"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 29, 1926 : Papuans of Bisano

May 29th

This morning I woke to the steady patter of rain on my tent, with dull skies that gave promise of the rain {*} continuing all day. In spite of the rain, Sally set out on an all day topographic expedition along the ridge. He will probably have an uncomfortable time of it and the visibility will likewise be bad for observation. This whole region is virtually unexplored and it seems too bad that we cannot spend more time here, but then we can't explore all of New Guinea, that is certain and the central mountains are our real objective. The abundance and variety of insect life in New Guinea is simply amazing. Ants of dozens of species are the most numerous. These vary in size from large black ones an inch or more in length to a little brown variety so small as to be little more than visible. Between the two are innumerable sorts of all colors, shapes and temperaments. It is impossible to escape them excepting on sand bars in the streams where if not entirely absent they are at least less abundant. Flies are but little behind the ants in regards to obviousness. Their range of size and color and disposition is even greater than is the case with the ants. Many are brilliantly colored and on close examination are really beautiful to see. Ordinarily one does not stop to think of them from an aesthetic standpoint. Although there are a number of {p. 98} rather aggressive biting varieties, the most annoying is a clinging loggy [sic] sort of sweat fly that is attracted by perspiration. Although slow and easily killed, as they make practically no attempt to escape, the replacement troops are so great in number that killing them does no good. Other creatures that provide ample opportunity for intimate observations are leeches and chiggers. The former attach themselves to any part of the body opportunity affords, but seem to have a special fondness for the inside of the eyelids. Chiggers are almost microscopic in size but are the most continuously in evidence of all the pests. Their favorite pasture ground lies between the feet and the knees, where they burrow under the skin and lay their eggs. Owing to their small size this is not as violent as it sounds, but it sets up an incessant itching, which is only aggravated by scratching and which has probably been responsible for more hours of lost sleep in New Guinea than any other cause. The best protection against them is never to walk without wearing puttees or high laced boots. Wasps and yellow jackets frequently make their presence painfully evident, especially when clearing a camp site in the jungle. Mosquitoes are present everywhere but in greatly varying quantities. In this region they are not very bad. The Malays and Dyaks who go barefoot are bothered by other pests - worms that burrow into the feet and cause considerable trouble. The butterflies of New Guinea together with the birds constitute one of her greatest beauties. [V1: crossed out: The butterflies {p. 99} of New Guinea together with the birds constitute one of her greatest beauties]. The butterflies are brilliant and numerous, and much more [V1: interlineated: obvious; crossed out: frequently seen] than the birds, which are heard much more than seen.

"This evening le Roux, Sally and I again visited the ghost house..."

It was not until afternoon that the first Papuans came around to our tents. With what appears to be an ingrained dislike for water in any form touching their skins, they stayed in the village until it became evident that the rain was not going to stop. One of the small boys has some disagreeable looking eruptive sores on his hand and arm so le Roux and I got out a bandage and for lack of anything better, used gasoline as a disinfectant. As a sanitary measure I touched a match to the gasoline soaked rag with which le Roux had wiped off the sores. The resulting explosive blaze caused them a lot of uneasiness but greatly increased their respect for the potency of our "medicine". On the whole the natives of this village (there appear to be about fifty in all) seem fairly healthy. The boy just mentioned with the sores, is quite active and healthy looking otherwise and the sores are apparently local as his general health does not appear to be affected. There is one infant which looks sickly and has a few scabs on its head. At least half of the people have scrofula either in patches or over the entire surface of the body. This seems to cause them no inconvenience however. There does not appear to be syphilis or venereal disease in any form. One surprising feature is the absence of old people. There are three men who are past middle {p. 100} age, but by no means senile. There is only one woman of middle age. Whether the old people die off from the natural hardships of life or whether they are disposed of in some manner I have not yet been able to determine. I am inclined to suspect the latter, as in a permanent village such as this old people should not find living so difficult. In response to all queries concerning death they steadfastly assure us that no one dies here. We have therefore no clue as to their disposal of the dead. There is no evidence of a burying place in the vicinity of the village that we have been able to discover. This evening le Roux, Sally and I again visited the ghost house with the phonograph and recorded a bull-roarer concert. They have five or six definite "tunes" each requiring a special set of pipes. In some there are only two players. These tunes are soft and quite melodious. In other cases as many as like join in. These are the real bellowing pieces. The leader strikes a note and the rest echo it in chorus. The quality of the tones is remarkable in the manner in which they carry. Even the very soft notes can be heard a great distance. They sound fully as distinct and purer in tone from our tent than they do from inside the ghost house itself.

This afternoon Sally came back from his trip about 4 o'clock. As the rain had not stopped all day he was drenched. He started north along the ridge this village is on until he {p. 101} came to the tributary of the Uama near the mouth of which we camped on the 26th. He followed this stream down to a point west of the Kampong from whence he circled back to camp. He reported traveling difficult with much up and down work. He had a Papuan as a guide.

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