What counts as ‘first contact’? An example from Papua New Guinea

What does it mean for a group to be in ‘contact’ with the ‘outside world’? Can there ever be a ‘first contact’ between peoples? Is anyone truly ‘isolated’? I’d like to try to answer these questions by providing an example from my own area of expertise, Ipili speaking people from Porgera district, Papua New Guinea (I’m traveling and don’t have my library so the facts will have to be from memory — sorry if I get some of them wrong). Porgera is in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, which is well-known for its famous first contact in 1933 when Australian explorers walked over a mountain ridge thinking they would discover a rugged central mountain range with a few scattered populations, if anything. Instead they found huge flat valleys with a population of roughly 1 million people. They had a camera and you can watch the footage or read the excellent book about this even called First Contact and the documentary that accompanies it, or even the flickr stream (for more details you can see the syllabus of my course on first contact which is not the most recent version but there you go). If we want to talk about first contact, the PNG highlands is the perfect example — it is both a dramatic moment of culture contact and exhaustively documented.

My own area of expertise is Porgera District, which is far west of the original 1933 contact took place. The Porgera first contact took place in 1938-39, when an exploratory patrol led by Jim Taylor and James Black entered the valley (Bill Gammage has written Sky Travellers, a book about this patrol. It is my favorite book about Papua New Guinea. Superb. Also hard to find.) Pretty much everyone agrees this was Porgera’s ‘first contact’ and marked the beginning of Australian control of the valley, the first time people saw metal or cloth, and so forth. So if you ask me, Porgera had first contact 1938-39.

But was it?

In fact Taylor and Black were not the first whites in Porgera. In 1934-35 the Fox brothers also patrolled into the area. Wasn’t that first contact? In some sense yes, but in a more important sense no. There were a hundred people on the Taylor Black patrol, most of them responsible for carrying the supplies. Taylor and Black traveled slowly, stopped often, made maps, recorded languages, and took people from the area back with them. The Taylor-Black patrol was not just the first meeting of people, it was a first meeting of societies. The Fox brothers, on the other hand, were gold prospectors traveling illegally and secretly. They took food instead of bartering for it, and they shot people who got in their way. When they returned home they suppressed knowledge of their patrol, where it had been, and what went on there. Excellent historical research by Chris Ballard and others has retraced the course of the patrol by interviewing people who met it, but the patrol itself never became an ‘event’ — it didn’t stick in history, and would have faded away from memory if Chris’s research hadn’t kept it alive.

But does even this count as first contact? In fact several European diseases spread west towards Porgera before (iirc) the Taylor-Black patrol, so the effects of contact preceded contact itself — a very familiar pattern.

Now at this point you might ask yourself, “we keep talking about the ‘outside world’ but what does that mean?” Does it mean ‘white people’ or were the Ipili totally isolated from other Papua New Guineans before contact? Of course not. Ipili have always been active in the trade networks that spread across Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guineans have eagerly traded pots, feathers, food, and valuables across the length and breadth of the island. And not only that — Papua New Guineans have also traded intellectual property in the form of magic, dances, taboos, and identities. Europeans love drawing boundaries, but Papua New Guineans love crossing them.

Taylor was astounded, for instance, to travel down roads of beaten earth fifteen feet across when he traveled through what is now Enga province. His patrol was guided by locals who knew paths across mountain ridges and deep bush. And everywhere he went around him, he saw evidence of trade. For instance, when Taylor and Black arrived in Porgera they found that the most valuable objects there were shells and pigs. Both were used in customary exchange — they were given when people got married (or to break off an engagement), died, or celebrated other major life events. Now, Porgera is 2,000 meters about sea level and 300 kilometers from the ocean — that is a long way for shells to be traded. But they were — and well before first contact.

Pigs, the other major prestige item, were fed with sweet potatoes, which are also the staple food for Ipili people. The word for ‘sweet potato’ in Ipili is ulia. In Hawai’ian, it is ‘uala. Coincidence? No. We have abundant evidence that sweet potato moved from South American across the Pacific into Papua New Guinea hundreds of years before white people arrived on the island. Because sweet potato will grow anywhere and is a great source of calories, it transformed life in the highlands and created, among other things, the large pig herds so central to life in the highlands as Australians found it in the 1930s. The archaeologist Joe Mangi has examined rock shelters in the high mountains south of Porgera that traders would rest at in the course of their journeys between valleys, and he has found evidence of human use of these shelters for as far back as he has examined them. So trade and ‘contact’ is not recent — it has gone on for as long as we can tell.

