"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:  

May 28, 1926 : Papuans of Bisano

May 28th

"There are nine houses in all in the village."

This morning we were up bright and early but not so early that the Papuans were gathered around our tents to watch us rise, dress, wash and eat breakfast. Le Roux and I {p. 91} both worked on language most of the morning and "Sally" left to climb a neighboring mountain for topographic observation. During the morning I went all over the kampong and drew house plans and a plan of the kampong itself. The conical men's house at the south end of the kampong is deserted and in a semi-ruinous condition. It is practically identical in construction with the occupied men's house in the center of the kampong. It does appear to be used for one purpose. All around the house under the eaves are hung hundreds of pigs jaws with two or three cassowary beaks and three crocodile jaws. I was the focus of considerable interest as I sketched the house, but they seemed able to comprehend the significance even of a ground plan. This is doubly remarkable when the nature of my drawing is taken into consideration. There are nine houses in all in the village. The smaller nipa shacks appear to be the family houses, where the women and small children stay and their husbands when so inclined. They are built with two uprights about 10 feet high supporting the ridge pole, and two about five feet high flanking each side, as support for the eaves. The roof is formed by palm leaves laid [V2: horizontally and lashed to the eight pole rafters] on each side the of ridge pole. The ends are open with the exception of one house. On one side is a sleeping platform of split poles, about six by eight feet in dimension and about 3 feet above the ground. The one house which is not open, has a small door in the corner at one end and another in the middle of one side. The furniture is of the simplest. A {p. 92} few baskets of sago bark, a few wooden dishes and two or three bags containing personal belongings constitute the furnishings. The costume of the women is very simple. A cord around the waist supports a small bark apron in front and a somewhat larger one behind. Several of the women wear the same nose ornaments as the men - a bone peg through the septum of the nose worn horizontally and the hairpin like bone ornament worn through the nostrils vertically. They have also their strings of beads and bracelets. The boys up to about six years of age are nude, but the girls no matter how small wear a little apron of bark cloth. The small girls are very shy but the boys are not. The women wear their hair short. The children also have their hair cut in various patterns. Two small girls had their hair cut in concentric rings with a tuft left exactly on the top of the head.

"The costume of the women is very simple. A cord around the waist supports a small bark apron in front and a somewhat larger one behind."

A small boy had a small tuft on top of his head and another at the back of his head, just above the neck. With the men, the style of coiffeur [sic, = coiffure] seems to vary according to the individual taste. Some have the hair done in spiral coils about an inch in diameter wrapped heavily in rattan, giving the effect of wearing a coiled cap. Others have a much smaller spiral coil carried through the hair leaving about an inch of untouched hair between each turn of the coil. A couple of others had their hair piled up in heavy masses in a sort of conical tower. It is piled up in spiral rolls but loose, and the rattan wrapping is not much in evidence. Another husky individual whom we have named Mary {p. 93} Pickford wears his long tresses in a cluster of curls gathered together at the back of his neck and hanging loose down his back almost to his waist. The small children are great smokers and it is a revelation to see the skill with which a 5 year old boy can roll a cigarette in a leaf on his thigh. The evidences [V1: interlineated: indications] of an artistic temperament as evinced by decorative art, are not many. About the best thing along this line are the geometric designs burned on the arrows. There is very little wood carving done. A wooden drum with a few simple carved decorations is part of the equipment of the men's house. It has a head of lizard skin. A few oval wooden food bowls are about the only other evidences of wood carving I have seen. Wooden combs worn in the hair are used as forks for eating. Belts and armlets are woven in a none too fine twilled pattern from narrow strips of rattan. Their bodies are free from tattooing [V1: interlineated: or intentional scarification ]. Weapons consist of a long, flat, bow, pointed at either end, made of palm wood. The string is a flat strip of rattan about 1/4 inch in width. A spare string is carried on the bow, tied just below the string in use and carried snugly along the center of the outer curve of the bow. The arrows are cane shafted, tipped with broad points of bamboo, sometimes barbed, sometimes not; or with sharp triangular cross section points of bone or hardwood. Each man carries 5 or 6 arrows with his bow wherever he goes. His bow and arrows seem as much a part of his costume as his belt of armor, of wrapped, braided rattan [V1: interlineated: palm fiber]. They also have lances of similar form to the arrows, but larger. {p. 94} I have not yet seen them used, but there are a number in the men's house. They have no shields. They are in constant fear of attack from their neighbors, particularly the Boromeso who seem their favorite enemies. Their enemies also no doubt, are in constant fear of attack from them.

