Huli country, Papua New Guinea – 2007

Papua New Guinea is one of the most fascinating corners of our galaxy!

And its highlands are one the most amazing regions of our planet.

These highlands are actually the last frontier of the Earth. It is the last place to have been explored by modern man. The story of why this is so is fascinating:

Until the twentieth century, there had been virtually no real attempt by Westerners to explore or map out the rugged and mountainous interior of Papua. It was simply assumed that because the highland terrain was so difficult, nobody could possibly be living there. This reasoning was based on the observation that the chain of mountains running east to west across the heart of the country appeared to form an impenetrable barrier that effectively isolated the north coast from the south. It was unknown that there are actually two parallel mountain chains, between which lie a series of fertile valleys. So, when in the early 1930s a small expedition headed by the Australian prospector Michael Leahy decided to venture into the interior in search of gold, they shockingly discovered that in these highland valleys was a population of a million “hidden people” living isolated and disconnected from the outside world in what was effectively a Stone Age existence!

But that was not all. The other extraordinary discovery was that these highlanders had the greatest diversity of languages in the world: a total of over 800! The reason, it seems, is that because of the dense tropical forest and rough terrain, there was almost no intermingling between the tribes, each one having, as a rule, some relationship with only its two neighboring ones – a relationship that was often hostile. Effectively, each tribe was isolated from the rest, and it seems that some form of “language speciation” occurred, giving birth to many different “language species” – the equivalent of the biological speciation of finches that Darwin first studied in the Galapagos Islands.

It was with these things in mind that I decided to organize my own small private expedition to the heart of the highlands. I wanted to meet these people who only a few decades ago had made the monumental leap from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a single generation. I decided to visit the Huli tribe, famous for its colorful wigmen. I hired a young woman, Maria, to act as my main guide, who in turn recruited her husband (who had been born in the Huli region) to take us there and one of his cousins to carry our belongings. We departed from Tari, the main town of the region, and walked deep into the countryside to reach some villages relatively unspoiled by Western civilization. I say “relatively,” because ever since that monumental day Leahy opened up the region to the outside world, many Christian missionaries have significantly altered the indigenous societies and customs: Everywhere I had traveled in the country up to that moment, I had seen the presence of missionaries – whether it was the Christian bookshops in every town, or the Christian societies, or important construction works sponsored by various missionary associations and nonprofit Christian organizations. Still, though, I imagined that if I ventured far from the main town, I could hope to meet a few older people who would remember the Stone Age life of their childhood, as well as the historic transitional period and adaptation to the modern world that followed it.

We had already trekked for over three hours through tough terrain before we reached our destined village – the home village of my male guide. After meeting the family in whose hut I would be sleeping for the next two nights, we walked around the village. I soon became the main attraction of the village, being followed around by a group of kids who were curious to learn everything about the rare white visitor. Through Maria, I tried to answer their many questions, but after an hour or so, my guide felt tired and suggested that we leave the by now huge and noisy crowd and walk to the outskirts of the village. There, she said, lived an old man who she thought could have answers to my many questions.

We soon arrived at the home of the elder, called Papete, who came out of his small thatched hut to welcome us. He was a simple old man (not a village chief or noble) in his early seventies, with curly golden hair and beard, wearing a traditional grass skirt with colorful beads. There was a huge pig outside the hut, and Maria said Papete’s plan was to keep the pig healthy and fatten it even more in order to sell it at some point and receive a small fortune – since big fat pigs were very valuable in the community. She also explained that the pig actually slept in Papete’s hut every night for security reasons, because there were pig thieves in the region. I peeked into the small hut and saw the pig’s corner, as well as two “hard beds” on the floor made from bamboo – the second bed was for Papete’s middle-aged son.

