Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea

Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea In The Baliem Valley In Central New Guinea Live A Stone Age Tribe Which Survived Into The Twentieth Century, The Kurelu Peter Matthiessen Joined The Harvard Peabody Expedition OfWhich Set Out To Study This Primitive People As Unobtrusively As Possible, Living Among The Kurelu For Two Seasons, And Produced A Classic Account, Not Of The Expedition, But Of A Lost Culture In All Its Violence And Simplicity Drawing On His Skills As A Naturalist And Novelist, Matthiessen Observes The Kurelus Timeless Rhythms Of Work And Play, Of Warriorship, Feasting And Funerals In One Of The Worlds Last And Now Vanishing Wildernesses

Peter Matthiessen is the author of than thirty books and the only writer to win the National Book Award for both non fiction The Snow Leopard, in two categories, in 1979 and 1980 and fiction Shadow Country, in 2008 A co founder of The Paris Review and a world renowned naturalist, explorer and activist, he died in April 2014.

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  • Paperback
  • 272 pages
  • Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea
  • Peter Matthiessen
  • English
  • 15 December 2018
  • 9780002728560

10 thoughts on “Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea

  1. says:

    Published in 1962, Matthiessen s sixth book and third work of non fiction, Under the Mountain Wall provided its readers an inside look at one of the last existing stone age cultures, the Kurelu people of the remote mountain valleys of New Guinea fear stops me from investigating how many seasons of Survivor may have been set there since but at that time the larger world had barely noticed, let alone intruded on the Kurelu Matthiessen s bold venture is to present what he witnessed and studied as if he and his colleagues are not present He tries not to distract from the way of life he is capturing as an undiscussed eyewitness to tribal warfare, funeral ceremonies that include maiming young girls as part of their honoring the dead, long tramps through the mountain trails that risk ambush in search of feathers or plants for ceremonial use, treatment of wounded or sick individuals, cooking, farming, and celebrating small victories or life passages of one sort or another, and performing ritual activities to ensure the ghosts of their warriors haunt their enemies and not the reverse As always, Matthisessen is an attentive and precise witness Bird songs, plants, clouds and sky, insects and animals are described with a Spartan beauty Rats, pigs, huts, cookfires, utensils and weapons, gardens, clothing, jewelry, decorative accessories, such as the horim, a flatteringly long gourd covering for a warrior s penis, and countless other details of Kurelu life and living are embedded in Matthiessen s trim narrative There is something modestly Homeric in the accounts of fighting and preparations and followup to battle How the warriors prepare themselves and their weapons, bluster and bluff, are motivated by primitive emotions of revenge, how fear or bravery can grip an individual or group, how they ridicule their rivals allies and enemies , and cope with injury and death At the book s very end there is a mention of a Waro village and that the Waro had come from the sky and had white skin and weapons that made a noise that echoed through the mountains and were building huts along the river In this way, Matthiessen makes clear, as he did in the preface, that he and his team arrived just ahead of others and that what he describes would soon be changed forever Under the Mountain Wall successfully excludes any direct or indirect references, after the preface, to the presence of the author or his colleagues or any artifacts of their 20th century culture that they may have brought in with them But the ghosts of them, so than the ghosts of any departed Kurelu warriors, do occasionally play ghost like tricks on the reader s attention, provoking wonder where was Matthiessen during this battle he describes so closely Did he not distract one side or the other Was he tempted to play god when the wounded are treated with rituals designed torn flesh or fevered bodies by chasing the harming spirits away What did the Kurelu and their enemies make of these white people with their film equipment and its placement in their midst These and other questions, like the flickering of lights or slamming of cabinet drawers or footsteps on a stairwell in a house empty of all but the reader, inevitably pop up as you read Despite that occasional distraction, Matthiessen has effectively captured for the record and apparently there is a corresponding film, Dead Birds, by Robert Gardner a full and careful description of one of the final stone age cultures still in existence in the spring and summer of 1961, the last of the Old Frontier at the dawn of the New Frontier Under the Mountain Wall is an invaluable account of a primitive, at times brutal, stone age people whose way of life was dependent on warfare and agriculture, where the rules of warfare make any killed human, whether armed warrior or unarmed woman or child, a cause of celebration, where medicine was magic, and where law was nakedly about power stealing a neighbors pigs or raping his wife was punishable as a crime against honor only if the victim, the owner of the pigs or the husband of the wife, had the power to inflict the punishment Under the Mountain Wall is both provocative and restrained, instigating comparisons that it doesn t itself make, between our world and the one described It s an early pillar in a body of outstanding work that includes the Watson trilogy, Far Tortuga, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, The Tree Where Man Was Born, The Snow Leopard, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Wildlife in America, and others that make the case that despite a small handful of major honors, Matthiessen remains one of our most under appreciated writers.

  2. says:

    Written after spending two seasons in 1961 with the Kuerlu people in the Baliem Valley in Papua which is now part of Indonesia In 1961 JFK became President of the USA, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, America s involvement in the Vietnam War started and Barbie got a boyfriend called Ken.Meanwhile the Stone Age people of Papua carry on their ancient practices War or the risk of death from a raiding party is a daily occurrence but is not fought for land as there is enough for everyone War is fought to prove a man s bravery and to take revenge on a previous death, rape or kidnapping Young girls loss part of a finger as part of the grieving process when a relative dies Men weave, work in the gardens and hunt Women have many rights to chose who they marry or where they live But they still have a tougher existence than the men where strength and bravery is the pathway to riches pigs and wives.Matthiessen just tells their life as it happens There is nothing about him or the expedition he is on A lot is on the wars and fights, and the celebrations of victory or death that follows He shows that people are just people some are brave, some are vain, some are plain stupid and some are intelligent, caring and wise Unfortunately these people and there way of life is sadly no , and their wisdom in living in their environment has been lost.

  3. says:

    an interesting read that was tinged, for me, with unease as I knew that these people are probably dead now and their way of life irrevocably altered by now The war descriptions were , for me, too detailed but considering what an important activity war is to the Kurelu, it s understandable that Matthiessen gave so much space to them It seemed that warring informed their social, political to a degree economic systems Not too much info on the women though.

  4. says:

    This is a fascinating account of the Kurelu tribe of western New Guinea just prior to western contact in 1961 Matthiessen was a part of an expedition to observe the Kurelu rituals, inter tribal conflicts and daily ways of life The Kurelu appear to be totally untouched by European ways Violence was constant between neighbouring tribes and among personalities it is amazing how much warfare was a part of their existence This is a glimpse at a culture and existence that will never return 4.5 stars.

  5. says:

    On April 5, 2014, I received this news alert in my inbox Peter Matthiessen, Author and Naturalist, Dies at 86 Hmmm, I thought, Never heard of him Wonder if we have anything by him I turned from the computer and faced the travel bookshelves There, at eye level, between Time off to Dig, Archaeology and Adventure in Remote Afghanistan by Sylvia Matheson and A Reed Shaken by the Wind A journey through the unexplored marshlands of Iraq by Gavin Maxwell, was Peter Matthiessen s Under the Mountain Wall A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea Ok, in honor of this man s life and career, I will put everything aside and read this book I started off most skeptically The exhibition went to New Guinea in 1961, and Matthiessen was not even a student of anthropology or cultural archaeology but rather an English major, brought along, I assume, for his way with words, though at that point in time he had published very little Or perhaps it was the naturalist in him, fostered first by his father, spokesperson for the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, and later adding zoology courses to his English major at Yale I had visions nightmares of vignettes of cute little savages I was ready to hate the book I am nothing if not judgmental.Reading the preface, my skepticism grew It starts off with The peaks of the Snow Mountains, on bright morning, part of the dense clouds and soar into the skies of Oceania Wow, snow covered peaks in Oceania I proceeded to search the book for maps No maps The closest I could find was a sketch of a typical village Not good enough A travel book without maps What were they thinking I almost stopped there.The description, while it could never replace an actual map, held me, drew me in On a high flank in the central highlands lies a sudden valley here the Baliem River, which had vanished underground some twenty miles upstream, bursts from the mountain wall onto a great green plain The plain itself, ten miles across, is a mile above the sea.the valley, which supports than forty thousand people, is a region of perhaps thirty square miles under the northeast wall The region is bordered in the south by the Aike River and in the west, toward the Baliem, by the lands of the enemy Wittaia In the north and east it ends abruptly at the mountain wall The wall rises in a series of steep ridges to an outer rim which varies, around the valley, from ten to twelve thousand feet in elevation the upper wall is rarely seen All day, all year, the clouds balance on the rim, as if about to rumble in They are dark and still and all but permanent, protecting the great valley from infecting winds.Included within this beautifully descriptive substitute for a map is the only excuse offered for the lack the valley,the last large blank on the most recent maps.I became hopeful when I read that the exhibition included two anthropologists and that its purpose was to live among the people as unobtrusively as possible and to film and record their wars, rituals, and daily life with a minimum of interference Finally, what decided me in favor of continuing was that the author explained that this book would not document the first reactions of this people to the white man, but attempt to describe the culture in its pure state Still cautious but with curiosity peaked, I moved on to the main section of the book.I really didn t think Matthiessen could do it, describe a people totally without reference to other cultures, setting them completely on their own, unjudged, simply shown for who they were It was slow going at first, so many names, so many unfamiliar letter combinations, many with overlapping similarity I felt at first I was floundering in a morass of Weak s, lek s, Were s, Asuk verses Asok , Eka , Eke , Eki Fortunately, and almost redeeming the author for a lack of a map, are included in the back a list of common Dani words, glossary of names, and explanations of the many photos Slowly, the various families sorted themselves out in my head, and I began to watch for individuals to crop up in the narration This should have been a boring book, expounding in great particulars each and every detail of everyday life It was not It is an incredible feat of prose and I hope if the akuni ever read the account, it pleases them I wish to include a comment by the author himself in a later interview , if for no other reason than to dispute him Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet It can be elegant and very beautiful, but it can never be sculpture Captive to facts or predetermined forms it cannot fly I beg to differ, Mr Matthiessen This writing soars.

