“It is strange and how mediocre all in civilization seems — art, journalism, philosophy, motion pictures, and even music, whenever I leave or ‘come out from’ the New Guinea bush. I would have suspected the reverse — a sudden marvel at things cultural, at arts and letters, at civilized intercourse and accomplishments and yet time and again I have found them flat, disappointing, not up to expectations and woefully artificial. Perhaps it is their great remoteness from the real nature of man and his natural world environment that makes them appear flat and unreal.”

                            Carleton Gajdusek, New Guinea Journal 1961

“Now, although we have progressed vastly beyond the savage state in intellectual achievements, we have not advanced equally in morals. It is true that among those classes who have no wants that cannot be easily supplied, and among whom public opinion has great influence, the rights of others are fully respected. It is true, also, that we have vastly extended the sphere of those rights, and include within them all the brotherhood of man. But it is not too much to say, that the mass of our populations have not at all advanced beyond the savage code of morals, and have in many cases sunk below it. A deficient morality is the great blot of modern civilization, and the greatest hindrance to true progress.”


                                     Alfred Russell Wallace

New Guinea, the third largest island on Earth, swirled in a gigantic sea of clouds and valley inspired mist. Everywhere resembled a saurian inspired landscape emerging from antediluvian times. In 1884, German settlers arrived in eastern New Guinea but were wary of going inland. With very good reason. When some tribes, around 1942, saw white men for the first time, they were sure the end of the world was coming. 

In 2003, I read an article from a foreign paper that America had become a religion, the presidency, a priesthood, at least for those ruling from above. That was almost a generation ago. Generals, contractors and policymakers were meeting in Nebraska to discuss a new generation of 3 kiloton nuclear warheads, while down in the highlands of New Guinea tribes still conduct raids, if nothing like before. I remember marveling at Peter Matthiessen’s photos of men wielding stone axes, people who had just emerged from the dawn of prehistory, themselves in awe of giant steel birds flying through the sky. The president of the U.S. then was looking for funds to drill for more oil in the Amazon and New Guinea. Some oil companies had already had to turn back, the mud being almost impenetrable, the land insufferable. In Portugal and France, vast fires had scorched the southern Mediterranean. A few years before a ferocious el Nino exacerbated some of the worst fires Indonesia had seen in many years. But on the west coast of Australia, a writer had managed to turn back a potential resort scheme for 100,000 people. A writer with conscience had managed the impossible, saving a piece of paradise in Ningaloo, from utter desecration.

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New Guinea entered my imagination when I was only 5 and saw a film from 1961, “The Sky Above, the Mud Below,” by Pierre Dominique Gaisseau. It's a documentary about intertribal warfare, so raw and unpremeditated, so all absorbing in its power about the human condition, so far afield from the ravages of modern steel and concrete existence that it seemed like a fairy tale. It became sketched in my brain like no other film or cultural item in childhood. 


While the '60s were absorbing the reality of the hippy generation, other parallel universes abounded on this small Earth. Since the film, the Dani and Asmat have supposedly been pacified. One must ask what have we lost in the total human condition, in less than two generations, by seeing most of our Paleolithic past dissolve? What have we exactly pacified by cutting ourselves off from our human roots that go back more than 50,000 years when aboriginal man descended from the underbelly of Asia, after the great exodus out of Africa? Are we less “savage” now that spears no longer fly through the highlands? Little did I realize at age 5, that an entire order of being was disappearing from existence forever. 

As we were about to land, riverine systems twisted in marvelous serpentine sweeps across vast swamps. Mist enveloped walls of vertical stones that resembled the ridge backed plates of enormous dinosaurs.

It is a wild, barely decipherable place, New Guinea, where extreme corruption and hooliganism appear to be the only constant in a world where the central government constantly seems on the verge of collapse. We learned that one group on the way to the bird of paradise refuge was held up at gunpoint, passports, cameras and money all stolen. Our guide, from Australia, once walked into a U-shaped valley where from the sides skeletons on vines had been hung as if appealing to a long line of ancestors. The power of the macabre and the unseen was ever present as if locked in a time warp of Paleolithic spirits. One tribe in the northwest of the island was found just two years earlier, back in 2001. The mystery that New Guinea still harbors is staggering.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

But the seemingly insatiable machine of globalization and homogenization has long encroached on language groups that can be found every 30 kilometers. The mud here is luxuriant and infernal and it is what captivated Tobias Schneebaum, the explorer who befriended a male companion among the Asmat decades ago. I had the chance to meet Tobias in his West Village apartment surrounded by shields he had lived with in the jungle half a lifetime ago. “The jungle either accepts you or rejects you,” he once said. “Did it accept me, or did I accept it?”

