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5,000-year-old artifacts rewrite PNG history

Some of the stone tools and art from the Waim site (UNSW - Ben Shaw)
Some of the stone tools and art from the Waim site (UNSW - Ben Shaw)

| Ancient Origins | Edited

With thanks to Fr Garry Roche who brought this important research to our attention

DUBLIN - Scientists have unearthed ancient artifacts in the Papua New Guinea highlands that settle a longstanding archaeological argument regarding the emergence of complex culture in PNG.

About 10,000 years ago, the climate changed to better suit the planting of crops and the Neolithic revolution that brought about agriculture emerged in different parts of the world at different times.

In Europe and Asia it is known that at this time cultural complexity developed as people began settling and living together on farms.

But archaeologists have now discovered buried artifacts on the island of Papua New Guinea, which suggest ancient people began farming and making tools, arts and crafts around the same time as their Eurasian contemporaries.

In a new research paper published in the journal Science Advances, archaeologist Dr Ben Shaw from the University of New South Wales in Australia explains that early cultures in PNG “planted yams, bananas and other local crops,” but until this new research there hadn’t been any convincing evidence that these farming endeavors led to any of the complex cultural movements evident in the artifacts of European and Asian cultures.

Waim village from the air where the artifacts were found (UNSW - Ben Shaw)
The remote Waim village where the artifacts were found (UNSW - Ben Shaw)

This all started when in 2016 Shaw was looking at archaeological sites in Papua New Guinea and residents of Waim village told him they had found some “really weird-looking stone tools and a stone carving of a human face with a bird on top” that they thought might interest him.

The villagers guided Shaw to Waim, which is situated halfway up a steep mountain in Jiwaka Province. In an article in New Scientist Shaw said he didn’t have a lot of time and “decided to just dig one hole before it got dark.”

While he was digging that “one hole” he found the bottom half of what he describes as a “beautifully shaped stone pestle.”

Waim-Jimi--Simbai-MadangThe scientist said he was “beside himself with excitement” because his find illustrated a shift in human behaviour between 5,050 and 4,200 years ago in what he says is a “response to the widespread emergence of agriculture, ushering in a regional Neolithic Era similar to the Neolithic in Eurasia.”

A news release from Dr Shaw explains that while scientists have known that wetland agriculture originated in the New Guinea highlands between 6,000 and 2,000 BC, little evidence for corresponding social changes like those that occurred in other parts of the world had been found.

A subsequent excavation at the site led to the discovery of a range of ancient artifacts which changes all this.

Among the finds archaeologists discovered part of a carved stone face, a fire-lighting tool, an ochre-stained rock with cut marks, parts of an axe and fragments from two stone pestles, which still had bits of yam, banana, sugarcane and nuts stuck to them.

When fragments of charcoal that had been found buried with the artifacts were radiocarbon dated, it was determined that the site was between 4,200 and 5,050 years old.

Evidence of complex cultural activities was established when the researchers learned that the ochre-stained rock was once a traditional tool for dyeing organic fibres.

Moreover, the researchers were also able to prove that the stones used to make the artifacts had been gathered from nearby quarries.

Because the fragments of hand-axes were found in various stages of production, they were constructed onsite rather than having come from Australia or Southeast Asia as part of what archaeologists call the Lapita culture over 1,000 years later.

Dr Ben Shaw and villagers examine artifacts unearthed at Waim (UNSW - Ben Shaw)
Dr Ben Shaw and villagers examine artifacts unearthed at Waim (UNSW - Ben Shaw)

These new discoveries are evidence of an ancient island culture, which had developed sophisticated craftsmanship with a range of tools and crafts, that according to the paper had developed “of its own accord in New Guinea.”

Dr Shaw said that while it has for a long time been argued that social complexity didn’t come with agriculture in New Guinea, his new research has identified similar cultural archaeology, evidencing great developments, as is found in Europe and Asia.

The team of researchers is planning to conduct additional excavations around New Guinea to try and find more evidence about the cultural practices that emerged during the transition to agriculture, and maybe even more artifacts pertaining to their complex culture.


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John Yanda

Need to do more work. Examine more stones in Enga and Ambum stones too. Very amazing stones, symmetrical and crafted mysteriously. Very ancient dating far back than 5,000 years.

