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50,000 years of culture & heritage

It is believed that the Lapita people, who inhabited PNG for perhaps 2,000 years before moving on, were great navigators.

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PORT MORESBY - Papua New Guinea is blessed with a diverse culture and heritage. But where do these amazing cultural values and behaviours come from? How did they originate and evolve? Not much is known about the prehistory of PNG.

Written records go back to the 1500s when Portuguese sailors named the island Ilhas dos Papuas, the land of the fuzzy-haired men.

But archaeological evidence shows proof of 50,000 years of culture and heritage on this, the world’s second largest island in the world.

To begin with, family ties and a place to call home are very much part of heritage and ingrained in the DNA of the PNG people forming the framework of the society. These practises can be traced back 30,000 – 50,000 years when prehistoric humans first discovered and arrived on the island of New Guinea.

Humans are social creatures and dwell in groups with a tendency of keeping their young ones close to them for years.

Humans came to New Guinea most probably in family groups and lived in caves as shown by the evidence of stone axes and tools dated to 40,000 years ago found in the mountains of Huon Peninsula in Morobe and in the Ivane valley of the Owen Stanley range.

Other cultural objects that can be traced to that era are tribal warfare and traditional beliefs. Defence and offence mechanism and inherent beliefs ultimately come down to survival. Even superstition is occasionally beneficial for survival, says Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

For instance, a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator. Most of the time the wind would have caused the sound, but if a python is coming he’s got to run. Survival meant defending our home and our territory and as we evolved so developed our eagerness to dominate land and sea.

The second sets of cultural values that can be traced back about 10,000 - 30,000 years ago relate to owning land and waters and of exploiting the environment for food. In PNG, land ownership and subsistence agriculture almost always go hand in hand and are birthrights passed down for generations.

One way for such cultural values to have developed could be credited to the invention of agriculture in PNG about 10,000 years ago in the world-famous heritage site, the Kuk swamp, during what is known as the Neolithic era when prehistoric people shifted away from the hunting and gathering to the domestication of plants and animals.

However, prehistoric agricultural practise could be traced much further back in time such as the evidence excavated on Buka island where taro starch was sampled on stone tools dating back 28,000 years ago.

Domestication of plants and livestock enabled a growing population and, with that, came the need to acquire land. When territories were secured the need to maintain control required unique verbal instructions, establishing a group’s identity and cementing their claims as rightful custodians of the land and waters.

Then about 3,000 – 4,000 years ago more intricate cultural features evolved - something I call cultural creativity - and that might have been triggered by the influence of the migrating, oceanic group of people from South East Asia called the Lapita people.

This might have been the time when people made pottery for cooking, stilt-houses over the water, outrigger canoes and maybe flamboyant tumbuna bilas (traditional costumes) for singsing as well as musical and communicative artefacts like kundu and garamut.

Evidence of this influence, for example, are the 3,300-year-old fragments of designed pottery found in the Wanelek area of Madang Province. The artistic touches might have been shared amongst the culture as the Lapita people settled in New Guinea for as long as 2,000 years before they moved further into the oceanic region.

But cultural creativity may have started way before the coming of the oceanic folks, as some evidence places it at about 11,000 years ago as shown by the use of obsidian lava rocks in New Britain.

It is possible that PNG’s traditional arts are unique, having evolved independently without outside influence but I think the diversity of artefacts and hundreds of Austronesian languages could have been intensified by the influence of the oceanic people.

To conclude, the culture and heritage of PNG seemed to have evolved independently and, if we understand archaeological evidence from prehistoric times, we can attempt to explain the genesis of our culture and heritage back to 50,000 years ago.


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