Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/April 1879/New Guinea and its Inhabitants I

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IMMEDIATELY north of Australia, and separated from it at Torres Straits by less than a hundred miles of sea, is the largest island on the globe—New Guinea, a country of surpassing interest, whether as regards its natural productions or its human inhabitants, but which remains to this day less known than any accessible portion of the earth's surface. Within the last few years considerable attention has been attracted toward it by surveys which have completed our knowledge of its outline and dimensions, by the settlement of English missionaries on its southern coasts, by the explorations of several European naturalists, and by the visits of Australian miners attracted by the alleged discovery of gold in the sands of its rivers. From these various sources there has resulted a somewhat sudden increase in our still scanty knowledge of this hitherto unknown land; and we therefore propose to give a general sketch of the island and of the peculiar forms of life that inhabit it, and to discuss briefly some of the interesting problems connected with its indigenous races.

It has hitherto been the custom of geographers to give the palm to Borneo as the largest island in the world, but this is decidedly an error. A careful estimate, founded on the most recent maps, shows that New Guinea is considerably the larger, and must for the future be accorded the first place. In shape this island differs greatly from Borneo, being irregular and much extended in a north-northwest and south-southeast direction, so that its greatest length is little short of 1,500 miles, a distance as great as the whole width of Australia from Adelaide to Port Darwin, or of Europe from London to Constantinople. Its greatest width is 410 miles; and, omitting the great peninsulas which form its two extremities, the central mass is about 700 miles long, with an average width of 320 miles, a country about the size of the Austrian Empire, and, with the exception of the course of one large river, an absolute blank upon our maps.

This almost total ignorance is the more remarkable when we consider how long the country has been known, and how frequently its shores have been visited. It was discovered in 1511, even earlier than Australia; and from that time Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English vessels have continually passed along its coasts. Most of our early navigators—Forrest, Dampier, and Cook—visited New Guinea, and have given us some account of its inhabitants; while, more recently, many exploring and surveying ships—the Coquille and Astrolabe, under French; the Rattlesnake, Fly, and Basilisk, under English; the Triton and Etna, under Dutch commanders—have added to our store of information. Among private naturalists and explorers, the present writer was the first to reside some months in New Guinea in 1858; since which time Dr. Miklucho Maclay, a Russian; Dr. Beccari and Signor d'Albertis, Italians; Dr. A. B. Meyer, a German; Mr. Octavius C. Stone, and several English missionaries—have all made important explorations and added much to our knowledge of the natural productions of the island and of the tribes residing on or near its coasts.

From these various sources we have obtained a tolerable knowledge of the outside margin of the country, but never extending more than twenty miles inland, except in the case of the Fly River, which Signor d'Albertis ascended for nearly 500 miles, reaching a point somewhat beyond the center of the island. The northwestern and southwestern peninsulas of New Guinea are the best-known portions, and both seem to be mountainous throughout. In the north, Mount Arfak, a little beyond Dorey Harbor, is from 8,000 to 10,000 feet high, while in the southeast the Owen Stanley Range has several peaks which reach elevations of from 10,000 to 13,000 feet. The Charles Louis Mountains, commencing near the south coast, east of Triton Bay, appear to run far in a southeasterly direction, and their summits are believed to be snowclad, and are probably at least 18,000 feet high. If they continue eastward in the same general direction they would pass about 100 miles to the north of D'Albertis's farthest point on the Fly River, and perhaps form a great curve till they merge in the Owen Stanley Range in the southeast. This, however, is mere conjecture, for throughout the whole course of the Fly River the land was low, and only on one occasion were high mountains seen to the northwest. Combining this with the fact that for a length of nearly 700 miles the south coast of New Guinea is low and swampy, with no high land anywhere visible, we are led to conclude that there is probably a continuous range of lofty mountains toward the north, while the south consists of wide alluvial tracts and of slightly elevated inland plains. This part of the island would thus somewhat resemble Sumatra turned round, but with higher mountains, which are probably not volcanic, and with a considerably greater width of land.

