Edward Marriott in New Guinea

The Press, February 28, 1998

Denis Dutton


The Lost Tribe, by Edward Marriott. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 228 pp., US$23.00.

In October 1993, international wire services reported the discovery of a lost tribe in a remote valley of New Guinea. The Liawep dressed in leaves, hunted pigs with bow and arrow, and used stone tools.

Having recently returned from fieldwork in northern New Guinea, I could not believe there were any peoples left uncontacted by the prospectors and patrol officers who have scoured the country for decades. Yet the story was given credibility by the mention that missionaries were racing against each other to be first to sell these heathens their own brand of Jesus.

At time same time these reports were being read in Britain by Edward Marriott, a young journalist. He set out to find the Liawep, to meet them and record the experience of first contact with an untouched tribe.

He was refused access to the area of the tribe by provincial officials, one of whom warned him he might be a danger to the Liawep, or they to him. Marriott wouldn’t listen, and arranged his own illegal patrol.

Edward Marriott
Fancying himself at first a doughty explorer, but soon feeling like a fat man trying to run a marathon, Marriott’s trek is terrifying. Locals boast of familiarity with the terrain, but are themselves nearly lost in the daytime darkness of the canopy jungle. Walking among butterflies the size of soup plates and tree trunks so huge they seem like walls, the ill-equipped Marriott is continuously bitten and scraped. Exhausted, he falls at one point deeply and dangerously into mud, nearly breaking a leg.

When he finally reaches the Liawep, he discovers that white missionaries had indeed gotten to them, very briefly, by helicopter. A Seventh Day Adventist had shown them a poster with God as a tall, blond American in a toga. In heaven, he explained, “people have white skin.” But these visitors had been preceded by a New Guinean Christian who had set himself up as missionary to the Liawep. Herod, his Christianized name, delivers blustering sermons to the few, mostly women, who show up to hear him, promising hell for nonbelievers.

Herod is locked in a psychic power struggle with the village leader, a strong but melancholy man who senses the potential loss of all his power in face of the white man’s medicine and technology. Herod’s Christianity may be uncharming, but to the Liawep, it is a question of whose magic is superior.

The situation of the Liawep is miserable. Above their sad village looms a mountain which is also a brooding god, sending storms and death down on the village when displeased. Some view white people as a threat, and befriending them as certain to incur the wrath of the mountain. Others want to go to where the whites are, for their food and especially medicine. Their isolation from other villages is understandable, for the Liawep are a murderous tribe who have systematically killed many of their neighbors. They tolerate Marriott’s presence, however, until a quirk of fate so stunning it must be read to be believed.

That bureaucrat who warned Marriott that he might endanger them and them him was, in the end, exactly right.

Anyone who thinks missionaries bring nothing but hope and the salvation of a better life to “savages” will find this book a disagreeable revelation. But The Lost Tribe will be an even greater shock to eco-romantics who imagine that forest peoples are happy in their innocence — children of nature who could, if we would only listen, reveal to us ancient spiritual wisdom and wonderful herbal remedies.

The Lost Tribe is certain to become a classic of New Guinea exploration. That such an account could be produced as late as the 1990s shows how incomplete knowledge of this vast island is. Edward Marriott has written a moving and disturbing book, an tale to excite the most jaded of old New Guinea hands.