First People in New Guinea

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New Guinea was first settled about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, around the same times as Australia. Archaeological evidence shows that 40,000 years ago, some of the first farmers came to the Indonesian side of New Guinea. Flaked stone, bone, and shell artifacts dated to 28,000 years before present have been found in Kilu Cave.Buka Island, New Guinea. Buka Island is near Bougainville Island which is close to the Solomon Islands than the main part of Papua New Guinea, [Source: Wikipedia]

About 40,000 years ago, it is believed a boat with a group of humans landed on New Guinea for the first time. From archaeological, linguistic and biological evidence, it is thought that these first visitors, the Papuans, are the oldest human residents of New Guinea. Much later on, probably about 1,600 B.C., seafaring people that had set off thousands of years before from Taiwan also reached New Guinea. [Source: WWF]

Les Groube et al. wrote in Nature in 1986: The geographical position of the island of New Guinea suggests that it may have been an early staging post in the Pleistocene settlement of Australia from the Indonesia–Indochina region. Previous data have not supported this, as archaeological sites 35,000 to 40,000 years old occur in southern Australia, whereas the earliest previously known in Papua New Guinea is 26,000 years old.. We now report evidence that the north coast of Papua New Guinea was occupied at least 40,000 years ago. Sahuland, which is the greater land area of Australia and New Guinea plus their connecting continental shelf exposed as land when Pleistocene sea levels were lower than now, was occupied by humans in several widely separated areas at that time. A distinctive ‘waisted axe’ culture appears to have existed in New Guinea and probably in Australia in the Late Pleistocene, but antecedents are not yet known from east and southeast Asia. There is evidence for hafting of these tools at a date which is earlier than known elsewhere in the world. [Source: Les Groube, John Chappell, John Muke & David Price, Nature volume 324, pages 453–455, December 4. 1986]

Archaeology magazine reported: It has long been thought that the Austronesian-speaking people from Asia who eventually colonized the remote islands of the Pacific skirted New Guinea and had little influence on the existing culture there, especially in the interior. But new analysis of 12 potsherds from a highland site suggest otherwise. The sherds, the oldest known pottery on New Guinea at 3,000 years old, were locally made, suggesting that Austronesian influence (which includes a pottery-making tradition) made its way up the island’s rugged slopes hundreds of years earlier than once thought. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2017]

Early Migration to New Guinea

Archeological evidence indicates that humans arrived in Australia — and possibly and likely on New Guinea — at least 60,000 years ago, probably by sea from Southeast Asia during an Ice Age period when the sea was lower and distances between islands shorter. By 35,000 years ago, people had spread throughout people had spread throughout Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.

For much of their history Australia and New Guinea were joined together in a landmass called Sahul. They were not separated by rising sea levels until about 8,000 years ago, when Tasmania and Australia were also separated. Genetic evidence supports the close ties between these two countries – the Indigenous peoples from these regions are more closely related to each other than to anyone else in the world, suggesting a recent common ancestry. [Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

Human reached New Guinea, New Britain and the northern Solomon Islands at least 30,000 to 45,000 years ago. They presumably arrived there taking the same or similar routes — and using the same or similar methods of transport — as the first people in Australia.

Oldest High-Altitude Settlements — 49,000 Years old — Discovered in Papua New Guinea

In 2010, archaeologists said the had discovered the world's oldest known high-altitude human settlements, dating back up to 49,000 years, under volcanic ash in Papua New Guinea mountains, AFP reported:. Researchers have unearthed the remains of about six camps, including fragments of stone tools and food, in an area near the town of Kokoda, said an archaeologist on the team, Andrew Fairbairn. "What we've got there are basically a series of campsites, that's what they look like anyway. The remains of fires, stone tools, that kind of thing, on ridgetops," the University of Queensland academic told AFP. "It's not like a village or anything like that, they are these campsite areas that have been repeatedly used."[Source: AFP, October 1, 2010 =]

“Fairbairn said the settlements are at about 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) and believed to be the oldest evidence of our human ancestors, Homo sapiens, inhabiting a high-altitude environment. "For Homo sapiens, this is the earliest for us, for modern humans," he said. "The nearest after this is round about 30,000 years ago in Tibet, and there's some in the Ethiopian highlands at around about the same type of age." =

“Fairbairn said he had been shocked to discover the age of the finds, using radio carbon dating, because this suggested humans had been living in the cold, wet and inhospitable highlands at the height of the last Ice Age. "We didn't expect to find anything of that early age," he said. The findings, published in the journal Science, suggest that the prehistoric highlanders of Papua New Guinea's Ivane Valley in the Owen Stanley Range Mountain made stone tools, hunted small animals and ate yams and nuts. =

“But why they chose to dwell in the harsh conditions of the highlands, where temperatures would have dipped below freezing, rather than remain in the warmer coastal areas, remains a mystery. "Papua New Guinea's mountains have long held surprises for the scientific community and here is another one — maybe they were the home of Homo sapiens' earliest mountaineers," Fairbairn said.” =

Early Agriculture in New Guinea

There is archaeological evidence that shows that 40,000 years ago, some of the first farmers came to New Guinea from the South-East Asian Peninsula. The is also evidence that bananas and taro were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago. Some regard this as one first forms of agriculture.

Wild bananas can be found in the wet hot forests of New Guinea and South and Southeast Asia, Phytoliths of cultivated bananas appear at Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea around 6,800 years ago. How they spread into the wider world has not been clear. Other early dates for bananas include 5,250 years ago for those from Munsa, Uganda, and 4,250 years ago for those from Kot Diji in Pakistan. [Source: Chris Hunt, Professor of Cultural Palaeoecology, LJMU; / Dr Rathnasiri Premathilake, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Archaeology, University of Kelaniya, July 30, 2018}

The abstract of a 2003 article in Science reads: Multidisciplinary investigations at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea show that agriculture arose independently in New Guinea by at least 6950 to 6440 years ago. Plant exploitation and some cultivation occurred on the wetland margin at 10,220 to 9910 years ago (phase 1), mounding cultivation began by 6950 to 6440 years ago (phase 2), and ditched cultivation began by 4350 to 3980 years ago (phase 3). Clearance of lower montane rainforests began in the early Holocene, with modification to grassland at 6950 to 6440 years ago Taro (Colocasia esculenta) was utilized in the early Holocene, and bananas (Musa spp.) were intensively cultivated by at least 6950 to 6440 years ago [Source: Origins of Agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea [Source: “Origins of Agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea” by T. P. Denham, S. G. Haberle, C. Lentfer, R. Fullagar, J. Field, M. Therin, N. Porch, and B. Winsborough, Science July 11 2003, Vol 301, Issue 5630, pp. 189-193]

In the case of Kuk Swamp, there is evidence of formalized agriculture emerging by about 10,000 years ago, with evidence of cultivated plots, though which plant was cultivated remains unknown. Taro, another one of the world’s most ancient cultivated crops, may have originated in New Guinea. Taro is found widely in tropical and subtropical regions of South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Papua New Guinea, and northern Australia and in Maldives. Taro is highly polymorphic, making taxonomy and distinction between wild and cultivated types difficult. It is believed that they were domesticated independently multiple times, with authors giving possible locations as New Guinea, Mainland Southeast Asia, and northeastern India, based largely on the assumed native range of the wild plants. Archaeological traces of taro exploitation have been recovered from numerous sites, though whether these were cultivated or wild types can not be ascertained. They include the Niah Caves of Borneo around 10,000 years ago, Ille Cave of Palawan, dated to at least 11,000 year ago; Kuk Swamp of New Guinea, dated to between 8250 BC and 7960 BC; and Kilu Cave in the Solomon Islands dated to around 28,000 to 20,000 years ago. Swamp sago agriculture is also thought to have originated in New Guinea [Source: Wikipedia]

Lifestyle of the First People in New Guinea

Early communities in New Guinea, it is thought, had little contact with each other because of rough terrain and so maintained their autonomy, as well as their distinct languages and customs. This is evidences today by the existence of over 700 distinct languages in New Guinea, a sixth of the world’s total.

Based on the evidence of stone tools and remains from fires people were well established in New Guinea by 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. The first domesticated pigs arrived in Papua New Guinea 9000 years ago and by 5,000 years ago they were widespread. The development of agriculture in New Guinea can be traced back to 8000 B.C. At this time in history European were still hunters and gatherers and agriculture was only beginning to be developed in the Tigris and Euphrates area, where many scientist say agriculture began.

Although the first arrivals are believed to have been mostly hunters and gatherers, there is early evidence that these people managed the forest environment to provide food. Early garden crops — many of them are indigenous — included sugarcane, Pacific bananas, yams, and taros, while sago and pandanus were two commonly exploited native forest crops. Shellfish and fish were consumed by coastal dwellers' diets. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009"]

When Europeans first arrived, inhabitants of New Guinea and nearby islands — while still relying on bone, wood, and stone tools — had a productive agricultural system. They traded along the coast, where products mainly were pottery, shell ornaments, and foodstuffs, and in the interior, where forest products were exchanged for shells and other sea products.

Laura Zimmer–Tamakoshi wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Before colonization, an individual's identity was grounded in his or her kin group and rarely extended beyond the kin groups of close relatives and in-laws. While an individual may have shared a language and culture with tens of thousands of persons, only leaders and other unusual individuals spent time outside the villages nearest to his or her "place." [Source: Laura Zimmer–Tamakoshi, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

Tools and Ritual Objects of Early People in New Guinea

According to Archaeology magazine: In late 2010, at a construction site on New Britain Island, archaeologists uncovered a cache of sophisticated obsidian tools dating to between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago. Upon analysis, scientists found that at least five of the tools were thin, fragile, and unused — suggesting a ritual or decorative purpose — and appear to have a distinctly phallic shape. There are few archaeological sites from this period in Papuan history, and the discovery suggests an early, previously unrecognized trade in ritual objects before the emergence of the Lapita culture across the South Pacific. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2014]