This afternoon, when the usual group came around our camp it was educating to observe that most of our presents to the women and babies had been appropriated by the men and were being worn by them. There are a number of native dogs in the village. These are all of the same architectural plan, short hair; short, pointed, erect ears; tail curled upward and with a wolf-like face. They are of medium size and are usually a reddish yellow color, although some are black or black and white. They generally lie about lazily in or near the men's house. They have the climbing ability of a goat [V1: crossed out: "a"; interlineated: goat"s"] and are fond of getting themselves in precarious looking places. Usually they are not noticed much by the natives, but an occasional wild yelp shows that when they are disciplined it is by no half way measures. They [V1: interlineated: the Papuans] are rather skillful at throwing stones, particularly as evidenced by the unerring skill with which a heavy rock finds its target when the target happens to be a dog. Small boys amuse themselves chasing one another around the village, throwing small pebbles at each other. When, with my baseball training {*} behind me, I threw a few stones to a much greater height and distance than they were capable of, their respect for me increased perceptibly, and if I had followed their {p. 95} wishes I would soon have had the lamest arm in New Guinea. They are agriculturists after a fashion. Yesterday when we were setting up camp, they brought us a bunch of bananas of good quality and some round squash or pumpkins with raised ridges running from pole to pole. There are also a few papaya trees and some cocoanut palms. Whether the sago palms growing in the swampy patches in the vicinity are present naturally, or whether they have been planted I do not know, but it seems peculiar to find them, as well as cocoanuts, at this altitude. A sort of tuber called oboe, something like hairy potatoes, is also grown. I have seen some other fruits or vegetables but have not identified them yet. They also eat the leaves of a certain parasitic plant that grows wild in considerable abundance and I saw a man carrying in a large white fungus growth the other day. One thing is certain, however, they do not make much of their agricultural opportunities, probably due to their general laziness. It would be the simplest operation in the world to plant more trees and vegetables, which grow practically without care in this fertile soil and with daily rains to keep them growing, there would be little to do but reap the harvest. The fact is there are only a half dozen or less papaya trees and about the same number of cocoanut palms. Banana [V1: interlineated: "s"; crossed out: trees] are more abundant. Their vegetables do not appear to be grown in any definite garden patch but are in individual plants here and there around the village. In the temporary village on the Uama river, which we saw the other day, there were a number of {p. 96} healthy looking squash vines growing, and a number of cocoanut sprouts had recently been set out - each of these protected by a heavy wood and rattan guard about four feet high, to save them from wild animals. Such gardening and orcharding as is carried on is probably the work of women. The men are fond of ranging wide in quest of food. The most abundant supply of wild game is wild hog. Kangaroos, cassowaries and birds of various sorts are also hunted. They do not appear to do fishing and to some of them at least fish are taboo as food. We have learned that there are eleven villages belonging to this tribe of which this is the principal one. They are all on [V1: interlineated: the east; crossed out: this ] side of the Mamberamo. Tonight le Roux and I went into several of the family houses in the village while the women were cooking the evening meals. Our calls did not last long however as the smoke-filled interior of the houses soon got too much for our eyes. We soon returned to the lounging place around the men's house where we were entertained by some singing to the accompaniment of the drum. Their ability to count varies considerably. Most can count to four or five. Only one could give us words for figures up to ten. It seems rather a peculiar thing that this village is not situated on a stream. The only source of water supply is from a little trickling jungle born spring in the vicinity. This is something of an inconvenience to us, as getting water for bathing and laundry is [V1: interlineated: quite a; crossed out: something of] a task (for our boys). These latter considerations though play no {p. 97} {*} part in the life of the Papuans so probably the lack of a stream nearby means nothing.

CreditsPermissionsMore Expeditions & Voyages