Eating Bugs, Braving Crocs With Asia's Swamp People

May 14, 2004

The explorer featured in this story appears in Going to Extremes: Swamp, which airs on National Geographic Channel Presents in the U.S. Sunday, May 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

Nick Middleton has ventured to the hottest, driest, coldest, and wettest places on Earth to witness how indigenous peoples have adapted to these unforgiving conditions.

But Middleton, a professor of geography at Oxford University in the U.K., was convinced that there were places even more inhospitable yet to be explored—places where life is so unpleasant that few people live there year-round.

Recently he traveled to the humid, malarial, crocodile-infested, possibly headhunter-inhabited swamps of Indonesian New Guinea. He met two groups who have conquered swamp living in very different ways: the tree-house dwelling, reputedly cannibalistic Kombai tribe and the island-building Jeobi tribe. Middleton spoke with the National Geographic Channel about his encounters.

Swamp life doesn't sound necessarily threatening or hostile as much as just plain miserable. Why did you choose to go to the swamps of New Guinea?

Most people live on solid ground—swamps are generally viewed as unpleasant places harboring mosquitoes, malaria, and swamp monsters. New Guinea's swamps were particularly attractive because many indigenous tribes there have only been discovered by outsiders in the last hundred years.

According to some missionaries there are still many villages that have had no contact with the outside world in living memory.

What does it take to survive in a swamp? How have the people there adapted?

I was most impressed by the Jeobi, who actually built their own islands. That was really unexpected.

The Jeobi fled ferocious headhunters on the mainland and moved to an island on the southwest coast of Indonesian New Guinea. They must have been pretty terrified, because the island was swamp with no dry land—so they built it all themselves.

They stack rafts of floating root mats and layer these with mud and grass—it's like a huge floating lasagna. The whole mass is piled several meters above the waterline. When it dries and sinks, it forms an island. Then they plant crops, like banana trees, to stabilize the island. But it takes about three years before they can build a house on it.

Continued on Next Page >>


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