West Papua (also known as Western New Guinea) informally refers to the Indonesian western half of the island of New Guinea and other smaller islands to its west. The region is officially administered as two provinces: Papua and West Papua. The eastern half of New Guinea is Papua New Guinea.
The population of approximately 3 million comprises ethnic Papuans, Melanesians, and Austronesians. The region is predominantly dense forest where numerous traditional tribes live such as the Dani of the Baliem Valley, although the majority of the population live in or near coastal areas. The largest city in the region is Jayapura. The official and most commonly spoken language is Indonesian. Estimates of the number of tribal languages in the region range from 200 to over 700, with the most widely spoken including Dani, Yali, Ekari and Biak. The predominant religion is Christianity (often combined with traditional beliefs) followed by Islam. The main industries include agriculture, fishing, oil production, and mining.
Human habitation is estimated to have begun between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. The Netherlands made claim to the region and commenced missionary work in nineteenth century. The region was incorporated into the Indonesian republic in the 1960s, and has faced a violent separatist movement since then. Following the 1998 commencement of reforms across Indonesia, Papua and other Indonesian provinces received greater regional autonomy. In 2001, “Special Autonomy” status was granted to Papua province, although to date, implementation has been partial. Since 2003, the region has been divided into the two provinces of Papua and West Papua.
The Baliem Valley:
The Baliem Valley, also spelled Balim Valley and sometimes known as the Grand Valley, of the highlands of Western New Guinea, is occupied by the Dani people. The main town in the valley is Wamena. The valley is about 80 km in length by 20 km in width and lies at an altitude of about 1,600-1,700 m, with a population of 100,000.
As far as the outside world was concerned, the discovery of the Baliem Valley and the unexpected presence of its large agricultural population was made by Richard Archbold’s third zoological expedition to New Guinea in 1938. On 21 June an aerial reconnaissance flight southwards from Hollandia (now Jayapura) found what the expedition called the ‘Grand Valley’. Since then the valley has gradually been opened up to a limited amount of tourism.
The following is copied from the back cover of Peter Matthiessen’s book Under the Mountain Wall:
“In the Baliem Valley in Central New Guinea live the Kurelu, a Stone Age tribe that survived into the twentieth century. Peter Matthiessen visited the Kurelu with the Harvard-Peabody Expedition in 1961 and wrote Under the Mountain Wall as an account not of the expedition, but of the great warrior Weaklekek, the swineherd Tukum, U-mue and his family, and the boy Weake, killed in a surprise raid. Matthiessen observes these people in their timeless rhythm of work and play and war, of gardening and wood gathering, feasts and funerals, pig stealing and ambush. Drawing on his great skills as naturalist and novelist, Matthiessen offers a remarkable firsthand view of a lost culture in all its simplicity and violence — on the brink of incalculable change.”