Lost Among the Baining

Gail Pool looks back with humor and insight on the year she and her husband conducted anthropological research among the Baining -- a remote tribe located in the New Britain province of Papua New Guinea. Fresh out of Harvard, the ambitious youths pursue their fieldwork among a people even the renowned anthropologist Gregory Bateson warns them against. The Baining, according to Bateson and other experts in the field, are a “very shy and frightened” people who speak an “abominable” language and, at bottom, are “monstrously difficult to work with.” Undaunted, the couple ignores precautions to maintain their sense of identity and goes native, forging a life in the wilderness of Papua New Guinea. Living in a primitive hut, cooking and eating various types of taro, Gail and Jeremy make an earnest effort to become intimate with the subjects of their fieldwork.

But the Baining prove frustratingly elusive. They appear unaccustomed to conversation, willing to sit for hours in silence. The natives are unable to answer the anthropologists' questions about tribal tradition, culture and custom. “Our fathers never told us,” is the reply to every inquiry into the tribe's heritage. Eventually run down by the lack of answers and harsh conditions, Gail and Jeremy return to the States. But while they abandon anthropology for alternative careers, they are never quite able to leave their experience among the Baining behind. For years afterward, the couple considered their venture a failure. Its peculiar tensions resonate throughout their married life until, decades later, they decide to return, bravely facing the arrogance and naiveté of their youth, finally reconciling themselves to their first adventure in the field and gaining fresh insight into – and an appreciation for – the enigmatic Baining.