[Possibly fake] video of hunter-gatherer tribe's first contact with people from outside world

[UPDATE: A couple of Boing Boing readers have translated articles that say this encounter was staged. Read the comments below.]

[Video Link] This is a fascinating 15-minute video that shows a hunter-gatherer tribe in Papua New Guinea meeting with people from the outside world for the first time. They are very cautious, but also very curious, about the man on the other side of the river. They eventually cross the river to meet Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, the producer of Tribal Journeys: The Toulambi. When the men see Dutilleux's clothing, they then look at the clothes they are wearing, as if for the first time. When they stroke Dutilleux's hair, they then stroke their own hair.

It looks like all five parts of the documentary are on YouTube.


  1. They’re like dodos; they haven’t evolved fear of predators. Wonder how long they’ll last.

      1. And that’s supposed to mean what, exactly? Being of the same species doesn’t mean that there are local variations with wildly different variations. After all, just look at pigs, chicken and cattle – three species, but hundreds of breeds each, some of them more prone to specific sickness than others.

        American Indians are certainly the same species as their European conqueros, yet they were less resistant to the germs the Europeans brought over. And Measles killed millions in the Roman Empire until humans adapted.

        Also, lots of sicknesses are pretty much limited to agricultural societies, with animals playing a large role as as source of new strains and asymptotic carriers.

        1. Yeah, though I suspect that “fear of predators” is an evolutionary trait that was present for a long time before this tribe got separated from the rest of the world. Just sayin.

    1. Apparently at one point this guy brought Sting out to meet these people.

      Who then proceeded to yell “I WILL kill him!” and then had a knife fight with their leader. Sting lost.

    2. Putting aside the discussion of whether it makes sense to say that a human being has “no fear of predators,” and whether another human counts as a predator… they clearly have fear. They’re brandishing weapons and approaching warily. They just decide (apparently) that there is no danger later on.

      1. The guy writing the skepticnorth article, Erik Davis, didn’t find anything too scandalous as far as I can see, just that this wasn’t actually their very first contact with westerners, apparently there had been around 10 other contacts between 1929 and 1993 when the video was shot…that still seems rare enough that a new encounter would be a very unusual and curiosity-provoking event, so their reactions could be perfectly real. Erik Davis also has a bunch of complaints about the fact that the original narration included some pro-environmentalist messages, which makes the narrator a bad and evil “activist” in Davis’ eyes.

        1. “Erik Davis also has a bunch of complaints about the fact that the original narration included some pro-environmentalist messages, which makes the narrator a bad and evil “activist” in Davis’ eyes.”

          You make it sound like Erik Davis is some sort of anti-environmentalist, which isn’t the case. The problem is that Dutilleux (who isn’t an anthropologist) seems to have distorted reality in order to present a narration that fits his agenda which is the worst thing a documentary maker can do.

          Translating one of the articles linked to in the skeptic article: “One of the tribesmen burns himself with a match despite the fact that they mastered fire for hundreds of thousands of years; holds a spoon the wrong way; is afraid of his reflection in the mirror…” etc.

          All these things are obvious racist stereotypes we have for the “savage” people according to 9 anthropologists, some of them having actually studied the Papuan people:

          “Dans ce texte, Monique Jeudy-Ballini, (CNRS-Collège de France), Pascale Bonnemere (CNRS), Jean-Michel Chazine (CNRS), Annick Coudart (CNRS), Maurice Godelier (EHESS), Pierre Lemonnier (CNRS), Jean-Luc Lory (CNRS), Anne-Marie Petrequin (CNRS) et Pierre Petrequin (CNRS), estiment notamment que «le film traite d’un faux événement donnant de surcroît de ce groupe de Nouvelle-Guinée une image artificielle, aussi absurde que scandaleusement méprisante et raciste.»”


          The documentary was first aired in France and caused outrage among French anthropologists which is why the sources are in French.

          1. You make it sound like Erik Davis is some sort of anti-environmentalist, which isn’t the case. The problem is that Dutilleux (who isn’t an anthropologist) seems to have distorted reality in order to present a narration that fits his agenda which is the worst thing a documentary maker can do.

            I don’t know what Erik Davis thinks about environmentalism, but I don’t see why the fact that Dutilleux’s narration includes some pro-environmentalist messages somehow should increase our suspicions that the tribe’s reactions were faked. After all, if Dutilleux had acknowledged that they had been contacted a few times it’s not like that would have stopped him from including musings that Davis objected to like “Perhaps these Toulambis, with their wooden spears and stone axes, are the living ancestors of we, who have learned to fly without wings, talk with the stars, and destroy our own planet” and “For hundreds of generations, life for the Toulambis has revolved around their eternal quest for sustenance. It gives them no time to create complex art or a written language, to develop science or conceive profound metaphysical philosophies. Nor has their endless and simplest form of consumerism led to overpopulation, environmental destruction, or the threat of nuclear extermination”. Perhaps Davis is just arguing that any editorializing in a documentary (regardless of the position it’s editorializing for) increases the likelihood that the footage has been filmed/edited/described in a way that misrepresents reality, but I’m not sure I agree with the idea that an “activist stance”, as Davis puts it, is inherently a sign pointing to an inaccurate documentary.

          2. “but I’m not sure I agree with the idea that an “activist stance”, as Davis puts it, is inherently a sign pointing to an inaccurate documentary.”

            It depends whether or not you’re honest about it. I have no problem with documentaries about the environment that have an activist stance about the environment (as long as they get their facts straight). But statements about the environment and consumerism disguised as documentaries about a native tribe; I find uncool. Especially if the stuff about the tribe is complete BS.

          3. I’m quickly forming a strong opinion about this video. I agree that observations like the ones in the film aren’t necessarily out of place in a documentary. In fact, those kinds of philosophical questions sort of impose themselves, when confronting extremely different cultures. In this case, however, they appear to grossly misrepresent the truth about the `Toulambis’ (aka. the Ankave).

            The villagers seen in the video aren’t our ancestors but our contemporaries. They don’t live in the stone age, but use some machine-made tools, wear machine-woven clothes, and even participate in a cash economy.

            Above, I’ve disclaimed any expertise, and most of my information traces back to Prof Lemonnier, who rubbishes (French) this video in several places.

            But based on reading parts of a couple of Lemonnier’s papers, there is so much nonsense in this video you can’t keep up with it. Take this idea that this community doesn’t have complex art. They don’t make art the way you (making an assumption) and I make art because, well, they don’t make art the way you and I make art. If we don’t know the techniques and meaning of whatever artefacts they do make, we can’t ourselves produce or appreciate these things. In this context, there’s no sense in talking about art at all, not as it’s sold in New York, London, or Paris.

            So what conclusion do you draw from their lack of symphonic music? Or the complete absence of colour photography among this people? I have no idea, but I think anyone who claims the people who appear in this video don’t have “profound metaphysical philosophies” when he doesn’t even speak their language, doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously when using their culture, which he doesn’t understand, as a counter-example to his own.

      2. It seems to be a documentary that is presenting inaccurate information; for instance: It’s not the first contact this tribe has had with the outside world. It’s just dishonest. Which is something I hate in documentaries.

      3. Summary:

        The video is totally wrong. It may be a hoax, maybe not. If so, it’s hard to tell who is fooling whom. In any case, this is not anything close to first contact and doesn’t capture genuine behaviour on the part of the New Guineans. You really should correct your lead and description.

        1. What was it like when you spent time with New Guineans, Am Elder? I’d be happy to run your account here.

          1. I don’t understand, I think I’ve been pretty clear in every other post that I have no expertise on this, but the video got me interested and I did some reading. The factual errors exposed by the article in Liberation, together with a comparison between things said in the video and the academic papers of Prof Lemonnier who is one of the few people to have done a proper anthropological study of people from the tribe featured in the video mean the video is pretty clearly a nonsense.

            You asked for a tl;dr. I thought no one else had given you an accurate summary, so there’s one. What do you mean “run your account here”?

  2. That is absolutely fascinating. I’ve often wondered how these explorers handle meeting local tribes and what that exchange must be like.

    The 11:00 minute mark until the end is just heart melting seeing the tribesmen showing a smile or two and discovering similarities in anatomy.

    Thank you for this Mark.

  3. The wonderfully human reaction of curiosity overcoming fear once no (known)immediate threat is identified.

  4. Thanks, smammy, I knew things weren’t right once someone said “fire sticks.” They are called MATCHES in English. The condescension was really starting to get going and I had to check the comments to see if others were noting this, as That’s Not How Things Are Done.

    1. I knew things weren’t right once someone said “fire sticks.”

      I live on sovereign tribal land, across the street from the tribal cemetery, which is beautifully landscaped and maintained and sees a couple of funerals every month. People persistently call it the tribal burial ground.

      1. @Antinous, what does that have to do with what I am saying? In the video, the narrator refers to matches as “fire sticks,” as though that’s how the Toulambis refer to them–which isn’t indicated as fact anywhere–it’s what Anglos would THINK ~savages~ like these would call them. That’s where I am calling bullshit. This thing plays like Nanook of the North, not a responsible anthropological work.

        I also want to second Am Elder above–these people live in New Guinea, right now. They are much more suitably adapted to live there than Dutillieux–leave him there for a year and see who’s alive at the end. They are not different in a Stone Age/ Modern Age way, they are different in a New Guinea / Marseilles way. As much is argued (be better perforce) in Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL.

  5. I imagine First Contact with an alien species will be like that – we swing our stone axe/missile at them when they scare us and they blast us, or they give us a box of ‘fire sticks’/micro-sized fusion reactor with DNA sequencing add-on and we burn our world down playing with it.

  6. Raise your hand if you lost it at “The long, soft hair of the caucasian is clearly another wonder of the world.”

  7. It looks not unlike the other videos of first encounters in Papua New Guinnea.
    10 bucks that it isn’t a hoax.

    Looking for link.

  8. A French article linked from the skepticnorth article goes a bit further. Based on interviews with named experts on the tribes of Papua New Guinea, it proposes that the documentary misrepresents the situation of Toulambis entirely.

    The article from Liberation explains that it’s not a first contact. In fact, according to the article, in 1996, an “administrative centre” with an air strip, radio, medical facilities, and (if I understand correctly) a missionary outpost is no more than 4 days walk from the location filmed. One of the anthropologists quoted in the article burst out laughing when he saw the video, because, for example, it features stone weapons long outdated in this region and presents salt as a novelty to the tribespeople, even though they extract it from some sort of plant.

    Liberation calls the video a lie, because it’s inaccurate in detail and in general impression. The article ends with the idea that the tribespeople are deliberately playing at being naive.

    Please keep in mind, I’m translating loosely from a newspaper article I only read once, in an field I’m no expert in. It’s a risky game of telephone.

  9. Editing my post made the timeline described in the French article a bit unclear. The video’s from 1993 and the article from 1996.

    The SkepticNorth article claims, based on a linked article I haven’t checked out by one of the experts mentioned in the French article, that first contact would have been in the 1920s, and that the tribe had been photographed three times in late ’70s and the ’80s.

  10. it’s quite fake…the stone tool on the guys stick is a joke…it’s a woodworking tool [adz]hafted incorectly…

  11. I loudly call shenanigans and BS. There are no more completely feral people on this well-mapped and resource-stripped mudball. Matches? Hell, show’em a flamethrower. The jungle can’t possibly be managed w/o Caucasians- Tarzan taught us that, no?

  12. Are those A-holes TRYING to give ’em small pox?

    In all seriousness, if by chance this is real, then those guys are really dangerous idiots. That tribe won’t have encountered all sorts of bugs those white guys are carrying and immune to. This much we know about “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Anthropologists they ain’t, unless they’re evil anthropologists.

  13. @Am Elder,

    I agree with you largely. Still, it appears I disagree with your concept of complexity in art. Refinement about a mixture of opportunity and ability, the reality is their ability to manifest subtleties in their working medians for art limited the detail any particular member would have opportunity to master.

    1. First @ jeblucas,

      Big fan of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Great book.

      Second, Cogent91, I’m not sure what I think complexity in art is, so you’re a step ahead of me. I can’t decide whether I feel it’s a matter of something having many meanings, like a Shakespeare play; or just a measure of the number of components, like Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium; or something else entirely.

      In the second essay I linked to above, this guy Lemonnier talks about the cultural objects the Ankave (Dutilleux’s Toulambi) make. He distinguishes these two kinds of complexity (starting p.14).

      He talks about “oxoemexe” which are unbeautiful, but mean a great deal. They just look like “a piece of barkcloth … folded into a roughly triangular package”, with stuff inside. However, the essay calls one “a doubly complex object: first of all, internally, owing to the mixture of objects it contains; but also externally, due to its association with other material elements of the ritual system in which it participates.” Is this art? Is it complex? Can we tell without seeing one and seeing the culture it belongs to?

      He also mentions “certain workaday objects, like Ankave eel traps, [that] have at the same time formal features and significations that make them, for some people, works of art.”

      I got my ideas for my earlier post from this essay. It advocates for the value of having “a perspective [capable] of explaining what these objects are for the people who produced and used them.” By contrast, the video seems to lack this level of understanding.

  14. Also, I love how they were prepared enough as to immunize the first-contact tribe before leaving. If it had played out any other way, that first contact probably would have been their last.

    It’s a brilliant documentary. In retrospect, it seems clear immunizing the tribe was an objective Jean-Pierre Dutilleux had in mind the whole time. It’s not ideal ethnography but it beats any day their dying off shortly after their inevitable first bump against an already encroaching society.

