Thursday, February 10, 2005

Selling First Contact

"I don't believe there are any ‘uncontacted' people, nor that anyone has to worry about making a ‘first contact,' " Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, told me.

Like many of you, I awoke this morning to NPR's interview with Michael Behar on his article in the February issue of Outside Magazine. Tourism, and especially armchair touristic journalism, is reaching out to increasingly more remote locales (think space tourism) and, not surprisingly, more unbelievable tourist experiences. Behar plunked down $8,000 USD to American-born guide Kelly Woolford (a self-described "hillbilly") to take him into the jungles of West Papua, Indonesia and make "first contact" with a group of natives.

After almost spitting out my morning cup of coffee, and shaking my fist in a Basil Fawlty-like repose, my impression were: (1) What "uncontacted" people? Most anthropologists agree that even remote hunter-gatherer groups have trading ties with surrounding societies and were therefore "contacted" a very long time ago. (2) Behar could have commented more on the doubts most anthropologists have about this type of expedition, and his research. (3) If it smells like a rotten egg, it probably is. Well-meaning people have been duped before into thinking they made the mythical "first contact" with a remote human group. In the 1970s the Tasaday in the Philippines were called an "untouched stone age people," a discovery which was later shown to be a hoax.

I was glad to see, however, that in his article Behar goes into more detail about the reactions of anthropologists he consulted after his trip, most of whom were quick to dispell any romantic notions of a human group unblemished by the sins of modernity:

[West Papuan] tribes are not uncontacted in any absolute sense," argues Paul Michael Taylor, an anthropologist and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C. "They've been trading crocodiles and bird of paradise feathers and have had access to metals and tobacco for a long time. So they've always been in contact; it's just a question of degree."Before leaving Nabire, Woolford agrees that his definition of first contact may need to be modified. Should we actually encounter a tribe in the jungle, he says, it might be impossible to determine whether they have ever set eyes on an outsider.

Behar then describes in detail the suprise contact with bow-and-arrow wielding natives, sending his scurrying to the river bank. Upon his return, these "pristine natives" are mugging for a camera shot with another tourist.

Two weeks later, back home in Virginia, I send three hours of our video footage to several anthropologists familiar with West Papuan tribes. None of them is convinced by it.

"I'm 95 percent sure it is a hoax," the University of Sydney's William Foley declares after watching it. He's struck by the fact that the natives didn't appear to have any skin diseases, which are endemic among bushmen. "This is unheard of for people living in the forest," he says. "The guys are too clean. Secondly, their dress is far too elaborate. That's the kind of dress they wear when doing a ceremony. That's not what they wear when they go out hunting and collecting food. All those headdresses—no way."

Other anthropologists have similar reactions. Paul Taylor, at the Smithsonian, adds that it wouldn't be too difficult to hire local villagers to stash their Western garb and then pretend to be "discovered" as Woolford's clients plod through the jungle. "The big question in my mind," says Taylor, "is whether this is something he's paid these people to do over and over again." Whatever is going on, Taylor doesn't like it. "If it's not a first-contact situation, then it's fraudulent. And if it is a first-contact situation, then it's an insensitive way to go about it."

When confronted with these refutations, Woolford reacts like the miner making a living on his claim who has been told by the professional geologist that his rocks are fool's gold, and not the real thing.

Woolford, for his part, fires right back when I run the anthropologists' remarks by him, starting with a comment that anyone who doubts his word should come along on a trip. "Some of these people are just lecturers at nice universities who have tenure and cushy jobs," he says. "If they think I've staged this, then come with me. I give them an open invitation to see for themselves. They can feel the energy of these guys, see them run around, see them barreling down and pointing arrows at them."

Really? Most researchers who study hunter-gatherers live in the field for a year or more for their doctoral research, continue to go back for summer or semester-long trips, and sometimes chock up another year's worth of research during a sabbatical. All this for a pathetically-weak job market, and lower pay than many other professions, so I am not taken in by his characterization that his critics are "lecturers at nice universities who have tenure and cushy jobs." I can hear ad hominem retorts like that on Fox News. Woolford is an entrepreneur, and is selling this experience to those with the money, so naturally he has to "find" something for them to see, making me even more suspicious of his motives. Read the article yourself, but I think you will come away with a similiar reading.