Jim Moore

Garry, looking at the map and altitude diagram in the Science Advances article, I think you're right. The Kaironk river is at the bottom end of the Jimi Valley, much closer to Simbai than it is to Tabibuga. I took a House of Assembly election patrol down the Kaironk and beyond heading north towards the Sepik in 1968. Beyond the Kaironk was really deep bush at that time.
I now can't remember the names of any places in that area, so Waim does not ring a bell.
As the crow flies, Waim might be 54km north of the Kuk swamp, but it even now it would be a few really good day's walk to from Kuk to Waim.

Philip Kai Morre

It is very important for archaeologists to do more exploration and research in parts of PNG where agriculture emerged associated with cultural formation and social mobility.

What is interesting is that farming in Kuk and other locations all started around the same period of civilisation in Mesopotamia and the River Nile.

Garry Roche

Phil, thanks for information. I have since seen an older map with a location called Waim, and it seems to be in the Kalam Language area. I will check and send it on to Keith.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Check out the article on the Science Advances website Garry. It's open access. The article says "Waim is located at a high elevation in the Jimi valley [1980 m above sea level (asl)], and 54 km north of Kuk swamp (1550 m asl) in the neighboring Wahgi Valley where the earliest evidence for agriculture has been identified". There's a map in there too.

The old 1968 Village Directory has a Council Ward called Wain with one village called Kambinjak No. 1 in the Jimi Open Electorate, which I imagine hasn't changed.

Eric Coote

If all those stone artefacts in the photo are genuinely nearly 5000 years old I am amazed. All the four club head types I can identify were still being produced at first contact, or available in the 1930s and probably still to be found attached to timber sticks today at sing sings. This is an unexpected continuity of usage.

Garry Roche

Jim and Keith, I too am curious about the exact location of Waim. I have been to both Tsenga and Wum in the early 1970's, but I think that Waim is further down in the Lower Jimi.

Perhaps somebody with access to a more detailed map could locate Waim.

From what I read, people in the Waim area speak the Kalam language, indicating that it may be close to the border with Madang Province. (People at Tsenga are Melpa speaking.)

Jim Moore

(Keith, I couldn't copy this photo unfortunately, not sure of how to get it to you.)

It would be really good to find out exactly where in Jiwaka these finds were made. Could “Waim” be “Wum” in the Jimi just over the ridge from Dei Council in the Waghi? The Tsenga-Wum area was where “Hagen “ stone axes were produced commercially for the tourist trade in the 60’s, when I was in the Jimi.

This is a one a number of photos I took in April 1998 of stone figures, outside Joe Leahy’s house in the Nebilyer valley just outside Mount Hagen. He was given these by locals, who claimed they were used in traditional ceremonies, but kept secret from absolutely all expats, including missionaries, etc.

The "owners" said because traditional culture was now basically shot, they wanted Joe to look after them. Extremely heavy, granite-like material - as far as I could tell, not concrete. I remember seeing stone bowls dug up from the Waghi river swamps, that were made from what appeared to very similar material, and which local people could not account for at all. IF these figures were truly used in traditional practices, is it feasible that they were never seen or heard of by any expats at all? If they truly pre-date highlands society, where did they come from, and how did they get to the Highlands? Given the similarity to the Waghi bowls I saw (I know someone who still has one), I thought these figures MAY be genuine.

There were a couple of lapun men selling tourist junk at the Hagen airport at the time, and they had for sale for around K10 very small figures of a similar type. I joked with them about "Nau tasol, yu yet yu wokim long sement", and they laughed, saying "No gat, bilong tumbuna tru". I guess they weren't going to admit they had made them if they did. But it did seem a bit incongruous if they were selling truly genuine items for a song. I still remember the old man's face at the airport. When I started talking pisin to him, he realised I didn't come down in the last shower of rain, but his face basically said, well, we all have to turn a penny, don't we.

I never heard any further comments about how genuine they were until I saw an article by Pamela Swadling (then of ANU and late of PNG National Museum) in the March 2008 issue of Una Voce, discussing finds of mortars and pestles, and figures.

She was happy to comment on any stone finds from PNG and told me these figures date from after World War II. They started to appear in increasing numbers in the early 1980s. Some villagers paid several thousand Kina for them as they too thought they were really old and powerful. The Nondugl area in the Waghi Valley is one area where they were made.

Pamela said National Museum staff managed to track down some of the carvers and they agreed to come down to Moresby and make some. She took them up to Sogeri to find some suitable river boulders and they then set to work with chisels and other metal tools to make them.

She agreed, "Samting bilong ol tumbuna" is a good sales pitch when dealing with gullible tourists.

However, there appears enough scientific evidence around the articles discussed above to accept they are a different kettle of fish altogether.

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