    1. Really? This strikes you as *better*? All the “natives” mugging for the camera, the condescending “we don’t want to be the rich giving to the poor” as if that analysis had any meaning, especially in the context of airdropped luxury food and 100 poor skinny black people carrying 3 well-fed white people? (ok, the guy with the camera is actually working, but certainly the others aren’t)

      It’s earlier, so maybe from a “young and stupid” perspective it’s slightly better, but the whole thing came across as a politically-motivated (well-meaning) high school play staged on the edge of the jungle a few minutes walk from civilisation.

      Anthropology is universally contaminated with the cultural prejudices of its practitioners, no matter how professional.

  15. @Am Elder
    I don’t know if their behavior shows it as not a first encounter. The answer we don’t have is what their myth about white people being the walking dead entailed. Was this a silly taboo, something only the most brutish in their tribe took seriously? Or was the white ghost blocking their assembled bridge a significant bad omen? Or a good one? We just don’t know what context they were approaching him from. Their body language seemed pretty pure to me though; I believe they were measuring the man up without much to go on.

    Also these two points I can contest. Please keep in mind I’ve studied these areas but am, likewise, no declared expert. “it features stone weapons long outdated in this region and presents salt as a novelty to the tribespeople, even though they extract it from some sort of plant.”

    1. What are their mobility realities? Was that a semi-permanent bridge, or was it a span that could only be crossed in a small window? If the river’s behavior only allowed brief periods of calm periodically, the distance they could travel on foot would be dependent on this. Its not unfathomable that tribe has had no superior neighbors in walking distance for hundreds or more of years. Additionally, what materials besides stone exist in their backyard? That they found stone hammers sufficient and convenient as a tool of choice is not unreasonable.

    2. Salt. Salt was brilliant actually. Salt was one of the few things he could have brought that wouldn’t have been a striking upgrade for them. More over, what was in the bag he attempted to hand over at first? More salt? Just salt, or, for example, was it salts loaded with further components of immunisation? It’s pure speculation, I know, but as a way of passing into their hands something they’d surely consume that vector could’ve been one someone systematically trying to save a tribe from impending deadly disease might have recognized. … Salt makes sense.

    1. Against my better judgement I’m back. I found an English language book online, published 2009, with a chapter summarising the history of interactions between the Yoye Amara (aka Ankave, aka Toulambis) with people outside of the valleys of their region. The reason for all of these names, apparently, is that different groups have different names for each other and there are names that apply to communities and to collections of communities in the local languages. One co-author of the chapter I found is this same guy, Lemonnier who just seems to have written the most about these people. Dutilleux has written almost nothing about them.

      In response to Cogent91, and again, I’m just re-articulating things I’ve read elsewhere.

      1) According to Lemonnier, one limiting factor for these people to travel is the unfriendliness of the communities around them. However, members of this small community appear to make regular, though by no means frequent, trips to the local administrative outpost. Several of the links I’ve posted describe the place of steel knives and axes among the Toulambis. Aparently, at the time there were several, communally used, and not made locally.

      2) You seem to know more than I do about the value of salt a way of establishing a relationship in this part of the world. The point I was trying to make about the salt is that it’s presented as a novelty in the film, whereas according to a guy who seems to know what he’s talking about, it certainly isn’t a rare and mysterious commodity for a community who make it and even trade it. That’s an indication of the falseness of the documentary.

      This film fooled me too, but the more I read about it, the more false it seems. Compare the `timid’ behaviour of these men to the contact made by David Attenborough in the 1971 video linked by liatach. The relevant bit of the Attenborough documentary starts at about 42 minutes in. I’m not going to interpret it, to avoid embarrassing myself, but I just want to draw attention to the contrast.

      And a translation note, I was being an idiot last night. Obviously the description of the belts should translate as something like “belts of plastic beads”.

  16. I read all of the comments, but I still may have missed this point:

    Why YOUTUBE?!

    The ONLY answer is no one else bought this crap since 1993? That’s 18 years ago! Am I missing something?

    And he had made contact with these people before, it was not their first meeting, but it’s obvious it was the CAMERA they were interested in. No sane person would take all of that equipment (get your mind out of 2011 and imagine camera equipment from the late 80’s early 90’s!) and then point a camera right in a frightened persons face.

    The tribes movements are natural, natural to all wild creatures, one of hesitancy mixed with familiarity, like a deer eating our of your hand.

    TIMID is the word you’re all looking for. TIMID, but not strangers.

