First Contact


While I was in Wisconsin, I was rereading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee for the third time. A great book, and clearly a forerunner to Guns, Germs and Steel.

The book deals a bit more with Diamond’s work and personal experience in New Guinea. The most fascinating aspect is that the central highlands where the last major population center of Stone Age people living into modern times with no knowledge of the outside world were discovered. Estimates range from 250,000 to one million people living there.


There were two regions of people – one in the east that was discovered in 1930, and a western group that was discovered in 1938. The First Contact with the Eastern group in 1930 is fully documented and readily available on the web in a fifty minute video here. Quoting from the Third Chimpanzee:

First-contact patrols had a traumatic effect that is difficult for those of us living in the modern world to imagine. Highlanders “discovered” by Michael Leahy in the 1930’s, and interviewed fifty years later, still recalled perfectly where they where and what they were doing at the moment of first contact. Perhaps the closest parallel, to modern Americans and Europeans, is our recollection of one or two of the most important political events in our lives. Most Americans my age recall that moment on December 7, 1941, when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We knew at once that our lives would be very different for years to come, as a result of the news. Yet even the impact of Pearl Harbor and of the resulting war on American society was minor, compared to the impact of a first contact patrol on New Guinea highlanders. On that day, their world changed forever.

A book by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson entitled First Contact poignantly relates that moment in the eastern highlands, as recalled in their old age by New Guineans and whites who met there as young adults and children in the 1930s. Terrified highlanders took the whites for returning ghosts, until the New Guineans dug up and scrutinized the whites’ buried feces, sent terrified young girls to have sex with the intruders and discovered that whites defecated and were men like themselves. Leahy wrote in his diaries that highlanders smelled bad, while at the same time the highlanders were finding the whites’ smell strange and frightening. Leahy’s obsession with gold was as bizarre to the highlanders as their obsession with their own form of wealth and currency—cowry shells—was to him.

This is a truly amazing document. I sat fascinated for the full 50 minutes. Again, the link is here.

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