A Tenderfoot Explorer in New Guinea

Reminiscences of an Expedition for Birds in the Primeval Forests of the Arfak Mountains

primitive bridge

A primitive bridge: Native “boys” arriving at Doctor Mayr’s camp in order to offer their services as hunters

The Arfakers are hunters rather than farmers. Most of the field work is done by the women, while the task of the men is to cut down the forest. But they prefer to take bow and arrow and wander about and hunt birds or, if luck is favorable, even “big game,”—cassowaries and pigs. Except for some phalangers and other marsupials, a few small rodents and bats are the only indigenous mammals on this island. Pigs have been introduced, but are in a more or less wild state all over the island. To get the desired meat, the New Guinea hunter has to look for smaller game, so he devotes his attention to the abundant bird-life. From his early youth he has learned to know the voices and habits of the birds, and I was amazed at the exact knowledge of the life-histories of the birds these natives possessed. Almost every species had its own name, and they even distinguished some species which have been confused with others by some systematists on account of their similarity.

The natives are wonderful shots with bow and arrow; and soon learned to handle the several small shotguns which I had brought with me. After I had acquired the vocabulary of their bird names I had only to send out my hunters with orders to secure certain species and I was sure to get them. I thus succeeded in obtaining a collection of unusual quality, consisting of the rare and desirable species and lacking the great number of common birds so often found in the collections of inexperienced travelers.

The joy over the success of my collecting activity was a great help to me in overcoming the many difficulties that sometimes almost crushed my energy and will-power. The rainy season was not yet quite over and on some days the fog and rainstorms prevented collecting completely. The drying of the skins was also quite a task, as the air was saturated with moisture and the sun was not seen very often. Half-starved native dogs broke into my tent during the night and managed to get away unharmed with a few skins, thoroughly poisoned with arsenic. I never saw anything so thin and shabby as these dogs, which are related to the Australian dingo and do not bark. All these things, however, were only minor difficulties. What was much worse was that most of my boys fell sick, and all at the same time. One developed arsenic poisoning on his hand, and his whole arm swelled so that he could not work. The other of my mantris had malaria and alarmed me by his fantastic speeches in his delirium, while another helper fell sick with pneumonia. His life was saved only by the most careful nursing day and night. My sore foot had not healed and my plant collector was also laid up with a big tropical sore, so that my camp really resembled a hospital more than a collecting station.

Few people can realize what a strain it was for me to have to overcome alone all these difficulties, with no companion to talk to. Every situation was new to me and required careful consideration, especially the handling of the natives, who are very touchy and have many taboos that must be respected. On the other hand, they showed amazingly little imagination. I remember a little incident that happened during an eclipse of the moon. The moon became more and more covered by shadow, it grew darker and darker, but the natives showed no signs of interest or excitement. I asked them if they had no myth about it. I told them the myths of our own country and the myths believed by the Chinese and Javanese, and asked them what they considered as the cause of the sudden darkness. Not getting any response to my questions, I really became quite excited in my efforts to get some information about their belief.

Suddenly one of the men slapped my shoulder in a fatherly fashion and said soothingly:

“Don’t worry, master, it will become light again very soon.”

That cured me and I never again tried to acquire any information that was not given willingly. Their realism toward the mysteries of nature was sometimes quite appalling.