Last of the Cave People

A nomadic people in Papua New Guinea were rumored to be living in remote caves in the forest. When we found them, they sent a surprising message to the modern world.

This story appears in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

She is lying in a cave, dying. Legs and arms but knobby sticks, Lidia Maiyu is curled up close to the campfire. Her eyes are wide in apprehension of death. She coughs, her body convulses, and she cries out in pain. Lidia is perhaps 15 years old, she isn't sure. Three months ago she gave birth, and the baby died; the group left the body in a cave and moved on. Pasu Aiyo, Lidia's husband, tells me this is what happens. "When you get sick, you get better or you die."

But for the glow from the campfire, it is impenetrably dark. Never are there stars, as if that would be too much to hope for. Instead, beyond the rock overhang, it's pouring, waves of water relentlessly slapping the giant fronds of the jungle. It always seems to rain at night here in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. This is why Lidia and what's left of her people, the Meakambut, seek refuge in rock shelters—they're dry. Located high in the cliffs, sometimes requiring a treacherous climb up vines, caves are also natural fortresses that once protected the Meakambut from their enemies: headhunters and cannibals and bride stealers. But that was generations ago. Now their enemies are less violent yet no less deadly: malaria, tuberculosis.

Pasu shoos away Biyi, their hunting dog, and sits down by the fire. He smooths his leaf loincloth and rests Lidia's head in his lap. She peers up at him wanly. Pasu gravely tells his brother John to ask us if there is anything we can do.

We—a team from National Geographic—have unwittingly walked into a crisis. Our plan, to follow the Meakambut, one of the last cave-dwelling, seminomadic peoples in Papua New Guinea, through their mountainous homeland, has been eclipsed by the present emergency. A member of our team, trained as an emergency medical technician, examines Lidia and discovers that her lungs are filled with fluid, her heart is thrumming at 140 beats a minute, and her temperature is 104. He determines that Lidia likely has a life-threatening case of pneumonia and gives her double doses of antibiotics and Tylenol. We coax her to drink a cup of sterilized water mixed with sugar and salt, sit her up for the night in her husband's arms so she can breathe more easily, and suggest that first thing in the morning she should be carried out of the mountains, then downriver, to a clinic in the village of Amboin. Two other Meakambut, Michael Wakinjua and his infant son, are also seriously ill.

One man from our team, Sebastian Haraha, is an ethnographer who has come on this journey to pinpoint the exact locations of the Meakambut's caves with a global positioning system. He hopes to register them under the National Cultural Property Act, so the homeland of the Meakambut will be protected from logging and mining. Now, in this moment of crisis, he volunteers to escort the sick all the way down.

At dawn Lidia is gasping for air. We administer more medicine and give Pasu a week's supply of pills. He bundles Lidia's lax body into a bilum, or net bag, and slings her onto his back. Sebastian helps Michael, while Michael's wife carries their listless baby on her back. Like wounded refugees from a jungle war, they depart single file down the slippery path. It will take them six hours to machete their way to the Manbungnam River, where we have a dugout canoe with an outboard motor waiting. From there it's another six hours downstream to reach the clinic. We have little hope that Lidia will live.

The vast geographic variation of Papua New Guinea created tremendous biological diversity, which in turn was accompanied by enormous cultural diversity: more than 800 languages in a country about the size of California. Due to this diversity, after colonial powers prohibited headhunting, cannibalism, and tribal warfare beginning in the 1880s, the region became a draw for both missionaries and anthropologists. Margaret Mead made her name here, as did Gregory Bateson (Mead's third husband) and, more recently, the writer Jared Diamond.

Today the whole country continues to conjure images of headhunters with bows and arrows, and bones through their noses. But that's about as accurate as imagining the American West filled with Indians still taking scalps. Many photos of feathered and painted Papua New Guineans come from tourist exhibitions akin to Native American powwows.

It is only in the most deeply inaccessible regions of the country that enclaves of traditionally nomadic people, like the Meakambut, still exist. The group lives on two steep ridges hidden on the edge of the expansive northern escarpment of the Central Range. Boundaries between their land and the territories of surrounding settlements—Imboin, Awim, Andambit, Kanjimei, and Namata—are roughly demarked. Their territory is about a hundred square miles.

The Meakambut were unknown to the outside world until the 1960s, when Australian patrols began to trek into the country's most ferocious topography. In 1991 Slovenian anthropologist Borut Telban spent a week in the area and found only 11 Meakambut living in roughly built shelters and caves. He recounted that the men wore kina-shell necklaces and leaf loincloths, and the women wore grass skirts. When Telban returned in 2001, he couldn't locate them again. But the related Awim people knew that the Meakambut were still up there somewhere. Only three generations back the Awim had also followed a nomadic lifestyle, but they have since settled beside the Arafundi River to gain access to schools and clinics.

In hopes of meeting up with these last seminomadic holdouts, an anthropological researcher named Nancy Sullivan sent out a team in July 2008 to find the Meakambut and inventory their caves. Sullivan, who runs a consulting firm in Papua New Guinea that conducts social assessments for development projects, is studying the region's cave paintings—hand stencils that record generations of inhabitants. With blue eyes and flowing white-blond hair, Sullivan bears a passing resemblance to Meryl Streep. She has lived in Papua New Guinea for more than two decades and has adopted a number of local children. Sullivan's team discovered 52 surviving Meakambut and 105 caves with names, only a score of which were actively used as shelters. They found clay pots, bone daggers, and hand stencils on the walls in nine caves, and human skulls in three. Many of the elderly had died.

To first search for the Meakambut, our team flies by bush plane into the Sepik River basin, the floodplain that drains northwest Papua New Guinea. We then skim up smaller and smaller tributaries in a motor dugout until we are pushing it more than riding in it. Finally we strike out on foot into the mountains.

Two evenings in a row we try reaching them by jungle telephone: Three men pound the two-story trunk of a towering tree with wooden bats, the deep-voiced thumps reverberating out over the canopy. When this doesn't work, we set out on a grueling two-day foot patrol to the group's last known whereabouts, Tembakapa, a collection of temporary huts perched on a misty ridge. It is deserted. In the middle of the huts is a wooden cross encircled with stones.

At noon the next day, two Meakambut men come striding into our camp—they've heard the call of the jungle phone. They recognize 26-year-old Joshua Meraveka, a member of Sullivan's team at the time, and greet him joyously, vigorously shaking his hand. He introduces them as John and Mark Aiyo—brothers, perhaps in their late 20s, both slight, muscled, with wide feet. John, a leader of the Meakambut, is wearing a blue Lakers jersey, a leaf loincloth, and a beaded headband festooned with yellow feathers. Mark has striped his face with charcoal and red clay and placed ferns in his hair and yellow flower petals in his black beard.

They lay down their bows and arrows and machetes, squat by the fire, and begin rolling tobacco leaves for a smoke. Because we are with Joshua, our presence doesn't seem to bother them. He explains they have Christian names because some of their people lived in villages for a time; one had gone to a Bible school and baptized them when he returned. John and Mark are from the 12-member Embarakal group, one of perhaps four that compose the Meakambut. The other three groups have had to leave to take their sick to a health clinic over the mountains (rather than to the one down the river). "Too many people sick," says John through Joshua. The rest of the Embarakal, some of whom are also very sick, he says, are coming down to a cave called Ulapunguna tomorrow to meet us.

We set out for Ulapunguna cave at nine the next morning, Mark in the lead. The trail is a web of vines, but Mark glides like a phantom right over them. He points his toes, like a ballerina, confidently gripping root, rock, or mud. Leeches are everywhere, and he stops periodically to shave them off his bare legs with his machete.

Finally we reach Ulapunguna, a rock overhang 40 feet high with fire pits and a quiver of arrows lined up against the wall. The featherless arrows are four feet long. Each has a point designed for a different prey. There are three arrows for fish, two for birds, two for pigs. When I ask how often they kill a pig, John says every week. It is clear he is proud to be a hunter. Mark says that "being a nomad is in our blood." And who is the intended prey for the arrow with a carved hardwood point and a foot of sharp, backward angling notches? Mark smiles, then thumps his chest once with his fist and dramatically falls over.

While waiting for the rest of the Embarakal to arrive, John begins to replace his bowstring and, through Joshua, explain cave life to me. The Meakambut spend several days to several weeks in any rock shelter or hut before moving on. The women and children plant taro, pumpkins, cucumbers, cassava, bananas, and tobacco, to be harvested the next time they pass through. The men hunt or help the women make flour from sago palms. He says they like their hunter-gatherer life and have no interest in changing it.

