All Is (Most Definitely) Not Lost

By Marriott, Edward | Geographical, November 1998 | Go to article overview

All Is (Most Definitely) Not Lost


Marriott, Edward, Geographical


Images of primitive "lost" tribes hidden in far-off jungles have long fuelled our imagination. However, sometimes these tribes are not as lost as we would like to believe. And those that are, are often the subject of ruthless exploitation, says Edward Marriott

Lost tribe. These two words have become shorthand for everything the modern, post-colonial world believes itself to have sacrificed -- innocence, purity, a sense of pre-industrial brotherhood. Whenever the jungle reveals another one of these small, uncontacted groups, we stare at them in bovine fascination. How amazing, we say, that such primitive simplicity can still exist in our tired, poisoned world. At such moments, with our critical faculties suspended, we will, it seems, believe almost anything.

This was certainly the case in 1972 when The Sunday Times Magazine published an article about "a tribe of Stone Age cave-dwellers" that had been discovered on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines. The Tasaday, the newspaper claimed, used only stone tools, lived on the fruit they gathered and the fish, frogs and tadpoles they scooped from their jungle pools, and believed nothing existed outside their forest -- as far as they were concerned they were the only living people on Earth. Anthropologists declared the Tasaday the ethnological find of the century. President Marcos even declared their jungle home off-limits to outsiders in an attempt to protect the purity of the tribe's way of life.

In 1986, a Swiss journalist visited the area and unearthed the truth: the Tasaday had been paid to play the part of Stone Age cave-dwellers. The former director of the Bureau on Cultural Minorities, Panares Bidangan, admitted that the discovery had, in fact, been a publicity stunt staged by the Marcos government.

Such an April Fool would have been inconceivable without the complicity of others. So desperately do we in the developed world wish to believe in the continued existence of such people that we check the facts with the greatest reluctance

In 1993, I read of the "discovery" of the Liawep, a "Stone Age tribe" living in the northwestern highlands of Papua New Guinea. The same canards were mindlessly intoned once again. Newspaper reports described them as a "lost tribe of Stone Age nomads", "near-naked and avoiding contact with the outside world" and speaking "a language unlike any of the 700 already identified in Papua New Guinea ... [with] initial communication only possible through sign language". Rumours abounded that different groups of missionaries were competing to convert the tribe to Christianity.

When I read these reports, I too was gripped -- although less by the Liawep's supposed Stone Age purity than by the drama of their moment of contact with the outside world. As my research continued, I learned that not only were missionaries in the race for the Liawep, but that gold prospectors and the government wanted to exercise their will over the newly contacted tribe. What would happen to a people caught in such a crossfire, I wondered. I travelled to Papua New Guinea to find out.

Lost tribes, or "uncontacted peoples", exert a fascination in the late 20th century simply because of their rarity, believes John Hemming, former director of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), who has been with four different Brazilian tribes at their moment of first contact with the outside world. It is because of this rarity, and the prize that this rarity constitutes, that a huge army of different, interested parties wheels into action at every contact that is made.

In Papua New Guinea, the pattern has long been established. Since the 1930s, when first contact was made with the tribes of the interior jungles, the government, patrol officers, missionaries, explorers and gold prospectors have been their most frequent exploiters. Their motivations have, and continue to be, often dubious.

Take Mick Leahy, a gold prospector who was the first outsider to enter the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. …

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