In their excellent book The Human Web (which is the book Guns, Germs, and Steel wanted to be, but wasn’t) the McNeills argue that all of humanity has been part of a web of contact and exchange that goes back to our origins in Africa. At times the web grows extremely weak, having practically no contact at all, at other times it thickens immensely. Highlanders were part of a human web that stretched across their island, into Indonesia and out into the Pacific. The connections were not as strong as they are today, of course. And I think we can still talk about ‘first contact’ because it marked a sudden and intense thickening of the human web that was totally unexpected (at least for the Australians) and proved to be socially consequential. We can even say Porgera was ‘uncontacted’ — but only if we add ‘by Australians’. First contact? Yes. The only contact? No.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

10 thoughts on “What counts as ‘first contact’? An example from Papua New Guinea

  1. Interesting post, & thanks for the ref. to the McNeills. But why was this posted under Southern Africa? 🙂

  2. Rex,

    I was fascinated by the linguistic cognates between ‘sweet poato’ in Hawai’i and Ipili. Since chickens are of southeast Asian origin, is there a correlate with regard to domestic fowl? I don’t know how far domestic fowl are represented in the Highlands, though they are In the Admiralties. Archaeologically, there has always been a thin line connecting western New Guinea (and even Arnhem Land through Bugis sailors) with the Bunda islands. Echoing the McNeills, New Guinea has never been totally cut off from island Southeast Asia. There seems to have sporadically been some contact. So what is ‘first contact’?

  3. Actually whilst the sweet potato was certainly transferred to East Polynesia very much before European arrival, it did not make it very far west in prehistory. The presence of sweet potato in the PNG highlands dates back to about 1700AD – it was transferred from South America by the Portugese via the Atlantic, and the Spanish via the Pacific, to island Southeast Asia. From there it spread to the Sepik and upwards to the Highlands via indigenous exchange routes.

    Of course none of this should be seen as damaging to Rex’s point about long term down-the-line contact. The island southeast asian connection was very strong – e.g. bronze artefact transferrals, and the bird of paradise feather trade. Pam Swadling’s “Plumes from Paradise” is the classic source book for these connections…

  4. @Tim: But how does this transfer accord with the linguistic evidence that Rex gave of ulia, among what are probably numerous other examples? It would be peculiar (though not impossible) for the word to be transferred along a different path than the object it is associated with.

  5. @James: Good question. The Hawaiian term is a clear reflex of the proto-Polynesian *kumala, which itself is thought to derive from Equadorian and Peruvian words ‘comal’ or ‘cumal’ for the same root crop. Is ulia demonstrably related (genetically) to these terms? Or is it a coincidence? What did the early Spanish or Portugese call sweet potato? What word do other Trans-New Guinea speakers use? I don’t know.

  6. There are interesting cognates between some SE Asian languages and Austronesian (Pacific) languages, such as susu for breast, milk and i’a or ika for fish.

    And, Tim, kumala was also used by the Kwaio of Malaita (Solomon Islands) for sweet potato, which I put to the fact that there, at least, sweet potato has been introduced from New Zealand by missionaries, although sweet potatoes were not a dominant crop on Malaita until after WWII.

  7. Kate, yes a strong indication that sweet potato was not transferred directly from Polynesia to PNG in prehistory is that none of island Melanesia had it until the mid 1800s-1900s when it was introduced by traders, missionaries etc as you say. So, in all we have at least 3 routes into different parts of the Pacific. And, to bring this back on topic, this epitomises Rex’s point about multiple connections, networks, influences…

  8. Going to school in Polynesia, I still have a distinct memory of text-book tables comparing similar words across Pacific languages – these things have meaning in narratives of national origin.

    Anyway, this post/discussion has been very productive in challenging/refiguring ‘first contact’ by drawing out many other linkages between people. But my woah there Batman moment involves looking at the historical Anglo idea of ‘first contact’. I’m not sure we can say “but actually x was trading with z” without asking why we need to point that out in the first place. So I’m going to say a little bit, forget what I’m on about, put a bit of guff in, etc.

    ‘Contact’ and ‘discovery’ were intricately bound up in the imperial project. Claiming these often meant exerting a right to exploitation, but it also meant increasing esteem in self and nation and forming a lasting conception of ‘us’ and ‘them’. For example, narratives along the lines of “they all waved their spears … then they venerated us as gods” contributed quite meaningfully. Other factors like a desire for monolithic scientific knowledge should be added in here as well. Many a tome has been devoted to talking to this stuff so I’m not going to bore you with a précis, but you get the picture. (I should add that I’m not bringing this up as a bit of po-co hand-wringing. I find it anthropologically fascinating and my research has been on colonialists).

    Anyway, these ideas still have cultural currency … hence some folk diligently put quotation marks round works like ‘discovery’ in an effort at reconstruction, and other folk reckon newspaper photos of ‘uncontacted Amazonian tribes’ tremendously exciting.

  9. A great post and I have to echo BJG. Contact has always been documented as ‘first contact that counts from our POV’. The whole Age of Exploration is often presented as a great unification of humanity … the mighty explorers of Europe went out and brought together once more the scattered tribes of man.

    I’m fascinated by the ideological ramifications of this exploration project and how it has become such a deep and important part of the western psyche. It’s common sense that people are isolated, and then we bring them into civilization through ‘contact’.

    I wonder, what are accounts of exploration and contact in other cultures like? What are Japanese, Chinese or Indian accounts like? How did Arab traders and sailors describe their first contacts with ‘isolated tribes’?

  10. You know as soon as I posted this I realized that the sweet potato fetishists were going to pick apart that linguistic data (maybe that is why, subconciously, I attempted to stay below their radar by classifing this as ‘South African’?). I think that actually I am wrong about the cognate between Hawai’i and Porgera, although the point still stands (broadly). At some point Chris Ballard explained to me the various strands of sweet potato words in my area, but I can’t remember now exactly how it works now.

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