Each of their caves has an owner and a name, and ownership is passed down from father to son. Mark and John own Ulapunguna cave. Some caves have legends, which are strictly proprietary: Only the cave owner can share its secrets.

Plucking his new bamboo bowstring, John indicates for me to follow him. We track through the jungle to a clearing, where he points up at a massive limestone wall.

"Kopao," he says.

Kopao is the Meakambut's most sacred cave. It is their creation cave, where they believe they originated, and John says he is the owner of this cave too. He will take me there tomorrow. When we return to Ulapunguna, the rest of the group has arrived. This is when we first encounter Lidia, curled up by the fire, coughing horribly.

The following day, while the sick begin their long journey to the clinic, I head to Kopao cave with John and Joshua. The trail ascends a flash flood gulley, abruptly ending at a vertical face. Without hesitation, John starts climbing the slick black stone, his toes finding pockets in the limestone. Eventually he finds a small tree protruding perpendicular to the face, knots a vine around the trunk, and lowers the end to me. I climb up hand-over-hand, feet slipping against the wet wall. We monkey up two more bands of slimy rock via slick vines before I insist we use a rope. It takes us more than two hours to climb a thousand feet. We crawl through tree limbs hanging out in space. The final test is a tiptoe traverse along a glass-smooth ledge with nothing but an abyss of swirling mist beneath us.

On the other side is Kopao cave. We hunch beneath a low overhang and stumble into a gantlet of skulls. Human skulls. They are lined up as though they are whispering to each other. Their craniums have turned green and their dark, haunting eye sockets stare directly at intruders. John is conspicuously silent. He slides his machete into his bark belt. These are the skulls of his ancestors. The Meakambut may have Christian names, but they continue to engage in ancestor worship. As if trespassing, he delicately slips past the ossuary of skulls.

Farther along the cave are the paintings, red and black stencils of human hands. These are the prints of John's forebears. He doesn't know how old they are—they keep no record of time—but many of the prints have almost disappeared. Like the skulls, the hand stencils seem to be saying, Stop, turn around, leave now.

John leads me past the paintings to an eight-inch-wide crack in the ceiling. He stands beneath it and solemnly says that he will now tell the story of Kopao, but when he is done, we must leave immediately, quickly and silently.

In the beginning, Api, the Earth spirit, came to this place and found the rivers full of fish and the bush full of pigs, and many tall sago trees, but there were no people. Api thought: This would be a good place for people, so he cracked the cave open. The first people to pull themselves out were the Awim, and then the Imboin and other groups, and finally the Meakambut. They were all naked and could barely squeeze out into the light. Other people were inside, but after the Meakambut came out, Api closed the crack, and the others had to stay behind in darkness.

The Awim and the Imboin and the Meakambut spread across the mountains and lived in rock shelters. They made stone axes and bows and arrows, and the hunting was good. There was no hatred, no killing, no disease. Life was beautiful and calm, and all people had full stomachs.

At this time men and women lived in separate caves, John continues. In the evening, the men would go up to a special cave to sing. But one night a certain man pretended he was sick and stayed behind. When he could hear the men singing, he snuck down to the women's cave and had sex with a woman.

When the men returned, they sensed something was wrong. One man suddenly felt jealousy, another felt hatred, another felt anger, and another felt sadness. This is when man learned of all bad things. This is also when sorcery began.

The next morning, back in Ulapunguna, John is sitting on his haunches, hands over the fire, head down. There are no flowers or ferns in his curly black hair. He is deeply agitated.

Joshua says the spirits of Kopao came to John in the night. The skulls spoke to him. The black sockets had red eyes like some nocturnal bush creature. The skulls said they had seen John bring a white man into the sacred place. They had heard John tell the secret story to the white man, and they were angry. This was a story for the Meakambut, not for the white man.

John is worried that the spirits might punish him by killing Lidia. He has a bad feeling. He wants to leave immediately, run out of the mountains to the river and paddle downstream to wherever she is. I am to blame for his fears and feel as if I have betrayed these people.

