70 Pages

Settlement and economy in prehistoric Papua New Guinea: a review of the archeological evidence - article ; n°46 ; vol.31, pg 7-75


Gain access to the library to view online
Learn more


Journal de la Société des océanistes - Année 1975 - Volume 31 - Numéro 46 - Pages 7-75
69 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Published by
Published 01 January 1975
Reads 202
Language English
Document size 5 MB

Susan Bulmer
Settlement and economy in prehistoric Papua New Guinea: a
review of the archeological evidence
In: Journal de la Société des océanistes. N°46, Tome 31, 1975. pp. 7-75.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Bulmer Susan. Settlement and economy in prehistoric Papua New Guinea: a review of the archeological evidence. In: Journal
de la Société des océanistes. N°46, Tome 31, 1975. pp. 7-75.
doi : 10.3406/jso.1975.2688
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/jso_0300-953X_1975_num_31_46_2688Seulement and economy
in prehistoric
Papua New Guinea :
a review
of the
archaeological evidence
organisé ce lier, et Susan Ouvert français. colloque Les Susan et Bulmer, par réunit 16, un fut Monsieur 17 colloque La un successivement ici et première certain reproduite 18 en sur Claude mai effet, nombre le communication 1973, nous en thème Lévi-Strauss, présidé raison présente de la « naturalistes Maison par Écologie de présentée son l'essentiel Jacques Professeur des très et Sciences grand Sociétés Barrau anthropologues fut des au celle recherches intérêt. Collège de et en l'Homme Maurice du Mélanésie de Professeur étrangers archéoloFrance, Gode- avait ».
giques récemment effectuées en Nouvelle-Guinée, recherches qui s'attachent à
retracer l'évolution du milieu naturel et celle des modes d'adaptation de
l'homme à ce milieu. Cette préhistoire intéresse au plus haut point celle de
l'Asie du Sud-Est comme celle du reste de la Mélanésie et de l'Australie.
Introduction 8
Environmental background to human settlement 9
Sea barriers and sea levels 9
Climate 11
Late Pleistocene pluvial 11 .
Volcanic activity 12
Earth movements 13
Distribution of rock resources 13
Salt 14
Plant resources 15
Fossil animals 16
Recent fauna 17
Pigs 18
Man's impact on his environment 19
Forest clearance 19
Tree selections and cultivation . 20
Grasslands 20
Introduced plants 22
Domestication of plants 22 animals 23
The archaeological sites 24
Introduction 24
Montane sites 25
Summary of montane sites 43
Lowland sites 46 of lowland sites 65
Concluding remarks 67
List of tables, figures and maps. , 69
References 69
I am very grateful to many colleagues for unpublished information about
their current or recent research, but I bear sole responsibility for the inter
pretations of their evidence that appear in this paper. I would also like to
warmly thank Janet M. Davidson, Roger C. Green and R. N. H. Bulmer for
their helpful comments oh an earlier draft of this paper.
This paper reviews the evidence concerning human settlement and ec
onomy in prehistoric Papua New Guinea1. Firstly, I briefly discuss the findings
because 1. The it is political the scene territory of nearly of Papua all the New archaeological Guinea is taken work in here western to be Melanesia. the unit for There discussion, is of largely course
no assumption that this modern historical/political unit has boundaries that are necessarily significant
of environmental scientists and archaeologists concerning the natural back
ground of prehistoric settlement and man's impact on his environment Set
against this is a summary of the evidence from archaeological excavations for
plants and animals utilized by prehistoric man, the location and character of
sites of settlement and trade. Although the data are still fragmentary, result
ing from only fourteen years of research by sixteen archaeologists, patterns
now appear to be emerging from what seemed to be, only a few years ago,
anything but a coherent picture.
In spite of the fragmentary nature of the data, and the likelihood that
any survey will rapidly become dated, a general review is warranted. This
paper is not only directed to my archaeological colleages, but also to non-
archaeologists2, some of whom have recently engaged in reconstructions of
economic prehistory based on ethnographic data, and others of whom are
interested in the findings for a variety of reasons. It is at least worth point
ing out that the time is past when speculation about the prehistory of Papua
New Guinea can proceed without taking into account the archaeological data.
