trust them, we sandwiched them between our two canoes and returned to camp. There they spent the afternoon looking over the marvels of "civilization". Among other things we showed them the aeroplane sitting calmly on its float. They were very much afraid of it. One was finally induced to step on the float but Hans on the other float inadvertently moved the prop a little and he jumped on the bank in terror and could not be enticed onto the float again.

In the later afternoon le Roux and I worked with them on their language, but it is difficult to do much because of the many distractions around. Their language too, is very difficult. Their consonants are quite different from ours and they use curious whistles and throat sounds in many words. They are able to imitate bird calls, particularly that of the greater bird of paradise, with great fidelity. They do it by whistling through the fingers in the mouth. In the evening we introduced them to the marvels of the phonograph. We experimented first with "Doodle-de-doo". They were highly interested in jazz, but not particularly floored. This came later when we tried out "It aint gonna rain no mo'". As soon as the human voice spoke up the look of terror and amazement was startling to see. For a moment I thought they would bolt for the river but reassured by our calm and smiling looks, they gradually calmed down and after a while became quite indifferent {p. 76} to the machine. They soon tire of anything. They seem much more anxious to receive tobacco and rice than knives and beads. They have decided to spend the night in camp.

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