Tales from the era when the Air Age met the Stone Age.

Sterling’s Breguet came with conventional landing gear; he later replaced it with pontoons. “We were somewhat anxious about the results,” he recounted. (National Anthropological Archives Smithsonian Institution)
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Down the hall from Stirling's notebook, in the Smithsonian's Human Studies Film Archive, researcher Amy Staples offers her own narration to the flickering black-and-white footage shot during the 1929 Brandes expedition. On the television screen, Papuans from the Lake Murray area stand in a long, snaking line, bringing shrunken heads, ornamental feathers, and other prized possessions to trade with the visitors from the sky.

In their post-expedition writings and lectures, the explorers often focused on exotic symbols of native mythology, but, says Staples, the Western aerial explorers had mythology of their own. "There was a whole fascination in America with flight," she explains. "The airplane allowed the audience a new sense of discovery, and contributed to this mythology of 'first contact'-a fascination with the contrast between modern civilization and 'primitives,' " bordering on obsession.

And the airplane shared top billing. When he hit the lecture circuit after returning to America, Stirling wowed his audiences with tales of journeying "By Aeroplane to Pigmy Land."

By the late 1930s, the world's "unknown" places were becoming fewer and farther between. The poles had been conquered, the Yukon surveyed, and Everest photographed from above. Even in the highlands of New Guinea, Mick Leahy and company had natives busily stamping meadows into airfields so that Junkers transports could supply the gold mines in the interior, making New Guinea's airports among the busiest in the world in the 1930s in total cargo weight delivered.

One by one, the last isolated valleys of the interior were entered and mapped. Finally, in 1938, Richard Archbold, yet another wealthy explorer, flew the mother of all expeditionary airplanes into the New Guinea highlands. It was Archbold's third trip to the country, under the sponsorship of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and this time the head of the expedition did the flying himself. The Guba (Papuan for "wind"), his twin-engine Consolidated PBY model 28 flying boat, was at that time the largest privately owned aircraft in the world. With a cruising range of 500 miles and a cargo capacity of three tons at sea level, the Guba handled all the transport for a party of 195 people.

Archbold's biggest trophy was his "discovery" of the Grand Valley of the Baliem, where 60,000 members of the Dani and other tribes were living in agricultural villages, their tidy fields plainly visible now that explorers could fly high enough to cross the snowy peaks of western New Guinea.

Scientist, author, and former New Guinea field worker Jared Diamond has called Archbold's expedition the "last first contact" between an exploration team and a large population isolated from the rest of the world. After World War II, missionaries and anthropologists started traveling in droves to the New Guinea highlands, and the allure of the unknown began to fade.

The "hidden" Baliem Valley is today a tourist attraction, and vacationers have a choice of hotels. One fly-and-hike adventure package offers a seven-day/six-night stay, with a level of difficulty described as "easy to moderate."

Easy? Matthew Stirling, Hans Hoyte, and the rest might find that a bit hard to believe.

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