| 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.
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.”
The 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.
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.