In 1944, Army Air Corps pilots stationed on the island of New Guinea were looking for possible sites for an additional air strip on the island when they found a large river valley in a place that …
In 1944, Army Air Corps pilots stationed on the island of New Guinea were looking for possible sites for an additional air strip on the island when they found a large river valley in a place that their maps told them was nothing but mountains. The discovery and subsequent events is told in the book “Lost in Shangra-La,” by Mitchell Zuckoff.
The valley, accessed by a hair-raising flight through New Guinea’s mountainous terrain, was about 8 miles wide an approximately 30 miles long, and was populated by thousands of people living in several hundred villages. Despite living in a Stone Age culture, the people, who wore a bare minimum of clothing, were successful farmers, raising pigs and crops such as sweet potatoes.
As the pilots flew at low altitude down the valley, they noticed that every village featured one or more towers, rising up to 30 feet above the ground and manned by sentries. Aware that many of the tribes on the island were head-hunters, the pilots correctly assumed that the towers were there to warn a village of approaching attackers. On one flight, they even interrupted a battle, frightening the combatants into ending their conflict and abandoning the field.
The valley was judged to have no military value, but sightseeing flights to break the boredom of the personnel on New Guinea became popular until one of them crashed into a mountain, killing all but three passengers, two soldiers and one WAC (Women’s Army Corps). The three found themselves entangled in the rugged terrain and jungle until they encountered a group of men from the valley they had expected to see from the air.
Although they learned over the following weeks that warfare, sometimes to the death, was a major part of the natives’ culture, they were fortunate that the group of men they had encountered did not consider them enemies. The Americans did not understand what led to the warfare among the native villages, but decided that the group that had found them recognized three kinds of people: themselves, their allies and their enemies. What separated the enemies the tribesmen would fight from the other two groups was a mystery to the Americans.
In 1944, both the Stone Age warriors of New Guinea and the 20th century Americans who had dropped in on them from the sky were engaged in warfare. The tribal warriors fought with primitive weapons, so the killing was on a personal level, face to face, and the war might end with the eating of an enemy killed in the combat. The 20th century Americans fought a modern war, of course, so much of the killing was done with artillery from a distance or from the air. However, there was vicious street fighting in the cities and towns of Europe and the jungles of the Pacific, in which the fighting was at close quarters. As civilized soldiers, though, Americans did not cannibalize those they had killed.
Despite the differences, the warfare by the Stone Age warriors and the modern American army had one thing in common: an intense antagonism toward the enemy.
Decades after the three crash survivors were rescued, historian and anthropologist Jared Diamond was engaged in research about the lives of the tribes living in the jungles of New Guinea that he wrote about in a book, “The World Until Yesterday.” He had engaged a group of tribesmen to guide him to their village and help carry his equipment. At one point he noticed that the tribesmen had stopped talking and were nervously searching the jungle around them. When he asked why, they told him that they were close to the divide between themselves, a tribe located in the mountains, and the river people, who, given an opportunity, would attack them.
At that time, Americans and others were again at war, this time in the Middle East. It almost seems as though human beings, no matter if they are still in the Stone Age using 10-foot long spears or in the 21st century world of smart bombs, drones and improvised explosive devices, are bound by our nature to fight with each other. Conflict is often triggered by differences in religion, language, skin color, or economic status, or a battle may occur simply because the residents of two villages don’t like each other. It has been that way since the Stone Age.
I don’t know if we humans can put an end to such conflicts, but given our history, it doesn’t seem as though we ever will.
Maybe we should try harder.