The book covers the 1945 crash of an army aircraft in what was nicknamed Shangri-La in the mountains of western Papua New Guinea, a valley untouched by Western civilization till 1938 and really till the 1950's. It serves as a miniature case study.
There are many in Western academia who are eager to lay all modern ills at the feet of Western Civilization. To an extent, that is understandable as the West has been at the vanguard of most economic, social, technological, scientific and other changes which have so enhanced life around the world in the past five hundred years. But those advances, even when ultimately beneficial, almost always came at the cost of strife, disruption, unintended consequences and occasionally violence.
The critics believe that Western Civilization in general and colonialism in particular were especially at fault for the negative consequences attendant to modernization. Alternatively, and I would count myself in this camp, others argue that the issue was not Western Civilization per se or even colonialism, but rather simply the consequence of the wrenching process of moving from ancient hunter gatherer societal structures and economies into the modern, industrial, knowledge economy. The transition might be handled more or less well but would always be substantially traumatic.
Shangri-La never experienced colonialism per se. The inhabitants were untouched by either technology or colonial rule or the modern economy until the 1950s. With integration into the modern world happening so late and skipping all the earlier issues of ignorance and colonialism, did that transition occur with any greater ease or better outcomes than those areas which were subject to colonialism and more rapacious mercantilism?
It would appear that the answer is no. The trauma has to do with the transition rather than with colonialism per se.
From the Epilogue, page 300, Zuckoff describes what happened after the 1945 rescue of the crash survivors.
FOUR MONTHS AFTER the rescue, Shangri-La and the "Grand Valley" discovered in 1938 by Richard Archbold were formally acknowledged to be one and the same. As the journal Science reported: "The identity of the valley came about through a comparison of photographs taken by the Army just before the survivors were rescued with airplane photographs taken by the Archbold expedition. The identity is acknowledged by the Army, and particularly by Colonel Ray T. Elsmore, who directed the recent rescue operations."None of this is to say that bad things did not happen, that individuals and even groups of individuals did not routinely find ways of exploiting the Dani in the Grand Valley. What this suggests though is that there are terrible costs to remaining in a stone-age culture (annual death rates through endemic warfare of 1-2% for one thing) and that there are terrible costs to transitioning from a stone-age set of circumstances toward a modern set of circumstances. Colonialism per se had little or nothing to do with it.
Archbold never returned to New Guinea, never married, and never engaged in further exotic expeditions. He devoted the remainder of his life, and his considerable fortune, to the Archbold Biological Station, a five-thousand-acre preserve near Lake Placid, Florida, dedicated to ecological research and conservation. He died in 1976 at sixty-nine.
JUST AS THE Uluayek legend foretold, a new age dawned after the return of the sky spirits. Changes in the valley during the ensuing decades have been dramatic, but whether for better or worse is a matter of debate.
Spurred in part by news stories about the natives during coverage of the Gremlin Special rescue, Christian missionaries established camps in the valley in the decade after the war. They flew in aboard new amphibious planes that could land and take off from a straight stretch of the Baliem River. After initially reacting with hostility, in time a majority of native families accepted Christianity. Today, more than a dozen large churches dot the valley's one town of any size, Wamena, a dusty former Dutch government post with trash-strewn streets and a population of ten thousand and rising. Wamena is also now the site of a small airport; aircraft remain the only way in and out, but the valley's former isolation has surrendered to regularly scheduled flights.
After the missionaries came Indonesian troops, who arrived in force in the 1960s and '70s, after the Netherlands ended colonial control over the western half of New Guinea. Dutch New Guinea is now an Indonesian province called Papua. (The eastern half of the island of New Guinea is a separate country, called, confusingly, Papua New Guinea.) Hollandia has been renamed Jayapura. Shangri-La is now the Baliem Valley.
Tribal affiliations remain intact among valley people, but natives throughout the province are collectively called Papuans. A low-intensity independence movement has sputtered along seeking a "Free Papua." But hundreds of miles from the Baliem Valley, mining companies are extracting major gold and copper deposits. The Indonesian government has no intention of ceding control over Papua or its resources.
Years of persuasion by missionaries and force by Indonesian authorities put an end to the perpetual wars that formerly defined native life in the Baliem Valley. But an absence of war has also meant an absence of strong leaders, and peace hasn't meant prosperity. The province has the highest rates of poverty and AIDS in Indonesia. Health care is woeful, and aid workers say school is a sometimes thing for valley children. The Indonesian government provides financial support, but much of the money ends up in the hands of nonnative migrants who run virtually all the businesses of Wamena.
Elderly native men in penis gourds walk through Wamena begging for change and cigarettes. Some charge a small fee to pose for photos, inserting boar tusks through passages in their nasal septums to look fierce. More often, they look lost.
One village near Wamena earns money by displaying a mummified ancestor to the few tourists who obtain special government permits to visit the valley. Younger men and women have largely abandoned penis gourds and twine skirts. Instead they wear Western castoff shorts and T-shirts with unfamiliar logos and images. In February 2010, a young man walked toward his remote village wearing a T-shirt that displayed a portrait of Barack Obama. Asked if he knew the identity of the man on his shirt, he smiled shyly and said no.
Robert Gardner, a documentary filmmaker who first visited the valley in 1961 to film the Dani people in their original state, despairs at the changes during the past half century. "They were warriors and independent people," he said. "Now they're serfs in their own country." Others, however, say the transition to modern ways, though difficult, will eventually lead to improved opportunities and standards of living.
Outside Wamena, large parts of the landscape remain unchanged from scenes depicted in photographs taken by Earl Walter and the movie made by Alex Cann. Families still live in thatch-roofed huts and grow sweet potatoes and other root crops, and they still count their wealth in pigs.