A University of Otago-led research team has unexpectedly discovered the first evidence that the ancestors of Polynesians did not bypass New Guinea on their way from Southeast Asia to colonise remote areas of the Pacific, as was previously thought.
Radiocarbon re-dating of an archaeological site in the rugged New Guinea interior and petrographic and geochemical analysis of pottery fragments found there show that influences of these Austronesian-speaking peoples had penetrated into the already populated remote interior of New Guinea before 3,000 years ago.
The 3,000-year-old fragments, which resemble the Lapita plainware pottery style associated with Austronesian colonisation of neighbouring Western Pacific islands during the same period, were analysed and found to be both produced on-site and brought in from elsewhere.
The pottery was excavated at the remote highland Wañelek site around 40 years ago. Up until this latest study, no pottery in the Highlands region has had confirmed dating beyond 1,000 years ago.
The surprising finding is newly published in the leading international journal Plos One.
Lead author and Otago archaeology master’s student Dylan Gaffney says the study overturns the existing consensus that Austronesian peoples, who are associated with the Lapita culture, simply skirted the coastal areas of New Guinea and did not interact with inland populations.
“It was thought that they bypassed this large landmass, opting instead to settle on islands in the Bismarck Archipelago before continuing an epic migration that ended with the colonisation of remote Pacific Islands such as those of Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa,” Mr Gaffney said.
He said the team’s identification of a clear Austronesian “fingerprint” by 3,000 years ago in the New Guinea Highlands rewrites the history of people’s presence in this important region.
“Crucially, the pottery comes from the interior rather than a coastal area, suggesting the movements of people and technological practices, as well as objects at this time.”