OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

MEETING # 1629

4:00 P.M.

FEBRUARY 3, 2000

Back To The Stone Age

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by Oral A. Baker

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


Born in 1918 at Athabasca landing, Canada, of American parents who homesteaded there. Returned to United states in 1924 with mother and four children. The era of the depression required contributing to the family finances by a 12 year old son.

Everett, Washington, High School; Central Washington University -- interrupted for WW II duty in the South Pacific with the Third Marines -- University of Redlands graduate studies.

Redlands High School teacher, football coach, counselor, naturalized citizen, lepidopterist, devoted to community service. Traveled the world collecting butterflies. One wife, two children, four grandchildren. Happy to live in Redlands..


A trip was planned for a group of lepidopterists for the purpose of collecting bird wing butterflies in New Guinea. The reality became an unusual experience of living with people of a stone age culture in 1990.

We lived for one week with people on Superiori island in a jungle area along the coast. These people had been influenced by missionaries and had progressed toward modernization. We lived a second week inland and in the highlands with the most primitive people in the world.

This experience is unforgettable and it contributed to my understanding of and respect for their culture.


by Oral A. Baker

    Time spent living with “Stone Age” people has led me to the conclusion that the modern concept of uncivilized misses the mark. Personal and tribal relationships of these people are traditionally established and strictly honored. We left the modern, civilized world of California when I flew to New Guinea with a group of lepidopterists.

    New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. Greenland is the largest. New Guinea is neatly bisected by longitude 141; with the western half being the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya and the eastern half comprising part of Papua. Great mountain ranges run through the island. Many mountains are snow capped yearly and are nearly as high as the Himalayas or Andes. The western half of New Guinea is a rain forest paradise.

    Most scientists now believe that Homo sapiens developed more recently than had been thought and linguist and genetic evidence points to a single African origin of perhaps 200,000 years ago. It was 100,000 years before any of these humans left the African continent.

    Migration movements of Mongoloid origin to the Indonesian archipelago took place around 3000 B.C. It is believed that these migrants introduced Stone, Bronze and Iron age cultures. During the first century A.D. Hindu and Buddhist influence emerged as well as Aboriginal Australian. During the seventh century these cultures became more powerful. The thirteenth century saw the rise of the fabulous Hindu empire in East Java. However, Marco Polo in 1292 became one of the first Europeans to set foot on these islands.

    In 1509 Portuguese traders arrived in pursuit of spices. Captain Cook’s attempt to land on New Guinea in 1770 was driven off by volleys of arrows and clods of lime thrown in bursts presumably by the Asmats. This group from the south coast of the island may have had a famous victim, Michael Rockefeller, in 1961. He disappeared after his boat capsized off Irian’s southern shore. It is believed that he may have drowned or been a victim of crocodiles rather than of the Asmat.

    Our purpose in traveling to New Guinea was butterfly collecting. The birdwing butterfly is breathtaking with a wing span of 10 to 12 inches. New Guinea has almost 100,000 insect species, many of which have not been cataloged.

    Our plane arrived on Biak Island and we were moved quickly although precariously for three hours by native outrigger over the ocean to a village called Sewek on Superiori Island. This is a fishing village and is seldom visited by outsiders. I have never seen so many fish jumping out of the water.

    I lived with a family in Sewek for one week. The houses there are perched on five foot stilts. Another lepidopterist and I slept in one bedroom. The mother and children of this family slept in the other bedroom. We were separated by a bamboo screen. Native men sleep in a separate house. We slept on a bamboo floor. A necessary trip down the ladder of this house at night was precarious since a dip into the ocean was a possibility.

    The food was good: fish, sweet potatoes taro and pig meat. The children were also good. They followed us everywhere especially when looking for butterflies in the jungle. There was no fighting, no crying, much laughing and no apparent harsh discipline from the mothers. I began to think of these children in terms of the children of our country. Could these stone age people have better parenting skills than we? Fathers are not around much because of separate living arrangements, but the mother is always present. At night I would hear the five month old child whimper on the other side of the bamboo screen and at once I could sense that the child was pulled close to the mother and nursed. There was no crying.

    Perhaps a study of these so called uncivilized parents would be more intriguing than lepidoptera. They certainly raise happy children.