Although the Fly River penetrates so far into the interior, its size and depth in its upper portion are by no means what we should expect in a stream fed by a lofty mountain range close to the equator. It is therefore almost certain that larger rivers exist farther west; while another large river certainly flows northward, having its mouth in a delta at the eastern extremity of Geelvink Bay. Until these rivers are explored, and at least the lower slopes of the hills ascended, we can not be said to have much real knowledge of the interior of New Guinea.

Situated close to the equator, and extending only eleven degrees south of it, the climate of New Guinea is hot and uniform, and the rains abundant; leading here, as elsewhere in similar situations, to the growth of a luxuriant forest vegetation, which clothes hill and valley with an ever-verdant mantle. Only on the coasts nearest to Australia, and probably influenced by the dry winds from that continent, are there any open or thinly wooded spaces, and here alone do we find some approach to the Australian type of vegetation in the occurrence of numerous eucalypti and acacias. Everywhere else, however, even in the extreme southeast peninsula and adjacent islands, the vegetation is essentially Malayan; but Dr. Beccari, who collected plants extensively in the northwestern peninsula and its islands, was disappointed, both as regards its variety and novelty. On the Arfak Mountains, however, he found a very interesting subalpine or temperate flora, consisting of araucarias, rhododendrons, vacciniums, umbelliferæ, and the antarctic genus Drimys. The forests of New Guinea are everywhere grand and luxuriant, rivaling those of Borneo and Brazil in the beauty of their forms of vegetable life; and we can not consider the collections yet made as affording more than very imperfect samples of the treasures they contain.

The animal life of this great island is better known, and is perhaps more interesting. Its terrestrial mammalia are, however, singularly few, and, with the exception of a peculiar kind of wild pig, all belong to the marsupial tribe or the still lower monotremes of Australia. The tigers, apes, and buffaloes, described in the fictitious travels of Captain Lawson, are here as much out of their real place as they would be in the Highlands of Scotland; while the tracks of large animals, supposed to be rhinoceros or wild cattle, actually discovered by recent travelers, are now ascertained to be those of the cassowary, which, so far as we yet know, is the largest land-animal of New Guinea. Large birds were also seen and heard, whose spread of wing was estimated at sixteen or twenty feet, and which beat the air with a sound compared to the puff of a locomotive; but these are found to be only a well-known hornbill of very moderate dimensions. In place of these myths, however, we have some very interesting realities, the most remarkable, perhaps, being the tree-climbing kangaroos of rather large size, which, although but slightly different in external form from the jumping ground-kangaroos of Australia, hop about among the larger branches of trees, on the leaves of which they feed. They have a bushy tail, with somewhat shorter hind legs and more curved claws than their allies; and they afford a curious example of the adaptation of an animal to new conditions of life very different from those for which its general form and structure seem to fit it. Such a modification may, perhaps, be traced to a somewhat recent separation of Australia and New Guinea, when the kangaroos which remained in the latter country, not finding a sufficiency of herbage for their support in the dense forests, began to feed upon leaves, and ultimately became adapted, with as little change as possible, to a truly arboreal life. The entire absence of beasts of prey would favor this adaptation, as the coincident acquisition of swiftness of motion or powers of concealment is thus rendered unnecessary; and the tree-kangaroo accordingly remains a slow-moving creature, just able to get its own living, but in all probability quite unable to cope either with enemies or competitors.