However, the source material is scattered, largely in unpublished papers and
theses, and indeed a good proportion of it is still being written, so it is imposs
ible for persons not immediately involved in the field to keep abreast of the
findings. It is also of interest to compare the findings from Papua New Guinea
with recent results of archaeological work in Indonesia, mainland Southeast
Asia, Japan, Estern Melanesia, and Australia. Some of these areas appear to
have close prehistoric links with Papua New Guinea, but such comparisons
will only be attempted very briefly in this paper.
Other archaeologists, such as Golson (1972) and Allen (1971), have sum
marized current knowledge of the environment of prehistoric settlement in
Papua New Guinea, so I will here mainly discuss more recent findings. In
general, the environmental background of human settlement in this area is
imperfectly known, and archaeology has not yet contributed much to this
knowledge. However, some environmental data are available in material
excavated by archaeologists, particularly some evidence of waterlain deposits
and faunal change. As well, data are now available from 15 palaeoecological
sites in montane New Guinea, providing at last some detailed information
about particular local areas.
Sea barriers and sea levels.
Of particular interest to prehistorians is the role of changing sea levels
during the Pleistocene and of the sea barriers in the Indonesian area. These
2. This is a much expanded version of a paper delivered to the seminar "Écologie et Société en
Mélanésie", in Paris, May 1973. SOCIÉTÉ DES OCÉANISTES
are reviewed by Calaby (1972) in relation to animal distributions and by
Jennings (1971) in relation to the human settlement of Australia. The
ancient sea barriers between Australasia and mainland Asia have never in the
last 50,000 years been less than 50-100 km wide (Jennings 1971 : 6). The
role these played in human settlement is not known, other than that they seem
to have prevented the spread of man into Australasia until relatively recent
times, and that they required man to use rafts or boats to make this journey
(Golson 1972 : 391-7).
Much has also been made of the importance of the land bridge between
New Guinea and Australia during times of low sea levels. The final drowning
of the Torres Strait is thought to have occurred between 6,500 and 8,000 years
ago, following a late Pleistocene low about 125 m below present sea level from
about 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. It deserves to be mentioned that there
is no evidence yet of close cultural relationship between the peoples of the
late Pleistocene in Australia and New Guinea. The distinctive * waisted blade'
assemblage of the late Pleistocene sites of montane New Guinea and possibly
of New Britain has yet to be excavated from an Australian site, and the cha
racteristic stone assemblages of the early and Tasmanian sites
(Mulvaney 1969 : 133f) have not yet been found in a New Guinea archaeol
ogical site. However, there are some parallels between the New Guinea
assemblages and the 'Hoabinhian' assemblages of Southeast Asia (Bulmer
1971a), and a number of archaeologists have pointed to similarities between
the Australian stone tools of early sites and those of the Hoabinhian (Mat
thews 1966 ; Mulvaney 1969 : 146-52), so the problem of the relationship
between the New Guinea and Australian material may eventually be resolved.
It is of course possible that the apparent differences between them reflect
the fact that the montane New Guinea assemblages relate primarily to the
exploitation of temperate or sub-tropical montane forest environment, and
that the known Australian assemblages relate to other environmental or eco
nomic conditions.
In this respect, the total absence of early evidence from lowland New Guinea
and western Melanesia, other than the undated Passismanua collection of sou
thern New Britain (Chowning and Goodale 1966 ; Shutler and Kess 1969 ;
Bulmer 1971a), means that conclusions should not yet be drawn. As Jones
(1968) has pointed out for Tasmania, the sea level changes might well mean
that some, if not most, of early human settlement sites are now submerged
beneath the sea. However, such evidence as remains has not yet been found
in Papua New Guinea.
There is some evidence for a post-Pleistocene higher sea level or fluctua
tions of sea levels, during the last 5,000 years, but there is disagreement
about their precise character. These would have affected the formation of
coastal river plains and estuaries, and fringing reefs and coral islands in the
Papua New Guinea area. The post-Pleistocene sea level changes appear to
have been of minor proportions, possibly only of the order of two metres
(Jennings 1971 : 10-1). The settlement areas made available by the pro
cesses of sedimentation and coral formation, especially coral islets and coastal
river plains, have been typically occupied by Austronesian-speaking maritime
peoples. On linguistic grounds, that is, lexico-statistical estimates, these
peoples have probably entered the New Guinea area some time within the
past 6-7,000 years (Pawley 1972 : 4).
