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PAPUA NEW GUINEA: THE LAST UNKNOWN

Some of Earth's places - England, Egypt, Greece - gave up most of their secrets long ago. Not so Papua New Guinea. It was the last inhabited country to come in contact with the West - some of the more remote areas having been "discovered" as recently as 50 years ago. Fittingly, it is often called "The Last Unknown."

Remote, isolated, filled with treacherous mountain ranges and the dense tropical vegetation that easily swallows history, it is no surprise that most of this island was left so long unvisited. But isolation wasn't the only factor contributing to the mystery. The people who lived there recorded their past by way of oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation. There were no written records, and much was forgotten, changed, lost. In some places artifacts have been found that the local people know nothing about, that are explained only as "gifts from the spirits."Nor was there a universal culture, built on interchange and mingling among tribal groups. There were similarities, brought on by climate and conditions as much as anything, but there were vast differences as well. Even today, more than 740 distinct, separate languages - not dialects, but languages (a third of all the languages in the world) - are spoken in Papua New Guinea.

Researchers think the first people arrived on the island some 60,000 years ago, back when it was connected to Australia by a land bridge. Scientists have found evidence of agriculture, dating back about 9,000 years, making these among the oldest farmers in the world. But beyond that, little is known about the earliest years.

The first contact with the Western world came in 1526, when Jorge de Meneses came across the island and named it Ilhas dos Papuas - island of the fuzzy-hairs, from the Malay word papuwah. In 1546, a Spanish navigator named it Nueva Guinea because it reminded him of Guinea in Africa.

In the 1800s, Europe's colonial powers - as they were wont to do - carved up the island for their own, with the Dutch taking the western half, the British taking the southeast Papua portion, and the Germans the northeast section called New Guinea. But these invaders mostly hugged the coastlines of their respective territories, leaving the dense, forbidding interiors untouched.

After the world wars, Australia took over administration of the eastern half of the island, under the cumbersome name of Papua New Guinea. The western half of the island remained Dutch and then became Indonesian in 1963, now known as Irian Jaya.

Papua New Guinea achieved independence in 1975. (At that time a search for a streamlined name led to Niugini, but it has not gained much favor and so far is used only by the national airline.)

As in so many cases, it was the search for gold that finally drew outsiders to the interior of the island - and not until the 1930s and later. But these explorers found much more than metals. Some of the hunting-gathering societies they came across appeared to have changed little since the Stone Age. And some were composed of fierce, head-hunting warriors.

It was culture shock on both sides. Years later a man named Kirupano Eza'e talked about this first contact with Europeans: "We had not seen far places. We knew only this side of the mountains. And we thought we were the only living people. We believed that when a person died, his skin changed to white and he went over the boundary to `that place' - the place of the dead. So, when the strangers came, we said, `Ah, these men do not belong to the earth. Let's not kill them - they are our own relatives. Those who have died before have turned white and come back.' "

The intruders were not always so benevolent. And before the final smoke cleared, there were numerous deaths on both sides, although the stone axes of the natives were not much match for the guns of the other side. Still, as one author noted, "Of all peoples who lived under colonial powers - and often suffered terribly - these were the most fortunate as they had the shortest period of foreign rule."

Today, with a population approaching 4 million and a parliamentary government that boasts "unity in diversity," Papua New Guinea is a country in transition, a place still much off the beaten path that offers a fascinating look at cultures and peoples unlike any others.

Tourism is a fledgling industry in Papua New Guinea. Remote dis-tances, limited facilities and high costs combine to restrict the numbers who venture there. We had 16 in our group, the maximum number our tour operator would allow, due to the small planes we needed to fly into the interior, limited space on river boats and in order to minimize impact on small villages.

Our week's stay would take us to only four places: the mountain regions of Mount Hagen and Tari, the river/jungle of Karawari and the capital city of Port Moresby. But just because tourism is new, it is not second-class. Everywhere we went we found more-than-adequate facilities (the lodges at Karawari and Tari, for example, are reminiscent of those on a classy African safari), delicious food (pork and fish were most often the main dishes, supplemented with fresh fruits, vegetables and several kinds of potatoes) and welcoming, friendly people.

In a week we had a chance only to sample the diversity that is Papua New Guinea - but it was enough of a sample that we came away full of awe and appreciation for the chance we had to see it now.

With a population of 40,000, Mount Hagen is one of the larger towns in the interior - and one of the more prosperous if the neatly tended thatch homes and gardens are any indication. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop here, planted in rows of little round mounds by each house.

Mount Hagen is also a center of religious activity, with probably more churches and missions from more denominations than anywhere else. As we drove through the countryside on a Sunday morning, we encountered group after group dressed in Sunday best, walking down the road to church. One group of young men had a guitar and were delighted to stage an impromptu "sing-sing" - sharing some of their church songs, mostly sung in the pidgin English that is the national language. Their warm welcome was typical of that we found wherever we went. Whether in jungle villages, mountain towns, marketplaces or stopped by the side of the road while a flat tire was changed on our van, we found the people full of genuine enjoyment in meeting visitors and an eagerness to share culture.

But if Mount Hagen seems like a rather ordinary town, it doesn't take long to find some of the unusual twists that cultural development has taken here. Not far away is the Wahgi Valley, once a marshy swamp that has only recently been drained to provide land for tea and coffee plantations. Wahgi Valley is home of the mudmen - one of the more unusual groups the country has to offer.

Legend has it that long ago, the Asaro tribe came off second best in a tribal war. But just before the requisite payback raid someone came up with the idea of smearing their bodies with mud. It may have been nothing more than an air-conditioning ploy, as they say it is a great way to cool off (and is still sometimes used for that purpose alone). But as the mud dried, it turned white, giving the warriors a ghostly appearance. When their opponents saw these eerie forms emerging from the forest, they fled.

Today that and other stories are re-enacted in dances and ceremonies that call for mud-smeared bodies. Grotesque mud masks are used to represent spirits, who wear long, clacking boards on their fingers. Women and children participate in the festivities as well. A unique art form to say the least.

Equally colorful are the tribal rituals and customs found in the Karawari area.

The Karawari, a tributary of the famed Sepik River, flows through dense tropical rainforest that is a marked contrast to the climate of mountainous Mount Hagen and Tari. One of the last areas to be opened to outsiders - there was hardly any contact until the 1960s - it is still connected only by two-way radio and small planes that land visitors and supplies on an as-often-as-not soggy grass airstrip cleared from the jungle.

In Karawari, particularly, time seems to have moved at a much slower pace. The hunter-gatherer societies here are textbook, so close to role models discussed in countless anthropology books that we couldn't help but think of the words from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness:" "You thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once - somewhere - far away - in another existence perhaps."

Under Karawari's carefully planned "eco-tourism" program, we visited four different villages along the river, each with something new to offer.

At Kundiman I, we saw how sago flour is harvested from sago palms - how water is poured over fibers and left to evaporate so the flour is separated out. Pancakes and pudding made from the flour are a staple of the diet - supplemented with fish from the river and fruits and vegetables gathered from the wilds.

At Manjamei, we were treated to an initiation/skin cutting ceremony. As young boys and girls reach adulthood, they go through the ritual where the symbol of the clan is cut on their backs and treated so that it will leave a permanent raised mark (for our benefit, paints were used instead of knives, but we could still appreciate how painful a process it would be). The cutting is accompanied by dances in traditional costumes made from flowers and grasses. Afterward, the young man or woman spends up to six weeks in isolation, learning the lore and wisdom of the tribe. Because marriage within the tribe is forbidden, one purpose of the skin cutting is to create a form of identification.

At Konmei, we learned about headhunting, a practice this area was particularly known for. Although no one's quite sure just when it was started, it appears to have been, among other things, a primitive form of population control. Before a young man could marry and take up full membership in the tribe, he had to take a victim from another tribe. The occasion was marked with chants and dances and rituals that are still a part of tribal life, although headhunting is no longer practiced. The last head was taken in 1969.

Everywhere we went, we were fascinated by the culture and charmed by the welcoming people. But at Ambonwari, especially, we fell in love with the children. Gregarious, enthusiastic, often naked, they eagerly bridged the cultural gap to chatter about school lessons, to ask names, to sing songs. No begging is allowed, and, in fact, we were asked not to bring anything to give away, however tempting it might be, because tribal officials don't want to get that started.

Their lives are simple. Toys consist of cans nailed on sticks that they roll along the ground, or wheel rims that can be made to move by pushing with a stick. A favorite activity is to paddle out into river in their small dugout canoes to ride the wake from our riverboat. Their delightful laughter echoed in our ears and settled in our hearts as we moved back down the river. Whatever life holds for these young, proud ambassadors, we couldn't help but hope that it would be good.

In physics there is something called the Uncertainty Principle, which notes that it is impossible to get a true measurement of certain things because the very act of measuring changes the things that are being measured. You kind of worry that Papua New Guinea is like that - as more people go to see how unspoiled it is, the country can't help but change.

But the thing to remember is that this is not a living history museum, with villages set up just for the enjoyment and enlightenment of visitors, but a country - a living, changing culture. It has existed so long because the people have been able to adapt.

Change will come, says Ambrose Otto, our personable young guide in Karawari. He himself is a symbol of the transition period the country is in. His grandfather was a headhunter, a tribal leader married to seven wives. Ambrose works in the developing tourist industry, bringing in people to see the still-primitive ways. In addition to increasing numbers of visitors, he says, mining and timber operations will come and have impact upon the land. Hunting and gathering becomes more difficult. Already, money has become more im-portant - to buy petrol for boats and clothes from the second-hand stores. (Whatever the culture, there is an undeniable practicality in T-shirts.)

Many of the old ways are still practiced out of choice and pride, rather than ignorance. And some are dictated as much by climate and vegetation as anything. But the pace of change can't help but increase.

"When you come back in 10 years," says Ambrose, "it will be different."

Change, after all, is the currency that pays for the future - in Papua New Guinea as in the rest of the world.