Belief in sorcery and witchcraft is common throughout Papua New Guinea. Amnesty International cites media reports stating that 50 people accused of sorcery were murdered in 2008; some were burned alive. British author Edward Marriott describes in his 1996 book, The Lost Tribe, how he was blamed when a woman and four children were killed by a lightning strike, and he was forced to flee for his life. If Lidia dies, it is likely that I will be blamed.

We explain to John that paddling downstream will take several days and that our motor dugout is expected back upstream tomorrow, when we can take him to the clinic in Amboin. Satisfied with the plan, John surprises us by admitting that his people ran out of food yesterday, so today they must make sago. When I suggest we go hunting instead, he shakes his head.

We follow Mark and his wife, Jelin, to the sago camp. Making sago is an arduous operation. Mark hacks out pulp from the heart of a felled palm tree; the pulp is transferred to a trough filled with water, and Jelin squeezes it against a coconut-husk filter, pressing out an orangish white paste. The group works for six hours, glistening with sweat, slowly fatiguing. By late afternoon they've collected 40 pounds of gummy sago—not bad for an afternoon's work—and we head back to Ulapunguna as the rain begins.

That night it's fire-fried sago pancakes for dinner. Sago is a carbohydrate with essentially no protein, fat, vitamins, or minerals. Although John had made it clear they were proud to be hunters and that they shot a pig every week, we haven't seen any meat.

John, Joshua, and I sit by the fire, chewing the bland, gummy pancakes, talking late into the night. John begins to let down his guard. He admits that his group hasn't eaten meat or killed a pig for over three months. He is deeply worried for his people. He says that there used to be several hundred Meakambut. Now they lose two babies for every one that lives. He says that there are no pigs left in the mountains, no cassowaries in the jungle, no fish in the streams. When the campfire dies out, John whispers something he wants me to pass on to the government of Papua New Guinea. It is a message.

Just after daybreak the Embarakal group begin decorating themselves for the journey out of the mountains. The men stripe their faces with black and orange; the women blanket their skin with dots. In a climate where clothes are superfluous, this is how you dress up for special occasions.

We reach a camp called Wakau, halfway to the river, by noon. Resting here in the oppressive heat, we suddenly catch human hoots drifting down from the mountains—it is the rest of the Meakambut returning over the ridge. The Embarakal group decides to join them, and John asks me to find Lidia, Michael, and the baby and send them home when they are well. Privately, I am relieved that John is not coming with us. I worry what would happen if Lidia has died.

We reach the motor dugout late in the afternoon and travel downstream until dark, eventually reaching the riverside village of Awim. Stepping from the dugout, we are shocked to learn that Lidia and the others are all here. The only working clinic in the region had no supplies to help her.

But Lidia is still alive. Simple antibiotics have saved her. She is still weak and unable to walk, so we put her on an IV drip for the night. Michael and his son are recovering as well. By dawn, Lidia is able to smile and rise unsteadily to her feet, although she is still hacking.

At breakfast, I find Sebastian Haraha sitting by the campfire. He hands me a cup of coffee and motions for me to sit beside him. He was compelled to temporarily abandon his plan of mapping the Meakambut's caves—the goal of which is to save their habitat, and thus ensure the continuation of their culture in the future—in order to save their lives in the present. He says the choice was clear. He is a human first, an ethnographer second.

"Protecting the caves? What does it matter—if there are no Meakambut left?" asks Sebastian. He is angry. Lidia's close call has shaken him.

"The Meakambut are on the edge of extinction. They are dying from easily treatable illnesses. In ten years they could be completely gone, and their culture and language would vanish. This is one of the last nomadic people in Papua New Guinea!"

He is obviously appalled, but also energized.

"When I get back to Port Moresby, I'm going to walk straight into the prime minister's office and do something." I nod in agreement, then pass along John's message verbatim:

"We, the Meakambut people, will give up hunting and always moving and living in the mountain caves if the government will give us a health clinic and a school, and two shovels and two axes, so we can build homes."

EPILOGUE—Since National Geographic's visit, the Meakambut continue to live without access to government services. But they have partly settled in homes on the ridgetop camp of Tembakapa, where Nancy Sullivan's team has provided building supplies, water tanks, and solar panels. Despite the threat of encroachment by miners, they continue to hunt and gather on their traditional land. Lidia survived.