Life in the Stone Age

UNDER THE MOUNTAIN WALL: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age, by Peter Matthiessen, Viking, 256 pp., $7.50.

This is a book that would have annoyed Rousseau; probably he would have accused the writer of bias, and of seeing modern civilized evils in the simple life of primitive man. For Under the Mountain Wall presents a picture of stone age existence in New Guinea that is filled with just as much anxiety, anguish and striving as the life of any modern city dweller.

The book, representing the first published material from the 1961 Harvard Peabody expedition, is a remark-piece of writing. Texts on primitive man are generally of two varieties: the standard, jargon-crammed ethnographies, and the informal, mildly sensational accounts of "my three years trapped among the savage head-hunters." This book is neither; diary-like, it instead relates incidents occurring among the Kurelu tribe over a seven month period. Its purpose is to give a non-technical account of the way these people live, to give with quiet dignity a feeling of what it is like to be a stone age man.

The task is not easy, for the Kurelu lead a life so different from that of Western man that his culture must seem totally irrational and paradoxical. They are an agricultural people, and warfare is an important element in their lives. But it is a different kind of warfare, fought on strange terms with odd rules.

A major battle is a time for pageantry as much as fighting; a conflict is an all-day affair, beginning in early morning (see the picture above) with with a bloodless clash of small groups. At this time, individuals in battle finery prance about and exchange taunts and insults. Later in the morning, reinforcements from the outlying villages join the initial parties and a few arrows are shot casually, but the battle remains essentially verbal. Gradually, as the day wears on, more arrows and spears are thrown; warriors on both sides are wounded and finally someone is killed. When this happens the conflict begins to subside. The numbers diminish as men return home and the groups slowly separate. The victors leave shouting final insults, while the losers vociferously announce their intentions of revenge.

If such ritualized warfare, with its lack of emphasis on large numbers of casualties seems inexplicable to modern observers, the Kurelu pattern of revenge must be comfortingly familiar. Revenge for these people is a serious and bloodthirsty business, and it takes a form completely different from that of open warfare. Revenge is taken by a small raiding party, which slips into enemy territory and slaughters one of the offending opposition. It is better, more prestigious, to avenge a death by killing a warrior, but it is not necessary. A child, or a woman working in the fields will do well. If the raid is successful, the other side is honor bound to revenge the attack--and so the unending pattern goes on.


Even within a tribe, there is a constant struggle for power and prestige that Rousseau would have found disconcerting. The physical strength, and political influence of each man in the tribe is carefully assessed by the others, and a man with neither is likely to have a hard time. His pigs will be stolen, his wife will be raped, he will be insulted in any number of ways unless he is able to defend himself. Nor can he stand on past glories--a strong warrior must prove his prowess in every battle, or his prestige will soon dissolve away.

It is not an idyllic life. While they are not indiscriminantly savage and violent, the Kurelu cannot be said to be living the peaceful, stressless existence the romanticists had postulated.

In the past, the primitive life has been portrayed wistfully by Western thinkers in various ways. Rousseau saw it as freedom from the corruptions of civilization; Freud saw it as freedom from restrictive Victorian sexual morality. More recently and more subtly men like Riesman have implied a relative lack of anxiety in a simple, unchanging social situation. In one way or another, men have longed for the stable uncomplicated primitive life, whether it be on a South Sea island or in a Neo-lithic farming community. The ford myth of an effortless Eden dies hard, stubbornly resisting the evidence of numerous expeditions of this kind. It is too dear a dream to be extinguished by mere facts.