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FIRST CONTACT AND NON-COMMUNICABLE DISEASES (PART I)

February 28, 2014

FIRST CONTACT AND NON-COMMUNICABLE DISEASES (PART I)
My first contact with New Guinea, the second largest island in the world (behind Greenland), was as a teen-age sailor in 1944. The so called FIRST CONTACT with stone aged people in upland New Guinea was 13 years before, in 1931. Jared Diamond’s first contact with New Guinea was 20 years after mine. I was there twice during WW II; Jared has been there for a month or more for 35-40 years. New Guinea has the most spoken languages anywhere, with some 1,000 spoken on the island. Jared has become fluent in several of them. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his masterpiece, Guns, Germs and Steel, and writes eloquently of what we can learn and unlearn from primitive cultures in New Guinea and elsewhere. He is brilliant and his insights are dazzling, informative and entertaining.
I will write today on only one of the areas he treats in his book, The World Until Yesterday. Jared, a UCLA professor, arrived in New Guinea for the first time in 1964. He was there to study birds. He tells many tales of conversations had with New Guineans around the campfire, and after attaining fluency in a few local languages was able to learn of how the locals lived and how they structured their society, how they treated their young, their old; how they settled disputes, married, made wars etc. He became expert in their social structure and why they did what they did and didn’t do within their cultural milieu, and such cultural anthropology efforts put him in an enviable position of comparing that and other cultures with ours and other Western cultures in his The World Until Yesterday, but I am only going to write about one of the areas he treats. I am going to write about non-communicable diseases, which were unknown in upland New Guinea in 1931. Yes, they died young by our standards, but not from diseases that kill us. Our major killers are cancer, stroke, heart attacks and diabetes, all non-communicable conditions or diseases. Those killers were unknown among upland New Guineans in 1931. Why? What can we learn?
In 1931, Australians discovered a large number of stone aged people in upland New Guinea. These people didn’t know there were other people in coastal New Guinea and coastal New Guineans didn’t know there was anyone up in the mountains. The discovery by the Australians became known in history as FIRST CONTACT. They had no metal, no writing, no mechanical or electrical devices of any kind. Their major food was the sweet potato – the staple of their diet. They farmed, they married and they warred, but they did not leave their home grounds since in those days if you met a stranger on the trail, you either ran or fought. They were very much homebodies (which may explain why none of them ventured down to the coast). It wasn’t just strangers who would kill them; there were also wild animals and falling trees that they confronted daily. Accidents, murders resulting from insults real or imagined, fights because one’s pig got into a neighbor’s sweet potatoes etc. also took their toll. There were no courts, no police and little authority in anyone to settle disputes (unlike in state societies such as ours, where many think we could do with less courts, lawyers and cops). In spite of everything, there was a certain egalitarian spirit within such common aggregation of people. (I will not use the word of art “tribe.”) They obviously had to share food and help one another with the young and the old; indeed they were still foragers for food even as they raised sweet potatoes. They were thus hunters and gatherers, but with a touch of domestic farming thrown in. They died young of communicable diseases. Penicillin was unknown to them, so that if one were infected or gangrenous death was likely.
This is prelude. Stay tuned for Part II, a discussion of how they were not killed by what kills us. GERALD E

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One Comment
  1. billy1926 permalink

    I’m especially appreciative of your choice to reject the use of the word “tribe” with respect to ” , , , such aggregation of people.” Each group, if objectively and correctly described, would be found to be a complete, mature cultural society (see Hoebel/Frost, Cultural and Social Anthropology, 1976). For those riven to the superiority of Western European Civilization, the term,”tribe,” has certain connotations of inferiority, inchoateness, and incapability, It should be assigned to the dust bin of history, along with a number of other misnomers.
    Billy

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