Or a reality show. The Travel Channel this past weekend broadcast a "first contact" video between a white French explorer and a tribe of Papua New Guineans that was more compelling than anything else I've seen since 9/11. This was a tribe so far up in the hills that they had essentially zero contact with the wider world: no written language, no imported goods, had never seen a white man before. Their reaction (and the Frenchman's admittedly macho posturing) were fascinating. They wore clothes made of bark and leaves. They carried stone axes and bow and arrow. The men came to a river crossing to meet with the French explorer because a member of another tribe had told them that they could get medicine there.
The Frenchmen was fascinating. The tribesmen (and only the men came forward) thought he might be a ghost, or a devil, but definitely not human. They touched his hair and clearly were discussing him among themselves. The whole scene unfolded slowly, with lots of starts and stops. The cameraman was hiding in the bushes. The tribesmen eventually accepted matches as a gift (but required lessons in how to use them — they'd never seen them before and even tried tasting them). The leader was given a mirror, which he clearly considered magical, and covered up with a leaf (too scary?). The whole tribe eventually crossed over the river to eat rice (another novelty) and get medicine.
Every contact between Europeans and primitive Africans, Americans, Australians, and so forth must have gone something like this. It's a story we think about in terms of colonization, plagues, slavery, and genocide. But watching the video, I got a whole 'nother story, more even-handed, about the good side of bringing all people into the broader world, and welcoming them into the widest human family. The tribesmen certainly looked different: their odd posture and body language, the physical quirk that they didn't have earlobes, the language that even other Papuan New Guineans could barely understand. But underneath, the basics of suspicion and trust, hunger, illness, and surprise were all the same, and much more profoundly moving. The future might be mixed for any group of aboriginals, but it's not entirely bleak.
I wasn't there in the jungle that rainy afternoon in New Guinea, but I felt privileged to see a first contact like that. A group of lost cousins made our acquaintance, and hope that — on closer acquaintance — we don't disappoint them.