A mysterious two-inch-long tool had scientists baffled. The 3,300-year-old gouge, made of a rare form of jade called jadeite, was found on Emirau Island, northeast of New Guinea. Its jadeite is different from any geologists had ever seen, with the closest match being from distant Mexico. A possible solution came from an unpublished manuscript by a German scientist who found some strange rocks on the Irian Jaya mainland (the Indonesian half of New Guinea) 100 years ago. Analysis is ongoing, but the finds appear to be a close match. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March-April 2012]

Prehistoric Stone Sculpture from New Guinea

In 2017, archaeologists in New Guinea announced they had discovered several ornately decorated stone statues at a cemetery that may be more than 3,000 years old. Archaeology magazine reported: Erlin Novita of the Papua Archaeological Center led a team that found the statues at Mount Srobu on the island’s north coast, in Indonesia’s Papua province. Here burials were hewn into limestone bedrock and covered with shell mounds by people of the megalithic cultures who likely made the statues. Most megalithic human depictions are simple, but the three-foot-tall statues unearthed by Novita’s team are complex. The bodies are posed in a crouching position, similar to statues known from Polynesia. Novita believes the statues represented important ancestors and were objects of worship. She notes that they are visually similar to the smoked mummies of Papuan chiefs that are traditionally preserved in a crouched position and that continue to be venerated in some parts of New Guinea to this day. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2019]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The earliest known works of Oceanic sculpture are a series of ancient stone figures unearthed in various locations on the island of New Guinea, primarily in the mountainous highlands of the interior. To date, no examples have been excavated from a secure archaeological context. Although organic material trapped within a crack in one example has recently been dated to 1500 B.C., firm dating and chronology for the figures are otherwise lacking. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jennifer Wagelie, Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2001]

The stone sculptures fall into three basic categories: mortars, pestles, and freestanding figures. The tops of many pestles are adorned with images of human heads, birds, or bird's heads. The mortars display similar anthropomorphic and avian imagery as well as geometric motifs. Freestanding figures include depictions of humans, birds, and phalluses, as well as long-nosed animals that some scholars identify as echidnas (spiny mammals resembling hedgehogs). While the original significance and function of these stone images remain unknown, they possibly represent totemic species or ancestors and were likely used in ritual contexts. When found by contemporary New Guinea peoples, these early stone sculptures are often thought to be of supernatural origin and are reused in a variety of religious contexts, from fertility rituals to hunting magic and sorcery.

Lapita Culture in of Mainland Papua New Guinea

The Lapita culture is the name given to a seafaring,Neolithic, Austronesian people and their material culture, who settled Island Melanesia via a seaborne migration at around 1600 to 500 B.C.. The ''Lapita Culture'' is named after a site in New Caledonia. The Lapita intermarried with the Papuan populations to various degrees, and are the direct ancestors of the Austronesian peoples of Polynesia, eastern Micronesia, and Island Melanesia. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Lapita, were not thought to have lived in Papua New Guinea. But according to Archaeology magazine “The remains of several villages, including stone tools, shell ornaments, and thousands of pottery fragments have been discovered that site is both unusually deep — including pre- and post-Lapita sequences — and perhaps the largest Lapita landscape yet discovered. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March-April 2012]

Researchers from Monash University in Australia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University reported in World Archaeology: For decades archaeologists working along Papua New Guinea's southern coastline have sought evidence for early ceramics and its relationship and were unable to find any. We found conclusive evidence for the presence of Lapita ceramics along the Papuan south coast between 500 and 900 B.C., thereby indicating that current models of colonization by ceramicists for the region need to be rethought.[Source: Bruno David, Ian Mcniven, Thomas Richards from Monash University (Australia) and Sean P. Connaughton, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, World Archaeology, December 2011

Two of the great mysteries of the Lapita expansive process of exploration and colonization are: first, why Lapita potters do not appear to have ventured onto the large continental island of New Guinea nearby; and, second, why Lapita peoples never ventured the 600 kilometers southward and then southwest-ward that would have seen them enter the southern waters separating the main island of New Guinea from Australia, despite travelling eastward some 4500 kilometers. As Anson noted, ‘No Lapita sites have yet been found west of the Bismarck Archipelago’.

Following McNiven et al. (2011), we present new evidence suggesting otherwise, with dentate-stamped and other ceramics with Lapita motifs and of known Middle to Late Lapita age indicating that Lapita peoples did in fact travel southwest-ward along the southern New Guinea coast and establish settlements close to the present city of Port Moresby. Such a view reverses more than forty years of conventional modelling on the archaeology of the southern New Guinea coast and Lapita dispersal. Lapita ceramics. The geographical spread of Lapita material culture corresponds closely with the geographical spread of ethnographic Austronesian languages across the western Pacific. There is therefore a universally accepted understanding that Lapita peoples were Austronesian language speakers, although the degree to which Lapita ways of doing things evolved through interactions with pre-established non-Austronesian speaking indigenous peoples is widely debated.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Archaeology magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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