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The unearthing of 10,000 years of agriculture

Jack Golson (second left) and Philip Hughes (second right) with workmen from Kuk village  1974
Jack Golson (second left) and Philip Hughes (second right) with workmen from Kuk village, 1974

| An entry in the Crocodile Prize

PORT MORESBY - The history of agriculture in Papua New Guinea goes back about 10,000 years, with the country recognised as one of the global birthplaces of plant domestication.

The Kuk swamp in the Waghi valley of the Western Highlands has provided archaeological evidence of the agricultural practises of the people of that time, who probably first occupied the region 50,000 years ago.

Digging tools at the bottom of the oldest excavated ditch were carbon dated to about 10,000 years ago with samples showing that plants like taro, yam, banana and sugarcane were being cultivated well before the arrival of the sweet potato about 500 years ago.

In the 1950s, the Australian Administration, with the agreement of the local community, had established a tea and coffee plantation in the area which required draining the swamp.

Quite by chance, at one of the excavated sites called Warrawau, a worker saw a stone mortar that had been unearthed together with stone axes, wooden digging sticks, paddle-shaped spades and fence posts.

He wrote a letter to experts in Australia and in 1961 a man named Jack Golson and his assistant Philip Hughes together with the help of local workers started work on the site.

The team uncovered ancient fragmented pieces of tools like digging sticks and stakes, fire charcoal as well as fence posts which could mean the farmers wanted to keep pigs (probably wild boars) out of the garden.

Photographs taken from the air showed a neat gridded ditching system and cultivation plots which meant that the farmers were implementing wetland cultivation, draining water to grow crops.

That priceless evidence placed Papua New Guinea amongst some of the world’s oldest known civilisations such as the Mesopotamia, Jiahu China and ancient Egypt.

The Kuk dwellers independently had domesticated plants about the same time as the Mesopotamians domesticated plants at the beginning of the Neolithic age. The ancient New Guineans had initiated plant domestication long before the pyramids were built.

In 2008, the Kuk Swamp was inducted as a World Heritage site and recognised as one of the original birthplaces of agriculture on the planet.

With that proud history and heritage of agriculture behind PNG, prime minister James Marape has said more recently he wants PNG to be one of the leading agricultural nations.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe that the secret of getting our country moving and the combustion of engine that will drive our economy lie in agriculture and as a country, we are trying to move away from dependence on oil and gas,” he said.

“Our future relies on agriculture - we want to be a food production nation for the world.”


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Paul Oates

Garry raises an excellent point about sustainability. Prof. Jared Diamond illustrates in his book 'Collapse' how human societies expand until they exhaust the resources and the society or civilization then collapses.

PNG would do well to learn from history on this aspect. The areas along the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were once very fertile. Climate change and the over use of resources created deserts where they had not been before. The northern part of Africa used to be a grain bin for the Western Roman Empire. Just look at it now.

You can't keep taking out of the bank and still expect there to be money still there. Without careful management, fertile land can only sustain a certain limit before it is exhausted. PNG traditional 'slash and burn' culture is not sustainable as the population pressure ever expands. A desire to be the food bowl of Asia is questionable if the lessons of history are indicating a trend the another direction.

Food production is inevitably linked to land ownership. Managing the juxtaposition between those two aspects will need to be sorted out as a priority before a decision about large scale food production for an export market is considered. The previous management of timber, oil palm, fishing and minerals provides some important 'food for thought' when considering PNG's potential for large scale food production for export.

Garry Roche

Peter, it is good to remind us of the great achievements in the Highlands with regard to the early development of agriculture. And while research at Kuk has shown that people developed agriculture ten thousand years ago, the researchers do not claim that such development was limited to the Kuk area alone.
Another noteworthy aspect of the research is that it has shown the many adaptations by the people to changing climatic conditions over the centuries. Climate is changing again, and perhaps this time more drastically, We hope that people can adapt again.
The so-called 'fertile crescent' in the Middle East is no longer so fertile. It is a tribute to the people of the Kuk and surrounding areas that after ten thousand years of agriculture the land is still fertile.

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