  17. I don’t have any personal knowledge of this stuff — I’m a social scientist of a sort, but not this sort — so I can’t argue on principle, just on the evidence I can find on the web. But I think the evidence is pretty damning.

    I’ve translated from an article published in 1999 in the European anthropology review Terrain, by a well-known academic who has specialised since the 1980s on the tribes of Papua New Guinea, holds a post at the CNRS, the EHESS (two highly regarded French research institutions) and at the University of Provence, and who claims to personally know the toulambis who appear in the video. He is the only person I can find who wrote specifically on this video to debunk it, but he seems credible:

    Encouraged to taste cigarettes, to spit out rice and to spook at his own image in a mirror, the main actor in this sketch, which is sworn to be authentic, told me he had wept with shame. The Toulambis had no choice but to follow to the letter the drama the Papuan guides who had come to meet them had dictated according to their own version of the stone age. Having hidden their metal tools and removed their belts of plastic pearls [note: maybe ‘belts made of plastic pieces’] and the items of European clothes that they had worn, they submitted to the orders given in the name of the nurse who had earlier spread the news of their “discovery”. For those who live four days march away from the nearest clinics in a region with endemic malaria, a little bit of quinine makes a playing a farce worthwhile.

    1. I’m impressed with your thoroughness Am Elder. You make a strong case about this being a dramatized event. Alas. I loathe having facts distorted but I’ll do my best to look past that likelihood and take what I can glean regardless however; it’s still a fascinating series of videos.

  18. Sorry, one more note: of course Lemonnier is not the only academic to debunk it. It completely slipped my mind, but as failix points out further up, nine anthropologists signed a scathing denounciation when it was first shown on French TV in 1996, saying that:

    This film depicts a false event which overwhelmingly gives an artificial image of this group in New Guinea, one as absurd as it is scandalously mistaken and racist.

    (translated from the French)

    Ok, I’m done now. I’ll stop being overweening, and soothe myself with some XKCD.

  19. Still no correction in the description of this video?! What do you need more? Come on Mark, we don’t blame you, I was fooled too. But at least mention the fact that many anthropologists who are experts on the subject denounce this as being a fake and racist account of a people that has already had previous contact with the outside world anyway.

    1. I agree. Sadly, stereotypes of this kind are still prevalent today, and Mark it’s easy for people to be taken in by misrepresentations like this shameful video. Thanks to Am Elder and failix for digging up and translating evidence of its falsity.

      Mark, if you’re interested in an interview with someone who has experience of the actual situation of modern indigenous (and ‘uncontacted’) peoples, I’m sure Survival International
      or a similar organisation could provide someone. That could make for a great feature.

  20. Darnit, one more thing. I haven’t found many people accusing Dutilleux of duplicity. Just of credulity, ignorance, and a patronising attitude, which I guess is bad enough.

  21. I think a post of mine got lost somewhere, for those interested in all this but unable to read French, I found an English language book online, published 2009, with a chapter summarising the history of interactions between the Yoye Amara (aka Ankave, aka Toulambis) with people outside of the valleys of their region.


    Anthropologist Pierre Lemonnier who exposed this documentary as fraud in an article for the French Newspaper “Liberation” studied the Papuans for over a decade and says that the “unknown tribe” lives less then 4 days away by foot from an dispensary with a landing strip, radio and nurses. They also use the Vailala River to travel to the coast to sell handmade goods



  23. I can’t say one way or the other about this video, but it brings to mind some memories of one of my trips to PNG where me and my husband hired to local man in Wewak to take us to the upper Sepik river and its tributary the April River. While provisioning in Wewak for the two week canoe trip our guide spent most of the day on the telephone haggling with a Canadian filmmaker who wanted to do a “documentary” about cannibals on the upper Sepik. Despite frequent assurances from our guide that there are no Cannibals in PNG and most certainly not on the Sepik, the filmmaker just would not hear any of it. He kept insisting that he KNOWS that there are cannibals to be found on the Sepik and he kept offering more money to our guide for bringing him to them. Apparently this “negotiation” had been going on for a few months and our guide had unsuccessfully tried to steer the filmmakers focus towards some more realistic aspects of the interesting culture(s) of the people living on the mighty Sepik. During out two weeks visiting various villages on the river much fun was had discussing the different possibilities of putting on a show for the filmmaker and scaring the living daylight out of him. However, it was also frequently expressed that the villagers found it quite unbelievable that a (in their eyes) wealthy foreign filmmaker could be so ignorant about PNG. I never found out if the filmmaker ever made it to the Sepik and if anyone actually went through with the “show”, but if it did happen, I would imagine it would look much like the video above.

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