The past 25,000 years in Papua New Guinea have witnessed substantial
changes in climate, consistent with the general pattern of climate changes
during a similar period elsewhere in the world (Nix and Kalma 1972). Evi
dence for these changes in Papua New Guinea have most recently been
reviewed by G. Hope (1973 : 221fi) in interpreting the pollen evidence from
sites on Mt. Wilhelm and in reviewing other data from palaeoecological sites
in Papua New Guinea. He suggests there were four major climatic periods
during the period of known human settlement :
5,000 years ago until the present An essentially modern climate as at present.
8,600-5,000 years ago A period slightly more humid and warmer than the
14,500-8,600 years ago A period of warming and melting of the glaciers and the
recovery of the vegetational zones up the mountains.
22,000-14,500 years ago The last Pleistocene glaciation, with snow down to
3,500 m on Mt. Wilhelm.
Hope discusses in detail the arguments concerning the extent and cha
racter of the climatic changes thought to have occurred, and I would refer
readers directly to his work and other references cited therein. However,
I would emphasize that in no sense can the present climate be projected back
in time into the early period of human settlement. It is thought, for instance,
that the drying of the Arafura Sea had a profound effect on wind and rain
patterns, particularly on the southern side of the island. In general, it now
becomes possible to consider the data of the montane archaeological sites in
terms of the regional climatic background, even though much local variation
needs to be taken into account.
Late Pleistocene 'Pluvial'?
There is some evidence in the Australasian region for there having been
generally wetter conditions than at present during the last glaciation, although
little is known of this (Galloway 1971 : 21-2). It is possible that there is
evidence of such a pattern from the early montane archaeological sites in
Papua New Guinea.
Several sites contain layers suggesting marked changes in rainfall and/or
drainage patterns. While any one of these cases could be the result of unique
local factors, there now seems to me to be a more general pattern from seve
ral sites, particularly Yuku, B atari, Niobe, Kiowa and Kafiavana. None of
these sites is anywhere near areas of former glaciation, so the presence of
waterlain deposits would reflect greater rainfall rather than the direct melting
of the glaciers. Jennings and Frank (1967) comment, in respect to the water-
lain deposits at the Kafiavana site, that ablation by warm rain can be a more
important cause of glacial retreat than increase in general air temperature.
Only four of the archaeological sites (Kosipe, Yuku, Niobe, and Batara)
actually span the period of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene transition,
but two others (Kafiavana and Kiowa) were first occupied directly upon water-
lain layers at the close of the Pleistocene. These latter two sites could, of
course, represent new peoples moving into formerly unoccupied sites, and the
time interval between the drying of the sites and their occupation is not
known. There was earlier settlement in the same general montane areas,
however, and these sites settled at the end of the Pleistocene certainly do not
reflect earliest settlement.
At Yuku and Niobe there are signs of extensive water percolation follow
ing the earliest period of the deposits at these sites, ceasing abruptly during
the middle period of occupation. At Yuku this is seen in Layer 5, dated by
radiocarbon to between about 10,000 and 12,000 years ago (see p. 3 If). At
Niobe there is a flowstone deposit, sealing the undoubtedly late Pleistocene
occupation deposit, but there are as yet no dates available from the site.
At Kosipe there is a fossil soil in a layer in between dates of 9,000 years and
16,000 years which is attributed to a cessation in ash fall (White et al. 1970 :
158). The earliest occupation at both Kafiavana and Kiowa is dated to
about 10,000 years ago, and lies directly on the waterlain deposits mentioned
above, and Schmid and Gruninger (1966) interpreted the basal clay at Kafia
vana as the remainder of pluvial times. At Batari, the deposits dated to
between about 8,000 and 17,000 years contain considerable concretion from
water percolation, although White (1972 : 16) considers that the earlier date
does not have definite association with a stratigraphie feature of human occu
pation and may possibly be pre-human occupation in deposition.
In general, it seems to me that the evidence points to a general marked
reduction in rainfall, or at least a period of marked change in rainfall, at
about the end of the Pleistocene. In some cases this meant watercourses
withdrew from caves and rockshelters where they were formerly flowing, in
other cases there was a reduction in water percolation through habitation
deposits. Finally, it is of interest that G. Hope found a period of relatively
higher tree level on Mt. Wilhelm just after the end of the Pleistocene (see
Volcanic Activity.
Northern Papua New Guinea is the scene of considerable volcanic activity ;
of the thirty-eight recorded volcanoes in the territory, twenty-three have
erupted in historié times (Renwick 1970) and many others must have done
so within the period of human settlement. The volcanoes occur in three
general geographical groups ; Southeast Papua, northern New Guinea, and
the Bismarck archipelago and Bougainville. Only two active volcanoes are
present in the central mountain range of the Highlands, although ash falls
from lowland volcanoes have reached montane areas during some periods,
and are remembered in the oral traditions of the peoples there.
Ash from volcanic eruptions has been found in archaeological sites in three
areas : the Kosipe site, which contains ashes from Mt. Lamington on the
northern side of the mountains ; the agricultural sites in the upper Wahgi
valley, Manton and Kuk (Western Highlands District); and Watom Island
(East New Britain). In the first two cases sequences of distinctive ash
showers have been interleaved with archaeological deposits and have assisted
in a detailed dating and interpretation of human settlement. At Watom, an
ash layer indicates an interruption of settlement (Specht 1968), a
phenomenon which must have recurred in the occupation of this highly vol
canic region (Salisbury 1972). G. Hope (1973 : 229) found volcanic ash in
his Mt. Wilhelm sites dated to between about 12,000 and 10,000 years ago,
prior to any indication of human interference with the upper mountain forest.
Earth movements.
Uplift is prevalent along the northern coast of New Guinea, with tilting
to the south. One archaeological site where this has been demonstrated is
Aitape, west of Wewak on the Sepik coast. There human remains were found
in association with an old beach line, indicating that the land has risen about
50 m in the past 4-5,000 years (Hossfeld 1965). A large series of raised
beach terraces is present on the northern side of the Huon peninsula, but
no archaeological remains have yet been found associated with them. The
coastal area south of Lae has subsided ; this pattern is evidenced in the exca
vations at Rainu (see below) where habitation deposits are found 30-40 cm
below the high tide level (EglofF 1971 : 25). Such evidence may indicate
why early lowland sites have not yet been found, and suggests that careful
attention should be paid to the uplifted areas in order to find early coastal
sites. There are also, of course, archaeological materials below the high water
level at beach sites, where people lived in houses on stilts over the water,
not reflecting earth movements.
Distribution of rock resources.
Three kinds of rock were in particular demand in prehistoric times :
obsidian ; cherts and flints ; and good quality axe/adze stone. These were
traded widely in montane areas during the past 5,000 years, and presumably
in the lowlands as well as their natural occurrence is very restricted (see
Map 4). The quarry sources of montane axe/adze manufacture have been
surveyed by Chappell (1966) in the Western Highlands, and reported briefly
by A. J. and R. Radford (1972) in the Eastern Highlands. From the montane
quarries finished tools were traded as far as Madang (Moyne and Haddon
1935) and Kikori (S. Bowdler, pers. comm.).
How much the restricted occurrence of rock affected the selection of settl
ement sites in the late Pleistocene is not known. Early stone knappers in the
Highlands showed considerable skill in rendering a wide range of large and
small flaked implements in rather unpromising materials, and it is possible
that the early adoption here and in Australia of edge-grinding was a product
of the use of relatively unflakable rock. It also remains an open question
whether some of the early hunter-gatherers, lacking access to good quality
stone, got along with only wood, bone, and shell artefacts, as some modern
Philippine hunting groups do (Fox 1971). Unfortunately the archaeological
evidence for this is likely to be elusive.
Trade in obsidian in the Eastern Highlands began at least 5,000 years ago
(White 1972 : 98), but the source of this obsidian is not yet known, and
obsidian has not yet been found in sites in the Western Highlands. Lowland trade is in evidence in sites spanning the past three thousand years,
and can be assumed to be at least as old as the montane trade. Trade in
cherts and flints must also have occurred at least as early as trade in obsi
dian, but these rocks have a wider natural distribution than obsidian, and
their occurrence has not yet been reviewed in respect to their use by man.
