Lessons from the Toulambis, a Stone Age Tribe

 

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

Primary Sources

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.

Digging Deeper

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.

15 Responses to “Lessons from the Toulambis, a Stone Age Tribe”

  1. AmandaGal says:

    This site is really neat:
    http://www.uncontactedtribes.org/

    I haven’t done much research into it, but those uncontacted tribe videos seem more real than this one anyway and much more interesting. I’ve seen this video and figured it was a fake. It just seems to “fakey.” Like you’d expect contact in a movie. Something about it turned on the skeptic in me (probably because someone sent it to me in an email forward. Those are 99.9% fake).

  2. DaveDave says:

    Using intuition to call something fake isn’t a legitimate source. Not providing legitimate sources does not make for quality writing.

    I don’t normally comment on blogs, but when I do, I prefer the authors to do it right.

    • Dianne Sousa says:

      Can you identify where Erik has used intuition, as opposed to following red flags for skepticism? The edited clip above was presented as a first contact when it isn’t. Erik provided a reference that outlines this.

      I’m going to speculate a little and suggest that there isn’t much of a information base to form an expectation of how a group of previously uncontacted people would behave in a situation like the above. At least not one that is readily available to someone who isn’t an anthropologist. That fact alone should raise considerable skepticism about the validity of the footage.

      • Scott K says:

        Erik has used intuition for almost the entire article. When I first saw the music laden version of the video, I was curious as to the origin of the footage. The video was obviously put together with the silly music by someone after the fact. The musical version has nothing to do with the original documentary.

        He basically goes on to say he doesn’t like the tone of the voice overs on the actual documentary. And, because the documentary is making a commentary on the modern world, the footage must be faked somehow.

        The actual evidence Erik uses isn’t brought in until almost the end of the article when he mentions records that this tribe had human contact before this video. OK, great. Some real information. The problem is, unless Erik failed to mention it, the original documentary never makes the claim that this is the tribes first contact with other humans. Only the musical viral video version makes this claim.

        Also, it’s fairly clear that even if some members of the tribe had made some contact years earlier, the particular members in this video react with cautious curiosity as if this is an extraordinary event for them. Regardless of the documentary maker’s message, it’s clear these particular people have had extremely minimal or no contact at all with outsiders.

        Maybe they are acting, and the whole thing is a fake, but Erik hasn’t done anything to prove that beyond citing another person’s opinion on the matter. Of the 20 or so paragraphs of this article only one really presents any data.

      • Erik Davis says:

        I’m afraid I may not have been clear in the intention of this piece. It’s not really about the evidence for first contact with the Toulambis — that’s pretty clearly laid out in the paper and articles I reference at the end. I’m not an anthropologist, so my opinion on whether it’s real or fake is irrelevant — but experts in the field believe it’s inconsistent with what we know of the Toulambis.

        Rather, this piece was about the fact that I was really deep into “buying” the video before it occurred to me to check its veracity, despite many signs along the way that should have caused me to be suspicious earlier. This was a failure of metacognitive monitoring, as I’d had several cognitions during my viewing of both the edit and the original that I quickly rationalized away. If I’d been more actively monitoring my thinking, I would have caught those signals and been skeptical earlier.

        The music should have made me curious why someone wanted to increase the emotional resonance, or perhaps why someone wanted to replace the original soundtrack. The ethical question of a filmmaker making first contact rather than an anthropologist should have made me question his professionalism. The anachronistic narration should have made me wonder why someone would want to promote tired tropes about noble savages. The director’s apparent political motivations should have clued me in (well, eventually did clue me in) to the fact that this may not be a neutral presentation of fact.

        Which is different from saying that any of those signals are themselves evidence of wrongdoing — they’re merely markers commonly found when something’s fishy. The more aware of them we are — via active metacognitive monitoring, the more likely we are to decide to look for corroborating evidence — which is the fundamental action we take as skeptics. When I fail at that, I try to look at where I went wrong in order to get better — in this article I did so publicly, thinking it might be instructive to more than just me.

        Intuition, by contrast, is a passive process. If we’re only skeptical intuitively, we’ll be wrong more of the time.

  3. Clif says:

    I am interested to know about this group. I have worked in Papua New Guinea and know someone else who worked in the Gulf province where the people in this film look very similar. That person does not recall any neighboring language by that name. I cannot find any information about a language group called Toulambis in linguistic literature. I have tried several sources, and have turned up nothing about the existence of such a group. Also, as far as I know today, there are no “unknown” groups in PNG. So it seems odd that such a language name is unknown in the linguistic literature. Any thoughts?

    • Vicky says:

      That 1999 article by Pierre Lemonnier Erik links to says they’re not known by that name. It is in French and mine is kind of rusty so I can’t guarantee my interpretation is accurate, but from what I understand they’re known as Yoye Amara and are part of the ankave tribe. Hope that helps.

  4. K. Hearnen says:

    It was also interesting how tribesman were constantly looking at the camera for the most part.

  5. Bogeymama says:

    Just finished a new book, “Lost in Shangri-La” which documented a plane crash in 1945, into the heart of New Guinea. Contact with various tribes are documented very well in this book, and this group looks very similar to those that were photographed back in 1945. Very interesting book – and daring rescue in the mountains by gliders! The crash survivors and paratroopers were believed to be “spirits” heralding the end of the world.

  6. Charles Charlseon says:

    That’s the stupidest article I’ve ever read, you’re reaching so much it’s painful to read, absolutely cringe worthy. I know this comment wont get published but I take great satisfaction in knowing you’re reading it.

  7. John Rodgers says:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12360013

    I suggest you read “Lords of the Earth”and “Peace Child”by Don Richardson. He was personally with a similar tribe in New Guinea for several years.
    In 2008 I worked in northern Alberta Canada. There I met an Inuit (eskimo) from Bafin Island. They knew little of the outside world until Canada began registering them in the early “50′s”. She said her mother remembers seeing a mirror for the first time. She went to school wearing home made seal skin boots and parka, ate raw seal and whale. Learned to speak English in school.
    The compelling thing about us is that we are so naive to think them as savages because they haven’t been exposed to our way of life. We are naive too as we think they are somehow free in their innocence. They are basically as all people with the same basic worries, needs and wants. They are free of global worries, but they still have their ego’s to deal with and their consciences to either excuse them or condemns. We, like them want to love, be loved, be respected, have a family and live after our physical death. Leave them in the culture, but lets see more than that.
    Watch the movie again; this time look at who they are and even look at the sores and other skin conditions; see the worried look on the mothers faces as they look at their children. You can find it on this site:

    http://www.videoman.gr/7402

  8. John Rodgers says:

    There seems to be concern that this tribe had met outsiders before. How many villages made up the tribe? If even there are only a few villages that exist then most of the tribe could have easily missed meeting any outsiders.
    I met and talked with a German “Klaus” who spent some 30 years with a tribe on the west end of the same island (New Guinea Island) Irian Jaya. He was the first white man they’d seen, but he was with several dark skinned people for the first meeting. Klau had to go through 7 interpreters to communicate with them. Klau lived in only one village all those years and met very few of the several hundred others who lived in their scattered villages.
    Having spent days at a time “isolated” in the Amazon jungle I know it can be very confining and reclusive.

    Brazil is still finding new tribes in the Amazon rain forest. Their government department for this anticipates finding several more. And they are looking for them…to protect them from us with our diseases and selfish ambitions.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12360013

  9. ksdfl says:

    thinking of these people as “primitive savages” or “examples of men from the stone age” is fucked up, I get what you’re going for, but to think of these people as archaic and of yourself as modern is just so stupid. It makes you sound like an arrogant colonialist, and it’s funny because their way of life is probably much more suited to the world and in a way much less savage than what is considered modern subsistence. of course this guy isnt an anthropologist! NO ONE in anthropology would treat a group of people that they are studying like that, giving them “new” technology, or manipulating their spiritual beliefs for the camera. revolted. go learn something

  10. Salmus says:

    Thanks Erik for postinf this. My friend was very touched by this but I immediately thought it was acted. It seemed strange that from the beginning they where touching their OWN skin, already on the bridge and later, closer to the white man, checking out their own body like some idiots.

    Why would they do that? They know how their own skin looks like and feels like and if the white guy looks strange to them, they wouldn’t have to compare it by looking at and touching their own skin for several times, already from a distance. They would probably only think that it looks strange, unless they would want to make their thoughts clear to someone else, that they are amazed by the color of his skin. That is, make it clear to the documentary viewers. Their gestures and way of being was somehow unnatural, too obvious, too easily readable, too silly (considering that these people have lived in the woods and survived there for thousands of years by knowing very well what is safe and what is not, they wouldn’t stick an alien object like the match in their mouths within the first minutes they meet a total stranger with unexplainable objects)

    I’m sure that the real first encounters have been much more exciting, much more strange, not so predictable and a much more with respective and careful curiosity.

    And the comments of the diretor where just lame and stupid – this guy has certainly no background with anthropology.

  11. David Graham says:

    “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.”

    While this is true, it does not prove anything one way or another with respect to the group seen in the video clip.

    First, given the short average life span of such stone age peoples, it could very well be that none of the people who had contact with outsiders between 1929 and 1972 was still alive at the time of the film footage shot in 1993.

    Second, and far more importantly, there might very well have been several groups of people known as “Toulambis” or “Yoye Amara.” As the correspondent Vicky pointed out, they are “part of the ankave tribe,” with the key word being “part.” The group appearing in this video might or might not have been part of the same group photographed in 1979, 1985, and 1987.

    By way of analogy, in Ecuador, there is a well known jungle tribe called the Waorani/Waodani. However, the tribe consists of over two dozen different groups scattered throughout the rainforest. Collectively, they are known as “the” Waorani, but the fact is that historically most groups were isolated, without much contact with others groups of the Waorani (except for incidents like spearing raids).

    Papua New Guinea, after all, is known for its high number of languages/people groups. The mountainous jungle geography there does a very effective job of isolating peoples from each other.

    So whether there are several groups which the outside world refers to as “the” Toulambis/Yoye Amara I don’t know (and perhaps no one does). But the fact that at least some members from what is called the Toulambis/Yoye Amara group had contact with outsiders in the past doesn’t argue one way or another for whether the particular group depicted in this film by Dutilleux had had previous contact with the outside world. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn’t.

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis