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Unformatted text preview: 2 Chatterboxes By the 1920s it was thought that no corner of the earth fit for human habitation had remained unexplored. New Guinea, the world's second largest island, was no exception. The European mis- sionaries, planters, and administrators clung to its coastal lowlands, convinced that no one could live in the treacherous mountain range that ran in a solid line down the middle of the island. But the moun- tains visible from each coast in fact belonged to two ranges, not one, and between them was a temperate plateau crossed by many fertile valleys. A million Stone Age people lived in those highlands, isolated from the rest of the world for forty thousand years. The veil would not be lifted until gold was discovered in a tributary of one of the main rivers. The ensuing gold rush attracted Michael Leahy, a footloose Australian prospector, who on May 26, 1930, set out to explore the mountains with a fellow prospector and a group of indigenous low- land people hired as carriers. After scaling the heights, Leahy was amazed to see grassy open country on the other side. By nightfall his amazement turned to alarm, because there were points of light in the distance, obvious signs that the valley was populated. After a sleepless night in which Leahy and his party loaded their weapons and assem- bled a crude bomb, they made their first contact with the highlanders. The astonishment was mutual. Leahy wrote in his diary: It was a relief when the [natives] came in sight, the men . . . in front, armed with bows and arrows, the women behind bringing stalks of sugarcane. When he saw the women, Ewunga told me at once that 2 6 T H E L A N G U A G E I N S T I N C T there would be no fight. We waved to them to come on, which they did cautiously, stopping every few yards to look us over. When a few of them finally got up courage to approach, we could see that they were utterly thunderstruck by our appearance. When I took off my hat, those nearest to me backed away in terror. One old chap came forward gingerly with open mouth, and touched me to see if I was real. Then he knelt down, and rubbed his hands over my bare legs, possibly to find if they were painted, and grabbed me around the knees and hugged them, rubbing his bushy head against me. . . . The women and children gradually got up courage to ap- proach also, and presently the camp was swarming with the lot of them, all running about and jabbering at once, pointing to .. . everything that was new to them. That "jabbering" was language—an unfamiliar language, one of eight hundred different ones that would be discovered among the isolated highlanders right up through the 1960s. Leahy's first contact repeated a scene that must have taken place hundreds of times in human history, whenever one people first encountered another. All of them, as far as we know, already had language. Every Hottentot, every Eskimo, every Yanomamo. No mute tribe has ever been discov- ered, and there is no record that a region has served as a "cradle" of...
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- Spring '12