A Meakambut man holds handmade spears and arrows specially crafted for birds and wild pigs.
A Meakambut man holds handmade spears and arrows specially crafted for birds and wild pigs.

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.

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.

Premium Paywall - Domestic

Read This Next

Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world. Can we save them?

The world’s oldest known wild bird just turned 70—why she’s so special

Buried for 4,000 years, this ancient culture could expand the 'Cradle of Civilization'

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet