Trying To Find a Tree Kangaroo: Introduction to the New Guinea Highlands

I think a nice way to start off this adventure blog is to tell the the story of my journey to find a tree kangaroo in the Papua New Guinean highlands. Some background:

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I was in Papua New Guinea (PNG) helping launch Panango, a student-initiated organization promoting Education, Empowerment, and Exchange between American students and Papua New Guineans. While we lived in villages on the coast in the lowlands, which were awesome in their own right, I anxiously bided my time to get up to the Highlands.

All the stuff that one might associate with Papua New Guinea – cannibals, tribal warfare, fiercely face-painted warriors – originates from the Highlands. Those short, powerful guys with a boar tusk pierced through their septum – that’s a Highlander. Before I left for PNG, I remember Robert Siegel, an associate professor of immunology at Stanford who spent some time in the Highlands, telling me about men in his village casually explaining to him how they had just torched huts of another village because there was a tribal conflict and retribution was part of their way of life. I was definitely intrigued.

The Papua New Guinean Highlands’ history helps explain its wild reputation. Europeans first discovered the island of New Guinea in the early part of the 16th century, landing and staying in and around the lowland areas. They didn’t even bother venturing to the center of the island, assuming that only mountains and dense jungle existed. In the 1930s European explorers finally made the trek up there, only to discover about a million people living amid the rugged landscape. Think about that. A place that was “discovered” by Europeans only about 75 years ago.

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Tribal warfare was and is a very real thing up in the Highlands. While as recently as the 1970s, warriors used traditional bows and arrows, spears, and shields, at some point some guy brought a gun to the battlefield and ruined it for everyone. I heard a lot of men talk about that with regret, as warfare with spears and arrows, while still deadly, was more like a game to them. One of my friends from up there told me about how his dad got stabbed in the leg with a spear, and immediately upon release from the local clinic, went right back to the battlefield as though it were a playoff soccer game and he was their injured star forward.

From what I could gather, the introduction of guns to tribal warfare was like our introduction of the atom bomb to conventional warfare. It totally redefined the rules. So these days, tribal warfare seems more akin to gang warfare. Your tribe members are your people, and if one of them gets crossed, you’re obligated to back him up.

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Hence retribution as a culturally significant and necessary action. But now they use pistols and AK’s instead of arrows and spears. Interestingly, poverty usually prevents most disputes from becoming too drawn out. Once both sides agree they are spending too much of their respective resources on bullets (expensive to them), they agree to call it quits. Still, a good amount of people die.

And yes, cannibalism was indeed practiced among certain tribes, a few relatively recently. Apparently cannibalism still exists in isolated places, but for the most part, it’s a thing of the past. I guess it offended the missionaries.

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While the mystique of the Highlands certainly drew me, I did have an ulterior motive: finding the coolest little fuzzy wuzzy animal on the planet.

1 Response to “Trying To Find a Tree Kangaroo: Introduction to the New Guinea Highlands”


  1. 1 jamesrohrbach December 9, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Reminds me of Jared Diamond’s discussion of PNG in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond explains how a lack of large mammals for protein is the likely cause of cannibalism in certain societies, and also explains how geography fundamentally influenced the development and spread of cultures. the PNG highlands seem like a great case study of this


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