"People pay a lot of money for this trip, and I want to try to find them something," he says. "But locating new tribes is getting harder and harder—and who knows what you are going to come across, if anything."


Anonymous said...

Dear Outside Magazine,

As a member of the second “First Contact Expedetion” I would like to add a few remarks to Michael Behar’s report on this expedition:

1. the second “First Contact Expedition” was offered to me by Kelly Woolford as follows: in an e-mail he told me that two journalists from your magazine would be part of the First Contact Expedition 2004 and that they wanted me on the trip because of my experience from a First Contact expedition in 2003. In 2004 the expedition was to go to the North of West Papua where he supposedly found a new tribe. After the meeting in Biak Kelly told me that the trip will be going to the same area that I visited with Herbert Schroff in 2003 (contradicting his earlier statement) which meant that I paid a reduced price for an expedition I did not intend to make and which was not offered this way. Here is the original offer:
2. “Hello Robert. Sorry about the long delay in my reply. I’ve been busy putting together a last minute trip for some clients. We leave on this Friday for 30 days. We will be in the Korowai and Kombai areas. My bank account number is the same as before. So, you can send the money to that bank account number. There has been a lot of interest in this trip, since we went last year. And there are 3 other people interested in going on this trip. Already two people have signed up and I need two more people for this expedition. We have reliable information about some movements of a new tribe along the north coast. And, that is where we will go on this next expedition. The two people that already signed on are writers from the largest American magazine. They are sending a writer and photographer and they requested that I have two more people go. I know that they would be very interested if you went, because you have already gone on such and expedition before.” Kelly Woolford.(e mail address…)
3. Contrary to the announced 30 days the expedition lasted only a total of 4 days: a 10 hour boat ride, 2 nights in the rain forest, and a 10 hour boat ride back to Nabire. Kelly Woolford had not prepared an alternate tour, since organizing the 2003 and 2004 tours had been too big of a challenge for him. The 2003 tour was decent despite the lack of professional organization.
4. Upon our return to Nabire we were told by the local military commander that we were not to leave our quarters from Saturday to Wednesday for the following reasons:

a) the presidential elections posed a security risk,
b) we didn’t properly pass through a checkpoint as required in our, “surat-jalan”.
c) We went through this checkpoint on our last trip in 2003 and he refused my request to pass through the checkpoint on this trip. He wouldn’t have been able to produce the required license anyway. A further consequence of his unprofessional conduct was that the motor of the boat which we chartered was seized by the military. Because of this seizure, the fishermen were unable to practice their profession.
5. Kelly said that one could only tell whether or not this tribe was genuine on the spot. I can assure the Ethnologist in good conscience, that this is a hoax. I showed my pictures and drawings to an Ethnologist in Austria , who lived for many years in West Papua and he confirmed my suspicions. Whoever believes that one can take a ten hour boat ride and a two hour jungle trek and discover a previously unknown tribe must be very naive indeed.

6. Kelly Woolford is not familiar with Ethnology, but is more familiar with Tennis and Karaoke. He
Obviously draws his knowledge from missionary reports. I “almost” believe that he was not the producer of this theater. But that he was the only one that didn’t see through this charade doesn’t speak well for him.
7. This supposed newly discovered tribe seems to be as “real “as his studies of the missionaries and his
capabilities as an organizer of adventure tours.
9. . An extraordinary mistake he made on the first trip was taking a flash picture of a tribesman, flashing directly in his eyes, who had supposedly never had contact with the outside world. This is an unprofessional way to make first contact and build trust.

Kelly Woolford is a nice guy who earns his living offering trips to people, like me, from Europe who
can’t organize a trip themselves so fall prey to such tour operators.

Best wishes Dr.Robert Ferdiny 25.03.2005

Homeschoolgirl_cherlyema_schurman said...

I met kelly woolford in baliem valey when he had been his adventure 1996. he is very nice man and know good places in baliem valley.