There’s a viral video doing the rounds — an edit, set to music, of footage from a documentary about a stone-age tribe in Papua New Guinea making contact with modern humans for the first time. It’s an astounding thing to watch. The Toulambis, as they are known, trepidatiously approach the modern man on the opposite riverbank, walking across a makeshift “bridge that spans the ages” he’s laid across the river. The fear and wonder is palpable — one easily reads it on their faces, and supposes that they’re not sure if what they’re seeing is real or an illusion, a god or a man, or perhaps even the undead. Once they finally establish a tentative trust, they are further awed by the simple gifts he offers, like matches and a mirror. Watch:
The nine of you that follow me on Twitter may have seen this video already, and I also took time to show it to my children to help them understand the world from which we emerged nearly 12,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Neolithic. To show them the common bonds of humanity that connect us through the ages, to teach them about the miraculous progress we’ve made in that short span. To open their world in the same way the Toulambis’ world was opened when contact was made. It all felt very profound and enlightened, making me the kind of profound, enlightened parent my vain self-image demanded. Yet it was an illusion: the video is fake and I was duped.
Rather than wallow in my embarrassment, I figured I’d do something constructive and analyze where I went wrong — call out the signposts I missed along the way so that I might spot them in the future. And, by doing so publicly here, to offer something of a skeptical object lesson for our readers.
The Problem of the Edit
In retrospect, I should have seen it coming, because there were things that bothered me about the video from the start. The first was the ethics of it all — I quickly surmised that the man making contact was not an anthropologist, but a filmmaker — one Jean-Pierre Dutilleux — and wondered whether it was right for a non-professional to be doing such a thing. Yet I parked those concerns, realizing they were more informed by Star Trek’s prime directive than any personal knowledge of the ethics of anthropology. Also, the article that had referred me to the video said it was filmed in the 1970’s, so I figured that the standards may well have been different 40 years ago.
The second thing that bothered me about the edit was the music. Yes it was cheesy, but it was also clearly designed to ratchet up the emotional impact of what was being presented. But I chalked this up to human nature — after all, the footage itself was impressive and begged deep insights into our humanity, so it’s no surprise that whoever did the edit would want to wring that for all it was worth.
If I’d listened to either of those nagging suspicions then and there — if I’d practiced the metacognition I often preach in these pages — I would have saved myself some real embarrassment. That’s Lesson 1 from the Toulambis. Still, I was at least bothered enough that I wanted to see the original, unedited version, which proved to be my saving grace. So Lesson 2 is to always, always check the primary source.
Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find. It came from a 1998 documentary called Tribal Journeys, based on footage shot in 1993. Wait – wasn’t this supposed to be from the ’70’s? No bother, I rationalized, probably just a careless error on the part of the linking site. I’d found the source now and eagerly started watching, another warning beacon successfully ignored
Part 1 of the video wasn’t exactly what I was expecting though. Heavily narrated, it had the feel of a 1940’s newsreel, and the commentary about the Toulambis dripped with an almost bemused condescension. “Jean-Pierre now offers the Toulambis their first matches, but they have no idea how to use them.” Har har har, those crazy savages. It would have struck me as anachronistic even if the video actually had been from the ’70’s, but as a product of the last two decades it was cringingly out of place.
[As an aside, I later found out that the narrator - whose voice I recognized from other work -- was Chuck Riley, a longtime voiceman who also did radio stints on Winnipeg’s CKY and Toronto’s CHUM-FM in the 60’s and 70’s].
Dutilleux’s own narration in this section is less offensive than Riley’s, so I was pleased to hear Riley state at the beginning of Part 2 that “The footage you are seeing is unedited. The only addition is the voice of Jean-Pierre.” The video, while it didn’t look completely unedited, did contain much of the raw footage from which the musical edit was sourced, with fairly matter-of-fact commentary by Dutilleux.
And I was right there with him until about 10:20, when he started to editorialize: “This feels like a meeting in a time warp. Perhaps these Toulambis, with their wooden spears and stone axes, are the living ancestors of we, who have learned to fly without wings, talk with the stars, and destroy our own planet.” Huh? When did this become about the planet?
And then Riley’s voice is back all of a sudden: “The bravest warrior wants to know more about the gift of firesticks from one of the living dead. But he discovers the phosphorous on the matches tastes awful.” Silly warrior, sticks are for…whatever, I’m getting annoyed now…and finally a bit suspicious.
And it doesn’t end: “The long, soft hair of the Caucasian is clearly another wonder of the world.” And in Part 3: “Metal plates, pots and pans are another wonder. Rice is totally unknown! Sanjuga inspects it suspiciously…Instead of the customary scoop-shaped leaf, Jean-Pierre offers Sanjuga a spoon, but it’s the rice that causes all the head-banging!”
I was just about totally “gaaah” by this point, and clicked play on Part 4 as trepidatiously as the Toulambis had walked across Dutilleux’s bridge. Justifiably, it turned out:
Dutilleux: For hundreds of generations, life for the Toulambis has revolved around their eternal quest for sustenance. It gives them no time to create complex art or a written language, to develop science or conceive profound metaphysical philosophies. Nor has their endless and simplest form of consumerism led to overpopulation, environmental destruction, or the threat of nuclear extermination.
Riley: They can at least still drink *their* rivers.
It was too much, and I was no longer buying it. Clearly this documentary was not really about the Toulambis, but a commentary on the modern world — the Toulambis were merely bit players in what was now obviously a polemic. Lesson 3: beware of ideology, because it usually sits in opposition to truth.
I finished out the fifth part of the series and immediately hit Google.
First, Dutilleux. I’d already realized that he was not an anthropolgist, but the documentary, which he wrote, produced and directed, specifically presents him as an “ethnographer”. If he’s got such credentials, he’s unusually modest about them, and it wasn’t clear that he was practicing any ethnographic method. The only thing he seemed to be beyond a filmmaker was an environmental activist, and it was clear to me by this point that the two were intertwined.
Second, the Toulambis. They were indeed a real tribe in Papua New Guinea, but this was not their first contact. Anthropologist Pierre Lemonnier’s 1999 paper The Hunt for the Authentic: Stories of a Stone Age Out of Context shows that they were photographed by three others prior to Dutilleux (in 1987, 1985, and 1979) and visited by at least 6 other expeditions between 1929 and 1972. Lemonnier was one of nine academics to publicly decry the inaccurate and racist nature of the documentary when it first aired on France’s TF1. So what of the natives trembling with fear, unable to believe their eyes? Lemonnier believes they’re acting.
Why would they do it? No one knows for sure except the tribesmen and Dutilleux, who remains adamant that “If the Toulambis are actors, they deserve a Caesar“. But it just doesn’t add up – the evidence for past contact is well documented, and Dutilleux’ activist stance is readily apparent. This “documentary” is a political statement of Michael Moore proportions.
Perhaps Dutilleux knowingly solicited the Toulambis’ help in constructing a narrative for his own purposes. Or perhaps he’s not lying, and the tribesmen simply sized him up on first meeting. In either event, the Final Lesson from the Toulambis is this: that humans, more savvy than savage, live on both sides of the “bridge that spans the ages,” ready to sell us what we most want to buy.
I’d bet a box of firesticks on it.