We sat on the floor, Papete in front of the hut door facing us. He immediately reached into a large cloth sack, pulled out a few large leeks, and started cleaning them. I asked him to talk to me about his life, starting from when he was a small kid and describing how his tribe lived before “the white man” came to the region in the late 1940s. He said that when he was a child, his tribe only had contact with its two neighboring tribes, one in the west and one in the east, and that they didn’t know there were so many other tribes living in the highlands, something that they only discovered after the arrival of the white man. One of the neighboring tribes were cannibals, and although they were not at war with the Huli, he remembers that his mother always told him to avoid playing with the kids from that tribe. He described the simplicity but also the roughness of life during his youth. He explained how, upon reaching a certain age, teenage men would leave their families to live alone in the wilderness as part of a rite of passage after which they would be considered men. During this period, lasting between one and two years, the young men would obtain many skills, such as hunting, fighting, making tools, and more. They also did not cut their hair, all the while preening their coiffure into a huge mushroom-like shape. Once the hair grew to the proper length, they cut it, stitched it to a light wooden frame, and decorated it with shells, iridescent bird feathers, and other items in a process whereby each man created his own wig that was basically a unique hat made from his own hair. During the period when the volume of their hair increased, the wigmen slept on a special neck rest. Papete said that although nowadays many young tribesmen still create and wear their wigs, the elaborate customs and rites that were associated with the wigs’ creation are waning.

I began asking him many questions, and Papete addressed all of them in a most impressive, detailed manner. He didn’t shy away from a single question, although he seemed to be shy himself, rarely lifting his head up to look us in the eye. While talking, Papete was continually cleaning the leeks, and when he finished the first batch, he took some more out from the sack and continued his work. I asked Maria why he was cleaning leeks, and after inquiring, she told me…the leeks were his gift for me! How weird, I thought, for him to be preparing this strange gift for me while we were conversing.

Papete then recounted the first encounters of his tribe with the white man. He explained that his tribe, in spite of the ferocious appearance of the usually painted-for-war wigmen, is generally a peaceful tribe, and there were few conflicts with the first Australians and Europeans. Surprisingly, the Huli were eager to learn from them and soon embraced Christianity. He too was now a Christian – he was baptized Charles, although everybody still addressed him as Papete. I inquired how deep his understanding of Christianity was: although he did not know many theological nor scriptural details, he got the main Christian ideas of love, of not hurting one another, of kindness and selfless service. I was actually impressed by his judgment, by how he had sifted from all teachings what is most valuable and relevant in our everyday life.

He then described how shocked the Papuan tribes were when they saw all the amazing, or rather (initially) miraculous technological advancements of the outside world – the metal tools, then the cars, airplanes, electric appliances, and more. He still remembered with awe the one and only time he had entered an airplane in his late thirties. He could have never believed that such a heavy object could fly with people in it. But the one thing that most shocked him above all was when he slowly came to realize how huge the world is, and how many countries and cultures there are on Earth. Throughout his youth, he had thought that the whole world was delineated by the region of his Huli tribe and its nearby neighbors. At this point, Maria told him that I had traveled to many countries, and he started asking me questions about other parts of the world and other cultures. In my answers I tried not to overwhelm him too much. Although he could not read, nor speak English or Pidgin, he also appreciated the fact that knowledge could be stored in books and transferred from one generation to the next.

Listening to him was a most eye-opening experience. Papete was one of the very few people in the story of man’s existence on the planet who had the extraordinary experience of jumping from the oldest past of humanity into our advanced present in the span of a few years. I became aware of what a rare privilege it was to look into the mind of an ex-Stone-Age man and see my world with fresh eyes. All the things I grew up taking for granted – my upbringing and education, my “ordinary world” of everyday objects, the technology I used, my travels, my books – were being described by this old Papuan man as miraculous, extraordinary, once absolutely inconceivable for him and his people! I realized that I am truly living in a fairy-tale world, the dream world of all ancient human societies up until the last couple of centuries of the modern era.

