The Last Men: Journey Among the Tribes of New Guinea

Iago Corazza and Greta Ropa

The “last men” of Papua New Guinea is a phenomenal collection of photos. Corazza and his wife Ropa travel deep into some of the most remote places in the world to meet tribes living in stone age conditions. The photo are breathtaking. At first, the thick layers of make-up, massive headdresses, bunches of feathers, piercings and heaps upon heaps of jewelry is so visually staggering that the subjects seem less human than pieces of artwork. But as you delve deeper, reading about the meaning of a group’s decoration and how it is applied, a certain familiarity starts setting in. The amount of skill and craftsmanship to create a mud mask, a hair wig, feathered and beaded headpiece or leaf skirt is immense. The faces become less alien and more familiar. People start popping out of the pages.

Corazza and Ropa meet and stay with groups all over the island, always welcomed hospitably. All the stereotypes are there – mud men, warriors, head hunters and cannibals. All kindly open their homes and explain their lives freely.

In addition to visits on tribal home turf, their team also visits two Sing-sings, massive dance festival/competitions that encourage tribes from throughout the country to meet and show off their costumes and skills. The images are overwhelming and eye-popping.

Carozza’s descriptions of both the tribes and their history is concise and well-written.  He describes the struggle between the native peoples and the white colonists with their missionaries. There is  ever-shifting opinion and power. Missionaries want to end the continual vendetta-based battles between tribes and provide education and health care. But in return, the expect the natives to give up traditional beliefs and ways. The natives saw the material wealth of the whites and created their own belief system, the cargo cults, which say that the whites are holding all the “cargo” – gifts – from their dead ancestors and not passing them on. The cults develop new, strange rituals to access “their” rightful property. When this doesn’t work, natives who have long relied on family and community ties as a currency, move to cities where they know no one. With no education or skills, nor community, they end up destitute. Those back home feel they have been betrayed and take up weapons against the white government – and are often slaughtered.

There does seem slight balancing of power. The Australian government came up with the sing-sing – the massive contest festivals mentioned above. This provides some outlet and chance for tribes to meet one another and do something positive. But the most popular festival is now far too expensive for the native people to attend as spectators. The only audience are tourists. Other sing-sings have spring up though, attended only by locals.

The one real complaint I have with the particular English translation is the type. The font used is a fine, deco-inspired sans serif font that is painfully hard to read. Additionally, all sorts of amateur printing issues litter the pages – ?s in place of spaces, margins running all over, text over-lapping. The content is very worthwhile, but read it in short bursts to save your eyes. What a shame to see such a marvelous book marred this way. An hour of editing and another font could have done wonders for this book.