The birds, like the mammalia, are mostly of Australian types, but nevertheless present many peculiarities. Most celebrated of all are the birds of paradise, forming a distinct family, containing more than twenty-five different species, all confined to this island and the immediately surrounding lands. These singular birds are really allied to our crows and magpies, but are remarkable for their special and varied developments of plumage. In most cases tufts of feathers spring from the sides of the body or breast, forming fans, or shields, or trains of extreme beauty. Others have glossy mantles or arched plumes over the back, strange crests on the head, or long and wire-like tail-feathers. These varied appendages exhibit corresponding varieties of color. The long trains of waving plumes are golden yellow or rich crimson, the breast-shields, mantles, and crests are often of the most intense metallic blue or green, while the general body plumage is either a rich chocolate brown or deep velvety black. All these birds are exceedingly active and vivacious, the males meeting together in rivalry to display their gorgeous plumage, while in every case the female birds are unornamented, and are usually plain or positively dingy in their coloring. From an unknown antiquity the natives of New Guinea have been accustomed to preserve the skins of these beautiful birds, and barter them with the Malay traders, by whom they are universally known as "burong mati," or dead birds, because they had never seen them alive. As the natives used always to cut off the feet in order to preserve them more easily, the Malay and Chinese traders concluded that they had none; and all sorts of stories were told about their living continually on the wing, and being, in fact, birds of heaven, whence originated the names of "birds of paradise" and "birds of the sun" given them by the early Portuguese and Dutch writers. Down to 1760 the skins of these birds never reached Europe with feet attached to them, and the great Linnaeus recorded the fact by naming the largest kind Paradisea apoda, or footless bird of paradise, a name by which it is still known among men of science. The natives also generally cut off the wings, so as to give greater prominence to the ornamental feathers; and this gives the birds an altogether different appearance from what they really possess in a living state, or when properly preserved.

By far the greater number of these birds, and those of the richest colors and most remarkable plumage, live on the mainland of New Guinea, and they are especially abundant in the mountains of the northwestern peninsula, where the Italian and German naturalists already referred to obtained fine specimens of all the known kinds. In the southeast one new species has been discovered, but only two or three sorts are found there; and as they are also in little variety in the lowland districts of the northwest, it becomes pretty certain that they are more especially mountain birds. We may therefore confidently expect that, when the great ranges of the interior are visited and explored by naturalists, other and perhaps still more wonderful species will be discovered. It is interesting to note that, with the exception of one very peculiar species discovered by myself in the Moluccas, all the birds of paradise are found within the hundred-fathom line around New Guinea, and therefore on lands which have probably been connected with it at a comparatively recent period.

Why such wonderful birds should have been developed here and nowhere else is a mystery we shall perhaps never completely solve; but it is probably connected with the absence of the higher types of mammalia, and with the protection afforded by luxuriant equatorial forests. The only other country in which similar strange developments of plumage and equally superb colors are found is equatorial America, where somewhat similar conditions prevail, and where mammalia of a low grade of organization have long predominated. Whatever may be the causes at work, their action has not been restricted to the paradise-birds. Nowhere else in the world are pigeons and parrots so numerous and so beautiful as in New Guinea. The great crowned pigeons, the largest of the whole family and rivaling the largest game-birds, were first described by Dampier as "a stately land-fowl about the size of the dunghill cock, sky-colored, but with a white blotch and reddish spots about the wings, and a long bunch of feathers on the crown." Many of the fruit-doves are strikingly beautiful, being adorned with vivid patches of crimson, blue, or yellow, on a pure green ground. Parrots are wonderfully varied, including the great black and the white cockatoos; the lories, varied with crimson and purple, green, yellow, and black; while there are strange little crested green parrots no larger than our blue tit—the smallest of the parrot tribe, as the great black cockatoos are the largest. Kingfishers, too, are remarkably abundant, and include several of the fine raquet-tailed species, with plumage of silvery blue, and with white or crimson breasts. Many other groups of birds are also adorned with exceptionally gay colors; and a careful comparison with the birds of other countries shows that nowhere in the world is there so large a proportion of the whole number of species adorned with brilliant hues. Among insects the same thing occurs, though not in quite so marked a degree; yet the superior beauty of many groups of beetles over the corresponding groups in Borneo is very distinct; and the same is to some extent the case with the butterflies and moths.

Independently of the beauty and singularity, the great number of species of birds inhabiting New Guinea is very remarkable. Considering that there are no resident collectors in the island, and that our knowledge is wholly derived from travelers who have spent a few weeks or months on the extreme northern or southern coasts only, leaving the great mass of the interior wholly unexplored, the number of land-birds already known (about four hundred species) is surprising. It is very much greater than the numbers inhabiting the whole of the West Indian Islands, or Madagascar, or the large, rich, and comparatively well-explored island of Borneo. Even Australia, so much more extensive and so varied in climate and vegetation, has only four hundred and eighty-five land-birds; and when we consider that the central mass of New Guinea, with its lofty mountain ranges and fine upland valleys, yet remains absolutely unexplored, it is not improbable that the birds of this wonderful island may be eventually found to be as numerous as those of its parent continent. We may therefore safely assert that in no part of the world has the naturalist such a certainty of making new and important discoveries as in the still unexplored regions of central New Guinea.