    At the end of this week in the jungle area we were to go to the highlands and into the Baliem Valley of the Dani. I wondered about cannibalism and the fact that it is still practiced. It is not done as a source of food but is a ceremony linked with magico-religious ideas. A cannibal believes that desirable qualities such as courage or skill in the garden do not cease with death but can be acquired by whomever eats the deceased. Eating a relative after death is a means of ensuring that his good qualities are kept within the clan and of showing respect for him. Eating your enemy, however, does not add to your qualities but reduces those of the enemy.

    Headhunting and cannibalism are still practiced in remote corners of these islands. Skulls of raid victims are bleached and decorated and put on display outside the communal houses.

    We returned from Sewek by outrigger to Biak and then flew to Womena in the highlands. The big plane flies in twice a week. The main city in the Dani valley is Womena. There is a bank, a hotel, a restaurant, shops and many food stands. The Dani of the Baliem Valley of Irian Jaya are of particular interest. They are among the most primitive people on earth and were not known to the outside world before 1938. 60,000 of the Dani were living a stone age existence when an American aviator by the name of Archibald landed his Consolidated 24 airplane on their lake.

    They live spread out over the whole highlands and are estimated to number presently 200,000. They are divided into tribes and then are subdivided into clans. They have no written language. An estimate of the number of languages spoken varies from 80 to 800.

    The male Dani is a big, powerful fellow with dark skin and a proud carriage. These men are inherently warriors. Their appearance inspires respect. Whether they are alarmed or merely elated, they always shout their “wa-wa-wa” excitedly and tap frenetically with their fingernails on the hard side of their gourd penis sheath.

    Now what is this sheath? The men wear tubular gourds called “holim”. This yellow sheath seems somehow to accent their nakedness rather than to assure modesty. The holim gourds are cultivated in every conceivable shape and size--long or short, straight or curly. They are held in place on the body with a string looped around the testicles and another string tied around the upper torso of the body. The strings are made of peeled rattan.

    Holim gourds are grown in the village gardens. Sometimes heavy stones are tied to the ends of the gourds to encourage them to elongate during the growing period. A stone placed beneath the growing gourd will produce a bend or curl. The length and design of the holim indicates the social and economic status of the man wearing it. Often a man who deserves a two foot long holim will be seen working while wearing a shorter one but he will change to his long one before going home. The holim is the single piece of dress worn by the men and serves many purposes: modesty, proof of bravery, wealth, manhood and, as an additional award, it keeps the flies off a tender area.

    The Dani men cover the body with sueted pig fat. They believe the fat keeps them healthy and handsome while it also protects against cold and mosquitoes. Without the black grease paint the Dani male feels unhappy and ugly. Strangely, they prefer that we walk “downwind” because of our body odor!

    Some of the men stuffed their hair into fiber nets packed with dry grass to give their heads a balloon effect. Others saturated their hair with pig fat and then pulled long kinky strands into stringlike forms that dripped over the head from the crown. The whole affair resembled a small beehive. These strands were beautifully arranged and the men considered themselves gorgeous. A few of the men painted a black strip under the eyes.

    The Dani pluck out unwanted hair with tweezers fashioned from a broken twig. The men regard hair found in places other than the head as untidy. Great pains are taken to remove hair from arms, legs, torso and even from the genital area.

    What the men lacked in clothing they made up in accessories. They wore wide necklaces {walimos} made from small shells {nassa} that had been sewn together and mikaks of large plate-like shells {cymbium} tied around their necks. Those without shells wore yopos around the neck. These were made of shredded string fibers rubbed with pig oil to give them a magic power to keep evil spirits away. Some men also cut and dried pig testicles that hung over their chests in long black strips. Some Dani wore a band of greased bird feathers on the head. Others wore necklaces of cowrie shells. Where did these inland people find shells? In the early days of missionary influence, the Dutch brought shells from Holland and used them as money to pay the natives for work -- or to entice them to work?

    One day when my pen went dry and I tossed it away, a Dani retrieved it and placed it in the hole in his nose. When a boy is young a hole is bored in the nasal septum and a thin piece of wood is inserted. Gradually thicker and thicker pieces are inserted until the hole is large enough to take the decoration worn on festive days. Normally the Dani wear chicken bones or wood through the nose hole but festively a flat ground boar’s tusk is used. The holes must be enormous since two tusks may be used with one turned down like a fang and another turned skyward. Ear lobes are also pierced.

    The Dani female is smaller than the male and less strong. She wears a loin cloth constructed from bark of trees or of yellow orchids. These are woven into quarter inch bands which are wound around the torso below the waist line or, in fact, below the hips, to form a skirt. Loops of fiber fall to the knees in front and back and are tied in a bunch on the side of the skirt. The women wear long carrying nets {nokens} which are woven from tree bark. These hang from the head and cover their back and buttocks. Some of them wear three or four nets at a time. They carry children and/or sweet potatoes or a small pig in them.

