Connect to share and comment

Papuan tribal leaders to author Jared Diamond: 'Don’t call us warlike'

New book likens chimp warfare to that of traditional societies.

West papuan tribesmen 2013 02 14Enlarge
Dancers in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Bigger than two Japans, and thousands of times more diverse, the jungled island of New Guinea holds untold numbers of diverse tribes.

Outsiders both Western and Asian have often regarded its inhabitants with a gawking focus on their so-called “primitive” traits. Some tribes dwell in tree houses, some fit their noses with decorative bones and many hunt game with arrows.

But don’t call them warlike, says a group of politically active Papuans, the island’s indigenous people.

They have accused one of America’s most celebrated scholars, Jared Diamond, of doing just that.

"Papuans are very angry with this man," Benny Wenda, a prominent West Papuan leader, told GlobalPost. "We invite people to come and study and respect our culture but then he puts us down. We think people are our friends … but he's acting more like our oppressor."

Diamond, a 75-year-old anthropologist with a Lincoln-esque chinstrap, is at first glance an unlikely target for indigenous backlash.

His latest best-seller, "The World Until Yesterday," compares the flaws and virtues of traditional societies — namely in New Guinea — with those of modern states. He is perhaps best known for attacking the notion that Western progress is owed to the genetic or cultural superiority of fair-skinned Europeans and their descendants.

“The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome but also that they are wrong,” he wrote in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” his iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning book. This is quickly followed with the assertion that Papua New Guineans — the focus of his research since the 1960s — are likely more intelligent and curious than Americans.

But Diamond’s latest book helps justify the subjugation of tribal peoples under modern states, according to Wenda and other West Papuan leaders. In a statement circulated by Survival International, a nonprofit focused on indigenous rights, Baptist Voice of Papua director Matius Murib said that the book implies that “indigenous Papuans still display a way of life from hundreds of years ago. This is not true and strengthens the idea that indigenous people are ‘backwards,’ ‘live in the past’ or are ‘stone age.'"

The backlash fomented after Survival International forwarded passages from the book to Papuan leaders, who later shared them with their own networks, said Sophie Grig, a senior campaigner with the group.

“They’re very fed up,” Grig said. “They’re sick of being portrayed as brutal and violent.”

“The World Until Yesterday” asserts that “almost all of us would say good riddance to chronic warfare, infanticide and abandoning the elderly. We understand why small-scale societies often have to do those cruel things or get trapped into doing them.”

But without a justice system provided by modern states, Diamond writes, “we too would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in most non-state societies.”

He adds that “calculated war-related deaths in chimpanzees,” which he puts at 0.36 percent per year, “are similar to those for traditional human societies.”

But Diamond’s New Guinea detractors are mostly irate over alleged sins of omission.

Half of the New Guinea island is an independent state, Papua New Guinea, which tossed off Australian rule in 1975. But the Western half is under the control of the world’s fourth-most populous state, Indonesia, which has waged warfare to retain its turf. State control, critics point out, has only brought more death to their people.

“The Indonesian government did not rescue us from a cycle of violence like Jared Diamond says — they brought violence to us like we had never known before,” said Wenda, whose pro-independence activism has forced him into exile. “They have murdered, raped and imprisoned my people and they have stolen our land to make themselves rich.”

Indonesia’s troops — among them a US-trained Special Forces unit called “Kopassus” — have torched homes, tortured suspected dissidents and sent in air strikes to subdue a separatist movement. Death tolls assigned to this conflict vary wildly: Papuan independence groups quote an ex-US Foreign Service officer’s claim of 100,000 West Papuan deaths. The International Crisis Group sticks with “many thousands” of deaths since the 1960s.

Wenda, among the better-known West Papuan pro-independence figures, claims to have witnessed killings and the rape of his own aunt firsthand.

“Indonesia told the world that this was ‘tribal war,’ They tried to pretend