As Sumatra and Borneo are increasingly exhausted, companies from Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and even India are busy slicing through some of the most secluded jungle on the planet, looking for tropical hardwood such as the merbau trees to adorn the patios of the wealthy. Criminal rings are chopping up some of the last great tropical forests on Earth. More than $600 million worth of trees are felled every month. 

While looking for lumber, they are also slicing through 800 separate language groups, the greatest linguistic variation on the planet. Rare tree kangaroos still cling to the jungle canopy. In 2009, on Mt. Bosavi, in the south, a wondrous rat, almost 3 feet long was discovered in New Guinea. Eclectus parrots, imperial pigeons and brilliant sunbirds electrify the vegetation. Wonders dangle from the vines, like a cryptic fantasia of life and on the Kawahiri River, a tributary of the Sepik, where Michael Rockefeller disappeared, the locals still honor their supreme deity, the crocodile. In one of the spirit houses on the Black Waters it seems as primal as entering the caves of Chauvet or Lascaux. The waters reflect a blackness of depth that hits the onlooker with perilousness unlike any other.

Among some of the elders we heard that the weather had started to alter about 1980. Rain had begun to fall here even during the dry season.

New Guinea bewilders, entrances and frightens in equal measure. It is a parallel universe of wonder and violence but while violence seems to have had a larger purpose nowadays the raids are not what they were. Rape and sexual violence seem to have gone off the rails. Is the loss of culture since the coming of the west partly the cause? Partly because of the oil plantations and corporations looking for timber, gold, natural gas or copper that have sprung up all over the tropics. Women who are the core keepers of culture, are considered roadblocks to so-called progress. Violence on women is caused because women are the ones seen as wanting to hold onto the land, the forests, the only real wealth that is sustainable.

We took our chances to see a bird of paradise and on one outing filled with humidity, as if we had just been struck by an apparition, high in a tree, appeared one of nature’s most beguiling visions, a 12-wired bird of paradise, one of the more stunning flying gems on Earth, whose long black bill, bright yellow plumes along the flanks and 12 wire filaments which can bend over his hindquarters seem to have been made not only to seduce the females of the species, but also to make men swoon with awe and perhaps even jealousy. Displaying and fanning the world with utter resplendence, this bird had truly been designed in heaven.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

The rain dispersed, the heat returned. We were invited to witness dances in the village, accosted by women with body paints in canoes catching fish with nets. The next day we entered our first spirit house and heard stories of the creation of the sun. In these murky tannin infested waters, the sun makes its appearance like a god. The light reflects off the dark river like a wholly different consciousness. One man shows us his initiation scars carved from the totem of the clan, the crocodile. His back resembles the skin of a human reptile. Each scar is half an inch long and covers the entire width of his back. The same reptile that could well have disemboweled Michael Rockefeller three generations ago. The crocodiles have been here long before humans landed on these shores, ensconced in depths where men cannot go, coming to seize the light of day; these waters that are their empire.

On Tari in the highlands, we prepared to witness tribesmen adorn themselves as flamboyantly as the mythic birds of New Guinea. Ambling among waterfalls and bridges woven from vines and native plants we beheld our second bird of paradise, the short tailed paridigallas. Their beauty is almost matchless in the avian world. What words could Alfred Russell Wallace, the coinventor of the theory of natural selection, have uttered when first presented with these marvels? Their flight, their radiance, their pride, as if wholly aware of their brilliance, is worth all the gems of Earth.

In counter distinction to the avian gods here, a teacher tells us of the gas wells and other prophecies relating to the earthy changes that were coming. Years ago, he heard his father dream of a great light blasting from the forest. He now knows them as the gas flares from foreign companies drilling in the forest. He had seen them in his childhood and they appeared like demons. He also foresaw a time when the river would turn to grass when the swamps would dry up. Dreams and prophecies from around the world were attesting to a changing reality. But who in this time will take heed?

When we were in New Guinea, Earth was closet to Mars than it had been in 59,619 years, since Neanderthals walked the Earth. Tribes here have fought hand-to-hand combat for centuries but always maintaining the ecology of their environment. Children are slowly relearning their old languages. But how much has been lost in the past 100 years? How much mythology akin in wonder to the birds of paradise? And what do they think of those among us who drop bombs on unsuspecting children and women without ever seeing their enemies’ eyes? It is we whose internecine warfare threatens existence on a global scale, not those whose feuds have always had a social balancing function. 


We of the dominant society would like to feel that terrifying primitive ways are behind us, that we have pacified outmoded superstitious forms of conduct that lie so close to the mud. The finesse of civilization today can be measured by a new type of voodoo, one that is based on kiloton discharges and genocide such as humanity has never known. Is the unprecedented violence we have experienced in the last century a direct result of losing contact with our original totemic self that honors other beings? If the answer is even partly correct, we had better reverse course and save what is left, or we will all be heading back to the Stone Age, and our machines will be of no use any more.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.


Published on Jun 30, 2020