To my amazement, Papete was answering all of my questions with clarity and a deep awareness of all the important moments of his life, never losing the thread of the conversation. What was most impressive throughout all this was the way Papete described both the outer happenings of the transitional period as well as his inner feelings, psychological transformations, and cognitive and sociological adaptations. I felt that this unique juncture in human history had not been thoroughly studied by social anthropologists and psychologists and that we currently have a very small window of time to delve into this extraordinary once-in-history event, by interviewing, in a more systematic way, the few remaining Papetes in the world.

After a couple of hours, Papete was getting tired, so we agreed to continue our conversation the next day. I took my sack of cleaned leeks and headed to the hut, where a nice dinner prepared by our host family awaited us. Exhausted after a very long and rich day, I went to the corner of my host’s hut, which was separated by a curtain from the rest of the interior, to retire early. Just as I was rearranging my stuff, I noticed that my money was missing from my wallet. I called Maria and her husband, and we all soon realized that the cousin the porter had gone missing, most obviously with my money! They were both shocked, they apologized, and Maria’s husband immediately gathered as many men as he could to set up a search crew to go after the runaway cousin. Papete’s son also joined the mission.

While the men went searching, the news about the theft spread around the village as it was still early evening and most were awake. After some time, Maria told me that Papete had also learned the news and that he felt so ashamed that the rules of hospitality of his tribe had been violated, and so sorry for me, that he offered to sell his pig – his entire life savings – to reimburse my stolen money! I was dumbfounded by his extremely generous offer. He had offered to sell his whole fortune after only having known me for a couple of hours.

Fortunately, before dawn, the search team caught the thief three villages further down, beat him up, banished him forever from their village, and returned home with my money. Yet until I dozed off, my mind was not on the theft, but on Papete. I felt his generous offer had somehow shown me that he already considered me a close friend.

The next day was Sunday, and most of the now-Christianized village gathered at the church – a small rectangular building with walls made of pressed wood and a tin roof. Τhere was a priest, a guitarist, and a few singers in front of an open sanctuary. After a brief sermon, they all sang hymns while some kids stood up and danced in unison in front of the sanctuary. Papete was sitting in the corner and seemed to be enjoying the festive atmosphere, although he did not sing with the rest.

After the service, I bought a small pig as a gift to my hosting family and asked them to cook it in the traditional way. I also invited Papete to join us, in order to continue our previous day’s conversation. This time, Papete felt more comfortable asking me as many questions as I was asking him, and soon our conversation turned into something akin to a mutual cross-examination. While the rest were preoccupied with the preparation of the roasted pig, which they finally placed into a makeshift earth oven – basically a pit in the ground – and covered with hot stones and banana leaves, Papete and I were talking nonstop. I felt that we were slowly building an invisible bridge between us, on which feelings of mutual love and respect flowed uninterruptedly. The longer we spoke, the more I realized how deeply Papete had managed to absorb, digest, and assimilate the alien worldview of the western world and Christianity. Surprisingly, he had also become a devout Christian, and asked me a lot of religious questions. I thought of how extraordinary it was that although his previous Stone Age world had collapsed, not only had he remained sane and psychologically balanced, but he had a clear and deep understanding of everything that transpired during this period and was self-aware about his own personal transformations. Furthermore, the deeper we went into more abstract things – such as the nature of God and its relationship to humanity – the more I came to realize that I had the privilege to be conversing with someone who had the rare charisma to eloquently express his views and ideas in terms that a foreigner like me could understand.

The next day, just before we departed from the village, I visited Papete in his hut one last time. I asked him what gift he wanted me to send him after my return to Mt. Hagen, the capital city of the highlands. He said he had always wanted to have a sleeping mattress, because others had told him they were very soft and provided a better night’s sleep. I promised to send him one, and after a strong embrace, we parted.

While several years have passed since I met Papete, he is still in my heart. His life story, his character, nobility, kindness, and unadulterated friendship made an indelible impression on me. Papete and I have bonded forever, and I honored him by including his photo in my book.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis