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

2.3 Archaeological context

New Guinea has been occupied for at least 40,000 years, possibly longer (Allen and O'Connell 1995; Gosden 1995; Groube et al. 1986; Allen 1996), and is one way for Pleistocene humans to have reached Australia. By 30,000 BP several sites are known in New Britain, New Ireland and Manus Island (Fredericksen et al. 1993; Gosden 1993; 1995). The earliest known highland sites in Papua New Guinea (Kosipe and Nombe) date to between 30,000 and 20,000 BP (Mountain 1993; White et al. 1970). Based on linguistic data, blood group patterning and archaeological evidence, the highland region is thought to have been populated by about 30,000 BP (White and Thomas 1972; Smith and Sharp 1993; Mountain 1993). A number of sites dated to this time contain palynological evidence suggestive of forest clearance (Mountain 1993).

Water control ditches at Kuk Swamp, dated to 9000 BP, suggest evidence for possible agricultural management systems (Golson 1977b; 1989; 1991). Evidence for pig husbandry dates to 6000–8000 BP (Allen 1996); indeed pig bones dated to 10,000 BP have been reported at two sites (Bulmer 1975), though subsequently doubts have been expressed (Bayliss-Smith 1996; Harris 1995). The significance of the pig is substantial; it is not an indigenous species and is thought to have been taken there by humans. Recovery of domesticated species of pandanus from the highlands dated to 10,000 BP (Allen 1996), and the fact that by 5000 BP the montane forest had been substantially cleared (Powell 1982), suggest early agriculture. It is thought possible, based on evidence for burning in association with stone tools, that manipulation of plant foods may have begun as early as 30,000 BP in the highlands (Hope and Golson 1995). Following the Late Glacial Maximum (18,000 BP) there is a gradual increase in archaeological sites in the Highlands (Bulmer 1977; Mountain 1993). Taro was the staple crop and may have been cultivated as early as the late Pleistocene (Gosden 1993) though Spriggs (1996) and Haberle (1993) suggest that by 20,000 BP people were actively involved in managing their environment and resources. Examination of residues on stone tools from Kilu Cave, Buka in the Solomon Islands, suggests their possible use on starch-rich taro plants, which may indicate their cultivation by 28,000 BP (Spriggs 1993). Sweet potato, the current food staple, is a relatively late introduction, possibly arriving as recently as 300 years ago (Golson 1976).

The above evidence, together with question marks raised over the suitability of the highland forest resources for subsistence based on hunting and gathering (Bailey et al. 1989; Headland 1987), has led to doubt over the existence of an early hunting and gathering phase, and to suggest the appearance of agriculture very early in the archaeological record (Sillitoe 2002a), though this is by no means certain (Mountain 1993). Groube (1989) suggests an independent transformational model, which includes a short period of forest foraging/hunting soon followed by minimal clearance to favour certain plants, succeeded by more permanent forest management which eventually transformed into gardens. Bayliss-Smith (1996) explains that not enough information, archaeological or palaeobotanical, is available and the origins of agriculture in New Guinea and its early agricultural history are still, to a large extent, unknown.

Though only a little archaeological work has been carried out in the New Guinea Highlands, there is sufficient evidence to allow some initial interpretations with regard to stone artefacts. An early tool type is the waisted blade, with the waist possibly being related to hafting. Waisted blades have been recorded across the highland region at least as far back as 11,000 BP (White and Thomas 1972) and possibly as early as 30,000–40,000 BP (Groube 1986; 1989; Groube et al. 1986; Muke 1984). Bulmer (1964) records the continued use of waisted blades in the Eastern Highlands at Kiowa up to the ethnographic present, while at least one assemblage containing waisted blades is dated to between 5500 and 3000 BP (Bulmer 1977), though waisted blades are not generally present in more recent archaeological assemblages. Waisted blades are thought to have been hafted; they are thought to be linked to the edge-ground tools (Holdaway 1995) that make an appearance around 10,000 BP and may be the precursor of the polished stone axe (Bulmer 1977).

The site of Wañelek, dated to between 2500–850 BC, has produced a wide range of flake shapes including drill points and triangular-sectioned retouched blade points. Interpretation of this unusual assemblage is still unclear (Bulmer 1991). Based on assemblages from five sites (Kafaviana, Aibura, Batari, Niobe, Kiowa), some unifacial step flaking, possibly resharpening, on irregularly shaped artefacts, has been recorded within prehistoric contexts (i.e. pre-1930), though unretouched utilised flakes comprise the main part of lithic assemblages from the highlands with a decrease in the presence of retouch and an increase in the use of simple, unretouched flakes occurring over the last 1000 years (White and Thomas 1972). Holdaway (1995) notes a reduction in overall size of artefacts from New Guinea over time while Muke (1984) notes the decrease in size and weight of waisted tools over time. While the archaeological data are limited owing to the lack of archaeological investigation, a simplification of lithic technologies over time seems to have occurred and modern ethnographic flaked lithic assemblages all comprise unretouched, utilised flakes as the only tool.

Considerably more archaeological work has been undertaken in other areas of Papua New Guinea, in particular on Manus Island (Fredericksen et al. 1993), Garua Island (Torrence 2002), New Britain (Allen 1996; Torrence et al. 1992; Fullagar et al. 1991; Fullagar 1993; Pavlides and Gosden 1994), and New Ireland (Gosden 1993; 1995).

One strand of research that has been employed successfully in New Guinea, is the extraction of residues, notably starch grains and phytoliths, from the edges of stone tools (e.g. Fullagar 1993; Fullagar 1998; Fullagar et al. 1998; Kealhofer et al. 1999; Lentfer et al. 2002; Therin et al. 1999). These give clues as to the types of plants used and have contributed substantially to an understanding of sites, subsistence patterns and the onset on agriculture. The survival mechanism of starch grains in the archaeological record is not yet fully understood; currently their interpretation is based on comparison with modern starch grain assemblages found nearby (Barton et al. 1998).


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003