    The faces of the Dani reflect their negroid origins. The women are not as gorgeous as the men and they wear more clothing. They play a key role in the slash and burn agriculture practiced along the slopes. The men do the heavy work of clearing and fencing the garden; then the women take over in planting, weeding and harvesting the sweet potatoes. Pigs are the source of wealth and are in the care of the women.

    Wives are an indication of wealth and power. In 1975 the price of a girl could be 300 heirloom cowries {shells}, 5 large pigs, a dozen shirts, 5 blankets, 5 pots and a machete or two steel axes.

    I noticed that some of the Dani, especially female, had fingers or parts of fingers missing. If a Dani suffers great emotion or sadness at the loss of a relative or because a war was lost a segment of a finger is sacrificed starting with the little finger of the left hand and so on, but never the thumb. The male warriors removed segments of their fingers especially honoring the loss of a warrior from their tribe or lamenting a lost war. One native had cut off two fingers because his wife had been stolen in the night. The segment is cut off with a stone axe. In order to reduce the pain of the procedure, an elbow is knocked against a post or a rock so that the arm becomes numb. Another way of removal is to tie the finger so tightly that the end dies off. The upper part of the ear may also be sacrificed.

    Feuds and enmities exist between clans and they are fought out with great cruelty. They will pursue blood vengeance for years with extraordinary persistence. Their relentlessness will go so far that one tribe that has been defeated by another will voluntarily submit to a third tribe to mingle with it, live with it and cultivate the land with no other object but to be strong enough when the day for vengeance comes. Sometimes five or eight or even more years will pass before the counter blow is delivered and the hostile village is razed to the ground.

    The Dani never live in large villages but prefer scattered campgrounds. Each cluster holds two to five families and settlements are formed by clan ties. Whenever Danis halt, to rest or keep out the rain, they build themselves huts of branches, bamboo, ferns and leaves for protection.

    Men and women sleep in separate quarters because sexual intercourse is considered dangerous and weakening. Intercourse is prohibited after about the fourth month of pregnancy and for three or four years after the birth. This allows the mother to be devoted to the child. Men do have multiple wives. Wives are purchased with pigs and are deemed about as valuable. Since they live in separate huts, a man signals when he wants to have sex and his wife sleeps near the door to the men’s hut. Sexual intercourse begins when girls are eight or nine and the first pregnancy occurs at about thirteen.

    Children are not weaned until four or five years of age. Men and boys over eight sleep in the men’s hut while women sleep with the children and pigs in their own hut.

    Dani survive on a diet of sweet potato and pig. Unlike taro, the sweet potato will grow at up to 5,200 feet above sea level which allows cultivation out of the range of the anopheles mosquito. This mosquito kills one out of twelve people in the world today. The sweet potato can be intensively cultivated. When Archibald dropped into this area he could hardly believe what he saw--a brilliant system of parallel ditches, well irrigated and cared for. The rich soil was routinely replenished by new soil from the rivers.

    The stone axe is a most important tool. Since about 1960, metal axes are available but stone age people fashioned axes from hard rock. A simple scaffold would be built against a big rock face and stones were then laid out on a wooden platform to serve as hearth. Wood was piled on the hearth and set afire. Men used grass to push the fire as close as possible against the overhanging rock face. Naked men clamber like monkeys on the scaffolding and are a sight to be seen. Eventually the rock splits from the heat and axes can be fashioned from the pieces. It takes three months of sharpening and working with a stone to produce an axe. Splinters which break away during the working are as sharp as a razor blade. The lentil-shaped stones are roughly hewn at the site and taken to the village for finishing. When the stone has been completely worked it will be so smooth and shiny that it will reflect images like a mirror. An axe can be used for currency, especially for buying brides.

    There is a daily menu and a menu for celebration. Sweet potato is the daily food but also frogs, raw mice and pigs are eaten. Preparation of the pig is interesting. Cooking holes are several feet deep and at least five feet wide and every village has one. The slaughter of the pig is torture for the poor beast. First a cord is fastened around one hind leg and a native holds the other end. A second Dani shoots a bow and arrow from about twenty feet. If the first arrow does not penetrate the pig’s heart, the wretched beast will kick and struggle and roll over in its blood until the haft of the arrow snaps off. Then a second arrow is shot and the terrified squealing becomes almost intolerable. The Dani stand around waiting for the pig to die. After a time the axe might be used to stun the pig and the throat would be cut with a bamboo knife.

