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Indiana Jones and the Lying, Confused Natives

jungle trail map

My good friend Chris Doyle and I wrote the following puzzle late one night on my porch. It appeared in Games magazine a while back. Be warned, however, this is not for puzzle amateurs—it's hard. Here it is:

A Fork in the Path...

Lost and disoriented, Indiana Jones is making his way down a narrow path through the impenetrable jungles of Central America. With his food and water gone, he has no chance of survival unless he finds aid.

Ahead in a small clearing lies a fork in the path. One path leads to a well-known tribe of truth-telling friendly natives, who will welcome Jones by throwing a great feast in his honor. The other path leads to a tribe of cannibals who will make a meal out of him, and who are known throughout the region for always lying when they speak. No other tribes live anywhere nearby. Unfortunately, however, Jones cannot remember which path is which.

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With the best possible question, what is Jones's chance of survival?

There are three natives sitting in the clearing, and Jones can tell from their different clothing and weapons that they do not all come from the same tribe. The cannibals and truth-tellers speak the same language, and Jones knows it fairly well. But he may have gotten the words for 'yes' and 'no' confused. 'Ug' and 'Um' are their words for 'yes' and 'no'; or is it 'no' and 'yes'? He can't remember which word is which.

Even worse, Jones knows that every member of one of the tribes is addicted to a dangerous jungle weed that confuses their sense of direction. These tribesmen are always mistaken about the correct route to take through jungle paths. They invariably pick the wrong path at forks in the jungle, and believe members of the other tribe would take the same incorrect path. The tribe that does not smoke this weed knows all about this hilarious behavior of their brethren, and secretly laughs at them. Unfortunately, Jones does not know which tribe is addicted to the jungle weed.

One thing Jones is certain of is the custom, common to both tribes, that only the eldest member of a group will speak. The tribesmen also believe it is rude to pose more than a single question to strangers. Thus Jones will be able to ask only one yes/no ('Ug/Um') question, which will be answered only by the eldest of the three tribesmen sitting before him.

With the best possible question, what is Jones's chance of survival? And, what is this best question?

The Answer...

Think you know the answer? It's a tough puzzle so before you click on the real answer, you might want to think about it some more. You could try your question out on all the combinations of cannibals, liars, and smokers that you can think of. But if you really want to know the best question Jones can ask, here is the answer to the Lying, Confused Natives puzzle.

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The Pyramids likewise surpass description, but the Egyptian Labyrinth surpasses the Pyramids."

—Herodotus, Greek historian, 5th century BC

You can win a free book. It's true.