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 that it was us that was violent and not them,” he said. “This book is doing the same. He should apologize.”
In his latest book, Diamond argues that scholars shouldn’t resist calling remote tribes “warlike” just because outside oppressors have relied on that label to justify occupation.
“We grow up being taught that vengeful feelings are primitive, to be ashamed of, and something that we should transcend,” Diamond wrote. But New Guinean cultures, like many other indigenous peoples, nurse a desire for retribution that fosters tit-for-tat tribal violence, according to Diamond. “Of course,” he wrote, “New Guineans end up feeling unconflicted about killing the enemy: they have no contrary message to unlearn.”
In a written response provided to GlobalPost, Diamond said that thinking on traditional societies has too often fallen into two extremes. One camp, he said, believes they are “brutish barbarians ... who deserve to be dragged into the modern world, conquered, driven off the land or exterminated.”
The other, he said, “views people as noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue ... admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes.”
Diamond insists that his work steers a “course between these two middle extremes” that honestly examines the best and worst qualities of tribal life.
“Mistreatment of tribal peoples should be condemned not because you claim that they are peaceful when they are really not,” Diamond said. “It should instead be condemned on moral grounds: the mistreatment of any people is wrong.”
But Diamond has misinterpreted the case of Survival International, Grig said. “We’re not saying tribal people aren’t violent. We’re saying that they’re no more violent than anybody else,” she said. “There is fighting between tribes. But it’s not every day, every month.”
Previous Papuan backlash
Diamond’s prose often attempts to jar readers by placing seemingly backwards examples from tribal life with reminders that Western societies bear similar flaws.
In a 2008 New Yorker article, he describes New Guinea tribes waging war over women. In the next breath, mentions the Greek myth of Helen of Troy, poetically described as the “face that launched a thousand ships” during the Trojan War. His new book describes Papuan tribal war on one page and, on the next, the infamous 19th-century Hatfield-McCoy blood feuds in West Virginia.
In profiling a Papua New Guinea citizen for The New Yorker — a man named Daniel Wemp described as orchestrating tribal killings — he wrote that “Daniel’s thirst for vengeance and his hostility to rival clans are really not so far from our own habits as we might like to think.”
But the recent critiques aren’t Diamond’s first brush with Papuan backlash.
Wemp has since claimed that he never mobilized his kin to attack rival tribes. The described conflict — which included accounts of bow-and-arrow warfare and kidnapped “comfort women” — was almost entirely fabricated, he said. He sued Diamond and The New Yorker for $45 million with the help of a friend, Mako J. Kuwimb, a Papua New Guinea lawyer schooled in Australia.
“We are not some unprincipled people without norms and morality attacking each other endlessly,” Kuwimb wrote in a formal request for apology and compensation. Diamond backed the story and The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, later told Science Magazine “it appears that The New Yorker and Jared Diamond are the subject of an unfair and, frankly, mystifying barrage of accusations.”
Diamond’s current crop of West Papuan detractors come from varied backgrounds: a mix of activists and Baptist leaders. But all are outspoken about human rights abuses in their Indonesia-controlled homeland.
Indonesia has a long history of violently quelling separatist factions across its scattered islands. In devoutly Islamic Aceh, conflict with insurgents racked up roughly 15,000 deaths; in East Timor, human rights violations tallied roughly 100,000 deaths, according to the Human Rights Data Analysis Group.
Diamond's new book "cannot be separated from the efforts of Indonesia to destroy and wipe out the Papuan people," said Rev. Socratez Yoman from the United Baptist Churches in West Papua in a statement. "The author is conveying information which destroys [our] good name."
Diamond, indisputably the best-known writer focusing on New Guinea, has meanwhile cracked the New York Times’ top ten best-seller list with “The World Until Yesterday.”
"Many people become famous, calling themselves experts, at the same trying to use us as an object," Wenda told GlobalPost. "We are not objects. We are humans."