First Contact

New Guinea was known to European explorers in the sixteenth century, but not until the late nineteenth century did the colonial powers begin to exploit its resources and its people. Even then, European settlement was restricted to the coast; the mountainous interior of the island was believed to be uninhabited and indeed uninhabitable. In 1930, however, prompted by the discovery of gold several years earlier at a site some thirty-five miles inland, an Australian named Michael Leahy, accompanied by a fellow prospector and fifteen New Guinean carriers, set out to explore the interior. What he found was entirely unexpected: a series of fertile valleys, populated by highland people who had been isolated not only from the coastal New Guineans but from one another. Within a radius of a few miles, many different languages were spoken by mutually hostile groups ranging in size from several hundred to several thousand.

Leahy’s encounters with the highlanders on this and subsequent occasions were similar in many ways to countless instances of “first contact” between Europeans and the pre-technological peoples whose lands they colonized. His experience was distinctive, however, in one important respect: He documented it with motion pictures and still photographs. This unique record lay forgotten until the early 1980’s, when it was rediscovered by Australian writers and filmmakers Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly. Anderson and Connolly found that many highlanders still living could recall their first sight of Leahy--and of the civilization he represented, with its marvelous tools and seemingly magical death-dealing weapons--in the 1930’s. The result of their research was a prizewinning film, FIRST CONTACT, produced in 1983, and, with further study, the volume under review.

No one who is interested in the subject of contact between alien cultures will want to miss this book. In addition to many striking photographs, the text is supplemented by maps, a brief section of notes, and a bibliography.