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Primitive paradise

Identifier: Film Collection no. 256

Scope and Contents

Filmed during Lewis Cotlow's expeditions to New Guinea, 1958 and 1959. The film is the edited result of footage shot by American explorer Lewis Cotlow on two expeditions to New Guinea in 1958 and 1959. Some of the localities visited are: the Sepik River, Goroka and Bena-Bena villages, Mount Hagen, several highland villages in Papua New Guinea, and the Baliem Valley in central Irian Jaya, Indonesia. Opening scenes of natives at a sing-sing and maps of the expedition routes lead into a brief presentation of Port Moresby. Cotlow shows city scenes featuring Australian Headquarters, government officials, and discusses briefly the role of New Guinea in World War II. Footage of the water route from Port Moresby to the Sepik River is shown next. Initially, Cotlow and his staff travel with a medical officer aboard a boat propelled by an outboard motor. The launch is constructed of two dugouts whose crocodile bows are lashed together; wooden planks serve as a deck upon which rests a mosquito-proof cabin. The boat becomes entangled while trying to pass through a barrat (a narrow channel cutting through swampy land around the Sepik). The crew expends considerable effort in extricating their craft, and at last they are able to continue their journey to the first of the intended stops, the village of Kambaramba. A group of women wearing fiber skirts and glass bead necklaces escort the boat to the village in their dugouts. After receiving gifts of salt, tobacco, and newspaper from Cotlow, the village women are filmed preparing sac-sac; this is made by pounding wooden beaters upon sago palm in wooden troughs. Cursory medical examinations are given; the chief of Kambaramba is one of those examined. From Maprik, the next stop, the staff journeys by land rover with a district officer to see the enormous tamberan (house) at Bobemugen. While the staff photographs statues, masks, maselais (small figures of evil spirits), and stunning bas-relief carvings on the house, the native men beat garamuts (large log gongs) to repel any women from seeing the sacred objects. Flying inland to the highland village of Goroka, Cotlow and his staff photograph Bena-Bena men, and the women are seen farming. Also shown is a young Minji woman named Danga whose face has been tattooed. Danga is filmed as she performs her duties as a malaria research assistant and wearing traditional garb at home. Following some footage of a depot for training native patrol officers, Cotlow presents a scenario which appears to be staged. The body of a murdered woman is discovered, and her husband (the prime suspect) is questioned on the matter. The husband confesses and produces an ax as the murder weapon. The motive is found to be adultery and the man is sentenced to several years at hard labor. The woman's family, covered with clay, is shown weeping. The mourning family also practices finger mutilation, which is associated with their grief. The staff then moves by bush plane to the Baliem Valley, home of the Dani people, just in time for a pig feast. The fire is started by a strip of cane drawn rapidly back and forth through a piece of notched wood. Two hundred pigs are killed and roasted in huge piles of hot stones and steaming grass. A Dani woman is shown in this footage nursing a piglet. A famous Dani headman named Ukumhearik is filmed; the feast follows. Returning to northeastern New Guinea, Cotlow and the other expedition staff members encounter hostile Kukukukus of Menyamya. This sequence shows the process used in converting bark into cloth, which the Kukukukus sew into cloaks. Also shown is a stoneheaded war club and a sequence depicting Kukukuku farming practices. A unique sequence follows which features a woman carrying the smoked and mummified remains of her husband, who was killed in a feud a month before the filming. The body is first propped up so that the family and friends may pay their respects; then the body is taken to a nearby mountain ledge, where it is left to watch over the home. Footage of a mock battle staged at Chimbu is followed by a sequence in which a patrol officer teaches the natives the game of soccer. The narration explains that the natives enjoyed the game until one team won twice in a row. It is claimed in the film that the losing team took its revenge through bloodshed. However, in his account of the same game in his book In Search of the Primitive, Cotlow writes that the teams each won one game, an important point that illustrates Cotlow's tendency to heighten the action of the film with sensational pieces of information. A courting ritual called a kanana is shown in the next segment of the film. During this gathering young people sit next to one another, their legs are crossed, and they roll their faces over each other. In the following sequences the district officer hears a trial in which a young betrothed woman explains that she prefers to marry someone other than her fianč. The officer decides in favor of the girl, but stipulates that the bride price, paid many years before, be returned along with two pigs as a penalty. Once again Cotlow's film version differs from the version in his book, which states that the chosen groom's family had to pay the same bride price and all turned out well. Next is a fine sequence on the natives constructing a dwelling for the staff. First casaurina tree posts are buried, around which the natives wrap rattan mats measuring six feet by eight feet to form the walls; kunai grass is then used to thatch the roof. The staff receives bananas and sweet potatoes as gifts from the natives and, in return, gives the natives mirrors, knives, shells, axes, and cloth. The final portion of the film features a dance celebration called a sing-sing. A young nurse had been brought in to medicate many children who had fallen ill, and the natives present the sing-sing as a show of thanks for the successful healing of their babies. In this final portion of the film, Cotlow has combined footage of dances and decorating taken at various times and places during his two expeditions. This assemblage features a varied look at the natives' personal decorations and musical instruments (for instance, the small hour-glass shaped drums); entertainment such as archery, smoking, and feasting is also filmed. Among the peoples shown are: Aiome pygmies; Asaro River "Mudmen"; python dancers; Gahuku-Gama men, who use reeds forced down their throats to effect purification from female contamination; and two groups of Wabag-Wigmen, one with English barrister-shaped wigs, and the other with mushroom-shaped wigs. In addition to being an overall survey of the many peoples of New Guinea, the film features avifauna of the region, including greater birds of paradise, common pigeons, cockatiels, cassowaries, and cuscus.


  • 1958-1959

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Not available through interlibrary loan. Contact AMNH Library Special Collections for terms of access.


1 Film Reel (65 minutes) : sound, color ; 35 mm.

1 Videocassette (U-Matic (65 minutes)) : sound, color ; 3/4 in.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

3/4 in., U-Matic, viewing copy


Original format: 35 mm. print.



Lewis Cotlow, director and producer; Bebe Whiteman, photographer; Alan Frazer, production assistant; Francis C. Wood, Jr., production supervisor; Excelsior Pictures Corporation, distributor; Herman Fuchs, music supervisor.

Primitive paradise, 1958-1959
Iris Lee
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
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