The Dani of Baliem Valley: The Stone Age Comes to the 21st Century

By far in my 50 years of travel the most unusual, surreal place I ever visited was the Baliem Valley in West Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia. Because of its isolation, the Baliem Valley wasn’t discovered until 1938. Explorer Richard Archbold discovered it by accident while flying a seaplane over the region. He saw perfectly manicured fields and knew there must be people there. Because today it is still isolated and unreachable by roads, the Dani people and their neighbors the Yali and the Lani, still show strong evidence of the stone age culture they were living at the time of Archbold’s arrival.pict0008-copy.jpg

All the guidebooks I read said that I needed to speak basic Indonesian in order to survive in the Baliem Valley. I bought some Indonesian language tapes and played them almost constantly for several months as I traveled to and from my teaching job at the college. My primitive Bahasa Indonesia skills were put to a test when I arrived Jayapura, the regional capital. In order to reach the Baliem Valley, one needs to fly over a 10,000 foot mountain range and drop down into the main town of Wamena. The local airline, Merpati, would not let anyone board the flight without a surat jalan, a police travel document. Since they were annexed to Indonesia four decades earlier, there has been an ongoing insurrection in the Papua region. It seems the Papuans have very little in common with their government in Jakarta. Indeed, not long after I visited there, the region was shut down to tourism for several years. Only after they were given greater autonomy was it safe to travel there again. Even today, US government employees are not allowed to visit there.

After a hilarious encounter in primitive Indonesian with a police officer in Jayapura while he pounded out my surat jalan on a manual typewriter, I was ready for the spectacular flight over the mountains. And spectacular it was. I saw the silver river bisecting the Valley and the perfectly manicured fields of the Garden of Eden that Archbold discovered in 1938. Our flight made a preliminary pass over the runway at the Wamena airport. This was to clear all the people and animals off the runway. Once I landed and was waiting for my baggage to be offloaded in the small dilapidated terminal, I realized I was indeed in a surreal world. Standing next to me was a man nonchalantly wearing absolutely nothing except a gourd on his penis. About half the men and boys I saw during my stay were wearing the koteka. The farther you got from the town of Wamena, the more you saw of the gourds. It seemed that village chiefs would wear a longer one. Also I understand that each man had a selection of gourds. He would wear a short curved one when working and a longer one on ceremonial occasions.

The women, on the other hand, were bare breasted especially when one got out of town. Invariably, however, they would cover their backs with a woven bag called a noken. The noken was used to carry many things like produce, pigs and children. Similar to some other cultures, breasts were not considered erotic. The woman’s back was, however. No self respecting Dani woman would leave her back exposed. Two other unusual customs stood out regarding the women. When a woman lost her baby, she would completely cover herself with yellow clay. Even more startling, when a woman lost a family member, she would cut off the end of one of her fingers. Some women I saw had most of their fingers missing. They were proud to show me their mutilated hands. I understand this latter custom has now been banned.

Sweet potatoes were the staple crop and pigs were the main medium of exchange. The Dani were polygamist. Each man had four or five wives working the fields for him. His job was to provide security for the family. The wives had to be purchased using pigs. According to my Dani guide, Joseph, a wife from the north end of the valley cost nine pigs but a wife from the south end of the valley only cost seven pigs. According to one writer, pigs are so valuable women have been known to suckle the piglets so that they can survive. The writer said he saw a baby nursing one breast and a pig on the other. I can’t confirm that.

I found the Dani people to be very warm and friendly throughout my entire time there. A few words of Indonesian and we were instant friends. I hope modern civilization hasn’t changed them too much.If you want to visit a place that is truly different, I highly recommend the Baliem Valley. If you go, let me know how you like it.