Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Book Review

Just for a little change of pace, I thought I’d write a book review. Not really about museums, except in passing, and certainly not about paleontology. Instead, it harks back to the time before I was a paleontologist (which some people might argue has never ended).

Last week, a book arrived at my house. I was excited, because I had been waiting for this book for nearly twenty years. Not literally, like I’d bought the book twenty years ago and it had taken this long to get here. That would have been miraculous, but I’d probably have been pissed off rather than excited. No, I had been trying to acquire a copy of this book ever since a friend of mine showed it to me back in 1989.

It turned out to have been printed in quite small numbers, and by the time the era of used books on the internet rolled around the few copies available were selling for outrageous sums of money. However, a few weeks ago, through the miracle of Abebooks, I managed to find one at a price that would not leave my family on the streets. Its name is “The Lost World of Irian Jaya” and the author was a man named Robert Mitton.

If you go looking for references to Bob Mitton (which are, sadly, hard to find) you’ll often see him described as a geologist, and it is true that he spent much of his short professional life working for mining companies. But Mitton was much more than a geologist and a much, much more interesting person than this shorthand description would suggest. If the fates had been kinder, I think he would be quite well known today as an author, photographer, ethnographer, natural historian, and explorer. His story is as fascinating and as sad as the country in which he worked.

Irian Jaya is one of the names that was given to the western half of the island of New Guinea; over the years it has also been called Dutch New Guinea, West Papua, West Irian, Irian Barat, and Papua, which is the name it has now. New Guinea itself is over 1,000 miles long, most of which is taken up with a precipitous chain of mountains that rises to over 15,000 feet, the highest peaks between the Himalayas and the Andes. The flat bits that surround these are mostly swampy and the whole lot is covered in dense rainforest.

In the eastern half of the island, which forms part of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, there are broad, high altitude valleys suitable for agriculture. But in the West, the mountains are for the most part pierced only by deep, steep sided gorges. The Dutch made few efforts to penetrate into the interior until it became apparent that it was a geological treasure trove with extensive deposits of gold, copper, and oil. The Dutch weren’t the only ones to notice this, and in the 1950s neighboring Indonesia began to loudly agitate about putting an end to Dutch colonialism in the region.

Panicked at the thought of losing control of all that natural wealth, the Dutch launched an ambitious (for which read “virtually impossible”) program to grant full independence to West Papua by 1970. Instead they were comprehensively outmaneuvered by the Indonesians, who in 1963 persuaded the US to back a move to Indonesian control by the simple gambit of threatening to turn to the Soviets for support if America didn’t force the Dutch out. So the unhappy West Papuans passed from European colonialism to Javan colonialism, which they have been fighting against on and off for the past forty years.

This was all fairly recent history when Bob Mitton first arrived in West Irian in 1971. He’d graduated with an arts degree from Monash University in 1970, where he’d studied anthropology and geography. Officially, he worked as a camp manager for various mining companies who were prospecting in the region, but his great energy and physical and mental toughness meant that he was frequently sent out into the field to survey as well. He soon discovered that

Irian Jaya is such a raw field academically. I have often found that a passing interest will soon throw you into the region of discovery. Very disconcerting; one minute you’re reading up the available literature, the next you’re looking over your shoulder wondering where you go from here.”

Mitton was able to use the considerable resources of his employers to get into some of the most remote and inaccessible corners of the province. This was largely uncharted territory, where tribal war and cannibalism were still comparatively commonplace. He quickly became absorbed with collecting artifacts (now part of the collections of Sydney’s Macleay Museum) and photographing the people and country. He was a polymath, who was more than capable of covering such diverse interests as Pleistocene glaciations, archaeology, and art styles. By 1974 he was writing

I am feeling my way into the world of museums… I feel I should make the break away from mining as there is little in it apart from money.”

The paradox of Mitton’s work was that he was aware that the cultures he was documenting were dying out under the impact of external forces that he was himself a part of. He felt guilty that the artifacts he had collected were no longer available to local people. Irian Jaya had flourished in isolation – now that same isolation was threatening to destroy the province’s unique environment and culture because not enough was known about what made it unique and the forces that were conspiring to destroy it.

The answer, Mitton believed, was a book – a book that would bring the Irian Jaya, its people, and their varied and diverse cultures to a much wider audience. Unfortunately time was against him. In April 1976, making what would be his last trip to the spectacular Balim Valley, he wrote

It is probably the last chance I get… the Balim Valley is as close to Paradise as one could get…. The whole journey saddened me tremendously… when I left I was utterly heartbroken.”
A year later he was dead from leukemia. He was only 30 years old.

The story might have ended there, had not Mitton’s prodigious energy and enthusiasm deemed otherwise. Although hospitalized and extremely ill, he managed to sketch out a plan for his book and select the photographs he wanted to use.

I have decided to highlight the people and land of the Balim Sirets River because of the incredible variety: there are five distinct cultural groups and areas along the course of the river from the headwaters of the Balim, through the unique Grand Valley, the Balim Gorge and out onto the plains and eventually to where the river meets the sea along the central Asmat coast.”

Ultimately there was enough material for his friends and colleagues to pull together a manuscript for publication. This was “The Lost World of Irian Jaya” which was finally published 6 years after his death, in 1983. It is a spectacular work – an amazing photographic record of the peoples of this region, augmented by Mitton’s detailed notes, diaries, and letters. Strangely, these excerpts in Mitton’s own voice - opinionated, amusing, sometimes self-righteous, and occasionally contradictory - have a warmth and vitality that might not have come through in a more conventionally authored work.

And yet… you can’t read the book without wondering. What more could Mitton have done had he not died so young? What kind of an advocate could he have been for the people and environment of western New Guinea, which continues to be ravaged by the combined effects of mining, forest clearance, missionaries, and the Indonesian army? You can't look at the picture of the smiling, bearded man in shorts, perched with a couple of New Guinean friends on a rock high above the Balim Gorge, and not be haunted by the thoughts of what might have been.

Mitton, R. (1983). The Lost World of Irian Jaya. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 235pp. ISBN 0-19-554368-8

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