    A great pile of wood near the cooking hole is lighted and large stones placed on it to get hot for the roasting. The pig’s bristles are singed off and then the Danis score two deep cuts from the chops down over the belly to the tail. With an axe haft they gut the pig and extract the whole innards in one piece and the pig is carried off to the river to be washed. The innards are thrown to the ground and the other pigs and the village dogs combine in a melee as each fights for a share of the feast.

    The women line the cooking hole with banana leaves and then hot stones are removed from the fire and added by the men using pieces of wood as tongs. The women then put in spinach and sweet potatoes with their leaves and more hot stones are added and unripe bananas on top. Only when the hole is filled almost to the brim are the pieces of pork wrapped in ginger leaves added. More hot stones are placed on top and water is sprinkled which produces steam for thorough cooking. The method is neat, hygienic and safe. Few Dani ever die of food poisoning.

    An important celebration occurs for a funeral because something of value must be given to a deceased’s ghost. Their human feelings of loss are no different from ours. Dani men and women arrive for the celebration with bodies covered with clay. The women go to the kitchen and the men walk to the end of the courtyard and stand before the pilai {Big House}. The chief of the compound begins a mournful chant calling out the name of the dead. The warriors bow their heads and chant in unison. Gentle cries of wa-wa-wa ensue to inform the ghost that the dead is remembered. Dani men cry and have feelings as fragile as glass. Dani women cry like coyotes. The importance of the deceased’s life determines the grandeur of the funeral. For example, an accident or illness or old age do not command as much attention as a hero’s death.

    The corpse, if male, is dressed with a long holim. Later the body will be greased with pig fat and decorated with ornaments and propped in a chair. Women will brush the flies away. A funeral pyre is constructed by the men. A blaze is started by snapping off a tree branch, splitting it down the middle and putting tinder in it. A heap of twigs and leaves is made. A rattan piece is threaded through the split branch and pulled up and down--the old “fire saw” at work and a funeral pyre can be lit.

    There are many enemies of mankind in New Guinea. There are leeches and ticks and mosquitoes and many deadly snakes. Along the forest paths leeches in vast numbers would drop from branches or some would work their way up our legs. Their favorite place is in ears or beards. They are difficult to remove since they have little teeth and you can’t get them off without tearing your own flesh. If one bleeds freely in the heat of the jungle, infection follows. The native guides suffer because they are barefoot and unclothed. However, they quickly and effectively scrape the leeches off with a machete blade. A British soldier once broke a leg and he was found the next day covered with leeches and bloodless.

    Another treacherous enemy is the tick or louse. They are almost invisible to the naked eye but they can worm their way under the human epidermis. Once there they set up an inflammation which produces an almost intolerable itch and then a blister forms which leads to a wound which leads to a tropical bacterial infection. Strangely enough, blacks seem to be quite immune to these ticks.

    Money seems necessary in any culture so I went to the bank in Womena to exchange traveler’s checks for Indonesian currency. My pen was dry and the cashier didn't have one. Standing beside me was a native in the usual undress. He pointed to his holim where a pen was nestled. What to do? Reach for it? Not me! Ask for it? I had no words. I needed cash. Eventually he pulled the pen out. I used it, took the money, returned the pen, thanked him and left!

    We returned to Biak for the trip home. For two weeks we had regressed centuries and now we would return to our century and so-called civilization.

    Civilization is intruding on the people of New Guinea. Now planes fly twice a day to Womena. There is much more intracultural exchange. But war is a part of the Dani culture. It is exciting and challenging to them as they use arrows, spears and war clubs. This seems to strengthen their spirits. From their battles new leaders emerge, new territories are absorbed into new configurations and old alliances fracture and fade.

    Are we so different? Contact recreational sports exhilarate us. We thrive on challenge and success is satisfying.

    I hope we will not mark the losing of the culture of these people of New Guinea.


People of the Valley. Wyn Sargent, Random House.

I Come From the Stone Age. Heinrich Harrer, E. P. Dutton.

New Guinea. James L. Anderson, Donald Hogg, Reed of Australia.

Zen Explorations in Remotest New Guinea. Neville Shulman, Tuttle Publishing.

New Guinea: Journey Into the Stone Age. Kal Muller, Passport's Regional Guides of Indonesia.

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