Section 2: Environmental, Ethnographic and Archaeological Context

Summary | Environment | Ethnographic background | Archaeological context | Ethnography and stone tools

2.1 Environment

The New Guinea highlands comprise a series of mountain ranges occupying the interior of the island. They are physically isolated from the coastal region and were thought by outsiders to be uninhabited until the 1930s. A subsequent population census revealed that they had a large population; about one-third of the total population of New Guinea lives in the intermontane valley basins, hill slopes and plateaux of the highlands region at an altitude of between 1500–2200 metres above sea level.

Fig 1a
Figures 1a and 1b: Location of Papua New Guinea and Location of Wola region

The Wola live in the south central highlands of Papua New Guinea. They occupy five valleys in the Southern Highlands Province (the Ak, Was, Nemb, Lai and Mend), north-east of Lake Kutubu, between 6° 0'/15' south latitude and 143° 15'/45' east longitude (Fig. 1) The majority of the population lives between 1600 and 2000 metres above sea level. The topography is mountainous, rugged and precipitous, with turbulent rivers flowing along valley floors (Plate 1). The Wola live along the valley sides, leaving the intervening watersheds largely unpopulated. In the valleys, where they have cultivated extensively, there are areas of dense cane grass interspersed with the grassy clearings of fallowed or recently abandoned gardens and the brown soil and green crops of current ones. Lower montane rainforest occurs on the mountains and in the unpopulated parts of river valleys.

Plate 1 1
General view, Wololand

The region's climate is of the 'Lower Montane Humid' type (McAlpine et al. 1983, 160), characterised by high rainfall – annual average c.3000mm – and cool temperatures; owing to the moderating effect of altitude the mean daily temperature is 18°C. The weather is generally equable, many days featuring sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. There are no notable seasons sufficient to influence crop cultivation, although the Wola distinguish two seasons which equate with the Southern Hemisphere's summer and winter. The same climatic conditions largely prevail throughout the year, although unpredictable perturbations can occur, like overly dry or wet weather, which can adversely affect daily life (e.g. the 1997 drought attributed to the El Niño perturbation).

The geology comprises mainly sedimentary rocks, largely limestone, with igneous rocks of more recent volcanic origin on the margins. In the recent geological past it was uplifted, folded and faulted, and frequent earth tremors indicate that these earth movements continue today. The relatively recent occurrence of folding accounts for the landscape's rugged and sharp relief. Contemporary geomorphological processes are changing the countryside rapidly, maintaining its youthful and raw topography; weathering proceeds apace, erosion is constant, and the occasional large-scale earth movement can dramatically change the local landscape (Lôffler 1977).


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003