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.