Occasionally anthropologists and archeologists would show up at the boarding school and ask for one of us kids to translate for them when they went to a village or site. I went along one day with two such scientists and a local guide to explore a cave the scientists had heard about. This cave supposedly had a hidden entrance and ran from one side of the mountain to the other. It wasn’t that the cave was a secret to any of the local tribes: rather it was the river that ran through the cave that often made it inaccessible and dangerous. New Guinea is famous for its bi-seasonal weather: the wet season and the wetter season and flash flooding was a real possibility.
The local man walked us on a well worn path, barely wide enough for one person to pass. We walked several hours into the bush and up a gentle slope towards the mountain. Our guide stopped short suddenly and parted some foliage exposing the entrance to the cave. We stood at the entrance, per the guide’s instructions, and listened carefully. We could hear the sound of water running deep in the mountain. We secured our torches (flashlights), wrapped in plastic bags, slipped long sleeved shirts on over our bare skin (to protect our hides and prevent leeches from getting on us), and entered the cave.
The water was ice cold and at its deepest we were wading with it around our waists. The cave, it tuns out, ran the length of the diameter of the mountain–several miles deep with little change in elevation from the initial decent into the cave opening. It didn’t take long before walking became difficult as our legs were numb from the cold. We’d pause on the occasional boulder and sit above the water level, trying to warm ourselves. During these pauses we played with sound (listening to echos) and darkness (there is NOTHING as dark as when you turn your flashlights off while spelunking).
At one point, approximately half way through the cave, the guide stopped us and had us climb up onto a large ledge. The cave opened up into a large room, and the guide pointed up to the ceiling and had us shine our lights onto the rock walls.
The scientists inhaled sharply. The walls were covered in cave man drawings. They immediately jumped up, reenergized, and began shooting photos, filling the cave with blinding flashes of light. Our guide was startled and frightened by the sudden onset of inexplicable lightening. I quickly explained the camera and flash and asked one of the scientists to ‘flash’ us on cue. Soon we were all laughing.
I listened while the anthropologist and the archeologists explained the nature of the drawings, including what various symbols meant. It was then I remembered our guide was local–perhaps he knew some of the folklore behind this ancient artwork.
The guide seemed puzzled at my question, then described a lengthy ongoing battle between two local tribes. “We carried our pigs and children here. The women came too so the men could fight without worrying about them. These drawing were done while the women waited.” How long ago was this, I asked? “Oh… I think two or three Christmases ago.”
These ‘cave men’ were outside in the village, planting gardens, telling stories, and laughing. They were not ancient tribes. They were contemporaries. I explained this to the scientists, who sat in silence. There was no good way of explaining their initial interpretation to the guide. There was no way of explaining to him, as he shone his flashlight in our faces, that he was from the stone age.