Other rock types, including volcanic tuffs and andésites, were used in the
manufacture of stone mortars, pestles, clubheads, figurines and other objects.
The use of and trade in these raw materials and objects remain to be studied.
The most detailed information about prehistoric trade is only now becomi
ng available through several research projects concerned with a group of mari
time traders, known by their distinctive * Lapita' style pottery. Sites of settl
ements of these traders have been excavated from New Britain in the West to
Tonga in the east, and are producing evidence of long-distance trade in a
wide variety of commodities, including obsidian, particularly axe/adzes. Evi
dence has recently been reported (Green and Ambrose 1972) of the trade of
obsidian from New Britain to settlements in the Southeast Solomon Islands
over 2,000 km away, during the 1st and 2nd millennia B. C.
Ethnographic accounts indicate the importance and presumed antiquity of
trade in salt among inland peoples, but this has not so far been documented
archaeologically. It can, however, be anticipated that some archaeological
evidence will be forthcoming in the sites of settlements at 'salt-factories'
involving relatively durable equipment such as evaporating pans and ovens of
clay and pottery. Sea water, saline water from inland springs and pools, and
plant ash are the main traditional sources of salt in Papua New Guinea ; the
use of these has been reviewed by a number of authors, including Meggitt
(1958), the author (Bulmer 1966a : 77-9), Hughes (1971 : 159-99), and
McArthur (1972). One unusual source of salt is the grinding of human bone
to sprinkle on meat in the Eastern Highlands (A. J. Radford, pers. comm.
The exploitation of salt water and ash by inland peoples would have been
a corrolary of increasing dependence upon cultivated food and a relative
decrease in the proportion of animal food consumed by. agricultural peoples.
Although the direct evidence of salt trade may never be widespread, there
is good cause to consider it as a possible early component of montane trade
systems ; Hughes (1971 : 202) points out that salt-making in China is reported
to be at least 5,000 years old, so it is possible that salt-making in other areas
was similarly early. Coastal peoples, and those in direct trade contact with
coastal groups, in contrast always had adequate access to salt from sea water
or animal sea food to supplement an agricultural diet ; reports of journeys to
obtain sea water or to make salt from sea water are frequent in recent
accounts from many areas of Papua New Guinea.
Plant resources.
Prior to 5,000 years ago, the natural vegetation of Papua New Guinea
(Johns 1972 and Henty 1972) underwent changes in spatial and altitudinal
distribution. On pollen evidence from the Highlands the natural vegetation
has maintained approximately its present distribution for the past 5,000 years
(Hope 1973). However, man has been responsible for much vegetational
change, even in stands of apparently climax forest. The first direct evidence
for prehistoric vegetation comes from recent studies of pollen in montane
New Guinea sites ; these have most recently been reviewed by G. Hope (1973).
Three regions have produced evidence of human interference with the natural
forest : the Wabag area (Flenley 1967, 1969, 1972 ; Walker 1970) ; the Mt.
Hagen-upper Wahgi area (Powell 1970a, 1970b) ; and Mt. Wilhelm in the
Chimbu District (Hope 1973). These provide pollen sequences prior to and
contemporary with human occupation, although only in the upper Wahgi has
this been tied directly into archaeological evidence. These findings will be
discussed in more detail below. Another archaeological project recently
begun (1972-3) in the upper Wahgi area by O. Christensen, from the Aust
ralian National University, is exploring further environmental evidence in
association with human occupation deposits.
Many Papua New Guinea peoples still use extensively the plant and animal
resources of forest and grassland (R. Bulmer 1964 ; Bulmer and Bulmer 1964 :
49-51), so the ethnographic accounts of the use of these natural resources
can provide insight into at least the recent prehistoric past. Below about
1,700 m the lower montane mixed oak forest is likely to have offered parti
cularly rich resources for hunting and collecting, but lowland peoples, those below about 350 m, also had the benefit of access to the impress
ive resources of animal life in the rivers and seas, and may well have early
exploited the natural stands of sago. It has been suggested (Glover 1972 :
158) that early hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia may have been more depen
dent upon riverine and sea resources than upon the forest itself, but this inter
pretation may have been based on the conspicuous shell middens of coastal
sites. Gorman (1971) reported that fifteen of eighteen Hoabinhian sites so
far investigated were upland in location and non-maritime in orientation. On