  6. says:

    Very detailed, and the cultural side was very interesting, but for me maybe 50 pages too many Got a bit repetitive with battles and pig eating The names of people, places and tribes was a bit of a battle, but that is inevitable in a book like this 3.5 for me.

  7. says:

    A book like this will never be written again The writing is capable and honest, but this is not fine literature What is unique is the characters, real characters that lived in a radically different culture from the modern day There simply are no longer tribal societies this large left to find on earth and since shortly after this was written the Baliem valley changed radically Take a Google Earth satellite view and find the sprawl of Wamena and the network of roads ceaselessly branching off Even the remote Yali have tin roofs in most villages Much of this occurred in the last 10 years Mathiessen gives us a glimpse into a simpler yet violent way of life Still there is much to admire in these simple people and I cam away at the end feeling that we are the ones that have come away with something missing in our modern comfort and near complete divorce from the natural world.

  8. says:

    An intimate look at the daily lives of the traditional peoples of highland Papua New Guinea Peter Matthiessen paints brilliantly both a portrait of the Kurelu and the land in which they live, so much so you feel as though you re there If his mission was to connect two people so vastly distant in all ways imaginable, he s accomplished that triumphantly After reading this poetic book you ll never think about primitive people the same way again The differences between our societies are vast, but they are dwarfed by our similarities Matthiessen, a member of the 1961 Harvard Peabody expedition and co founder of the Paris Review is not only a documenter with a voracious appetite for detail, but a master of prose.

  9. says:

    This book is good anthropology writing, faithfully done But it is not good pleasure reading I stopped halfway through which I rarely do with a book Matthiessen goes with a group of anthropologists to a pacific island to live with and study a tribe that had previously had no outside contacts with white man This tribe is living in a remote area and their culture is based on an endless round of war, squabbles and killing with other tribal bands in the area The men kill over garden raids, stealing pigs, raping and kidnapping wives The men and women have very separate lives The women garden, cook, raise children and occasionally run away from their husbands The men hunt and fight and help only a bit with the gardening I found it painful to read this and quit when I realized it wasn t going to be getting better In fact I looked up some information about the culture in the area now and along with the mentions of primitive art and dance was the fact that this area has some of the highest levels of violence in the world at this time with over 70% of their women experiencing rape and physical violence.If you want to read the anthropological story of a sick culture, this is your book It is faithfully detailed and there are photos.

  10. says:

    This is a story, a chronology, of what Stone Age people s lives are like Their most modern tools, including weapons, are made of stone As to their everyday lives, Stone Age or not, the people of this time, the people of this area, seek the same things any of us do in any time, in any culture, anywhere in the world They want to be survive, they want to be happy, and they do all and anything, all and everything to make those things manifest in their lives Their lives outwardly may be vastly different from our own, but by learning, by knowing what they are about, we in turn learn what we are about in this modern technological age I gave it a three because the writing is the equivalent of a three However, the research and information the result of that research knocks it up to a four.

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