The peculiar race of mankind inhabiting this great island attracted the attention of the earliest voyagers, and the country was called New Guinea from the resemblance of its inhabitants to the negroes of Africa, removed from them by nearly one third the circumference of the globe. The early writers, however, term the people Papuas or Papuans, a Malay term given to them on account of their woolly hair, so different from the perfectly straight hair of almost all the other Eastern races. The Malay word "papuwah" or "puah-puah" means frizzled like wool; and the Malays still call these people "orang papuwah"—woolly-haired men, and the island itself "tana papuwah"—the land of the woolly haired.

It is a very remarkable fact that woolly-haired people should be found in two such widely separated areas, and, with very few exceptions, nowhere else in the world. In Africa they occupy the larger portion of the continent, extending over all the tropical and southern regions; while in the East they are found only in a group of islands of which New Guinea is the center, extending westward as far as Flores and eastward to the Feejees. There are also a few outlying groups of woolly-haired people, which are of great importance as indicating that this type once had a wider extension than now. In the Pacific we have the now extinct Tasmanians; and far to the east, in the midst of the brown Polynesians, we find the inhabitants of Penrhyn's Island and Mangaia, in about 158° west longitude, to be of the Melanesian or dark race. In the Philippines there is an aboriginal race of woolly-haired dwarfs—the Aëtas or Negritos; and a similar descriptive term may be applied to the Semangs of the Malay Peninsula, and to the natives of the Andaman Islands in the bay of Bengal. These various Eastern tribes differ among themselves quite as much as do those of Africa. Both agree, however, in being usually very dark-skinned, and examples may be found in which negroes and Papuans are in all respects very much alike. But this is exceptional, and there is almost always a characteristic difference which would cause most of the Eastern negroes to appear out of place on the continent of Africa. The woolly hair, however, combined with the dark skin and almost always with a dolichocephalic or long skull, so markedly distinguishes all these people from the rest of the inhabitants of the globe, that it is impossible not to look upon them as being really related to each other, and as representing an early variation if not the primitive type of mankind, which once spread widely over all the tropical portions of the eastern hemisphere. Successive incursions of the lighter-colored, smooth-haired races seem to have exterminated them in many of the areas they once inhabited, while in some widely scattered spots a few scanty remnants continue to exist. Two important groups, however, remain predominant in regions very far apart, but each well suited to their vigorous development. The negro of Africa has been made the servant of the more civilized races from the earliest periods of history, and is better known to us than any other uncivilized people; while the Papuan or Melanesian, inhabiting a group of tropical islands on the other side of the globe, still remains a mere shadowy name to the great majority of English readers. We proceed now to point out the chief physical and mental characteristics, habits, and customs of this interesting race as it exists in New Guinea, with occasional references to such modifications of it as occur in the other islands.

We now possess trustworthy descriptions of the Papuans as they exist at numerous localities scattered all round the extensive island they inhabit; and the substantial agreement of these descriptions renders it pretty certain that all belong to one race, exhibiting, it is true, considerable variations, and occasionally presenting undoubted signs of intermixture with other races, but always showing a decided predominance of true Papuan characteristics. In stature they present a medium between the short Malays and tall Polynesians, the average height varying at different parts of the coast from five feet two to five feet eight inches. Some tribes in the interior are believed to be as dwarfish as the Negritos of the Philippines, while others are nearly equal to the tall Feejeeans, who are often considerably over six feet high. They are strong and muscular, but rather less finely formed than many of the Malayan and Polynesian tribes. Their color is usually a chocolate-brown, sometimes almost black, at others almost as light as some of the Malays. It is, however, by their features that they are best distinguished from all other races of men, and especially by the form and size of the nose. This is always large and long, usually arched as in the Jewish type, and, when well developed, with the extremity so lengthened as to hide the nostrils and overhang the upper lip. This peculiar characteristic is found more or less developed everywhere round the coast of New Guinea, so that almost every traveler speaks of the "Jewish features"—the "aquiline" or "arched" or "very prominent" noses—or makes use of other similar expressions, clearly showing that this is the typical Papuan feature, a fact which is further demonstrated by the unmistakable though exaggerated manner in which it is represented in all their images and carvings. The nose is also very thick and coarse, as is the case in almost all savage races; the alæ are very oblique, and the base is much depressed between the eyes, a character which reaches its maximum in the natives of New Caledonia and the New Hebrides, though the nose itself is with them somewhat shorter. The forehead is rather flat and retreating, the mouth large, and the lips full but not excessively thick; nor is there any marked prognathism. The combination of these peculiarities in various degrees produces faces which are sometimes ugly and savage-looking, while others have so much the character of the Jew or Arab as to be really handsome. Comparing Papuans with typical negroes of equatorial Africa we find a radical difference in the small flat nose and very prominent jaws of the latter. In the South African races this difference is less pronounced. The Bechuanas and Natal Caffres have less prognathism and a straighter, better-formed nose, but this organ is always shorter and less arched than in the Papuan. The Hottentots have often well-formed features and sometimes have a considerable resemblance to the less typical Melanesians. The greatest resemblance, however, is to be found between the Negritos of the Philippines—who have short flat noses and somewhat projecting jaws—and some of the dwarfish tribes of Central Africa.

The Papuan contrasts strongly with Malays and Polynesians in being hairy-bodied and tolerably well bearded, but still more so by the wonderfully luxuriant growth of the hair of the head, which forms a dense mop often projecting six or eight inches from the skull. It is crisp, glossy, and very elastic, and each separate hair naturally curls itself up into a spiral of small diameter. The degree of twist and consequent woolliness of the hair seems to be dependent on its being oval or flattened instead of cylindrical. In the straight-haired races and in most Europeans the hair has a circular section, which becomes slightly oval where it is naturally curly; but in the negro and Papuan it is much flattened, and has besides irregular wavy margins, which seem to produce the strong spiral twist. Those who possess a large mop of hair are very proud of it, keeping it continually combed out with a kind of bamboo fork, and using a narrow wooden pillow on which to rest the nape of the neck, so as to preserve the hair from being squeezed out of shape. It was long thought that the hair of these people possessed a peculiar character in growing in separate small tufts scattered uniformly over the scalp; but more accurate examination shows that it grows evenly over the surface of the head, and that the tufted appearance probably arises from the tendency of the spirally twisted hairs to mat together in small, curly locks. The hair on the body and limbs, though very short, has the same appearance and a similar structure.

The dress of these people is very scanty, the men wearing the usual T-bandage of bark-cloth, but in some cases only a shell, or even going absolutely naked; while the women always wear some kind of girdle from which is suspended a small apron of bark or a fringe of leaves. As with most savages, ornament is more attended to than dress, and is more used by the men than by the women. They often pierce the sides of the nose, sticking in them pieces of bone, feathers, or tusks of the wild pig. The ears are also pierced, and either shell ear-rings are worn, or sticks ornamented with feathers are stuck through the lobes. Necklaces of teeth or shells are common, and heavy rings of white shell or plaited bands of grass or palm-leaf are worn on the arms. The hair of the men is always carefully attended to. It is combed with a kind of bamboo fork with four or five prongs, and this is usually kept stuck in it both for convenience and ornament. Some tribes cut and trim or plait the mop of hair into various helmet-like or other fantastic shapes, and all adorn it with combs, sticks, or feather ornaments. Suspended from the neck they often wear a small carved wooden figure with the Papuan features greatly exaggerated. As they freely part with these, they are probably mere ornaments or charms rather than idols or fetiches. Regular tattooing is unknown, except on the southeastern peninsula where there is an infusion of Polynesian blood, but most of the men have raised marks produced artificially. These generally consist of a few short parallel lines on the arms or breast, and are said to be formed by gashes made with a sharp stone or bamboo, and the subsequent application of fire to make the skin swell up and leave a prominent scar. Painting the body is not generally practiced, but some kind of stain producing a blue-black tinge has often been observed.—Contemporary Review.