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What we ate thousands of years ago

Professor Glenn Summerhayes and colleagues at the Joes' Garden site in the Ivane Valley
Professor Glenn Summerhayes and colleagues at the 4,500 year-old 'Joes Garden' archaeological site in the Ivane Valley

| Heritage Daily | Edited

LUTON, UK - New research on what ancient Papuan New Guineans ate has ended decades of speculation on the tools use and staple foods in highlands areas several thousand years ago.

Findings from the ‘Joe’s Garden’ site in the Ivane Valley of the Owen Stanley Range end academic conjecture about what an unearthed mortar and other tools were used for.

The discovery shows that a variety of widely eaten starchy plants were grown and processed in the area.

University of Otago archaeology professor Glenn Summerhayes said the research means several archaeological mysteries have finally been solved.

“Although ground stone bowls, known as mortars, have been found throughout most of New Guinea, little was known of their function or age,” Prof Summerhayes said.

“Most have been found from surface collections or re-used by locals while gardening.

“Only a couple had been excavated in archaeological contexts and their use was unknown.”

Map-of-Ivane-valley-with-archaeological-sitesProf Summerhayes’ research paper reports on the discovery of a mortar fragment excavated from the Ivane Valley which has been dated to four and a half thousand years ago.

Clinging to the stone tools recovered from the site were microscopic starch grains from tree nuts and tubers, first proposed as common staples by researchers in the mid-1960s.

“Use and residue analysis on the fragment has shown it was used for processing starch rich plants such as nut and tuber,” Prof Summerhayes said.

“Insights into past subsistence patterns are rare, especially for 4,400 years ago.”

He said that over the last 300 or so years, the predominance of sweet potato in subsistence gardening had led to a range of starchy plants falling into disuse.

While previous studies in the region mainly focused on the use of taro, banana and some yams, the researchers found several species, including some referred to as chinquapin or chinkapin, may have played an important role in highland diets for thousands of years.

Similarly, nuts from the widely available white oak or New Guinea oak have been recorded as eaten on hunting trips but never clearly identified as a common starchy staple.

The Ivane mortars confirm consumption of these tree nuts was widespread.


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Garry Roche

The Ivane Valley is in modern day Central Province. A Catholic mission station named Kosipe was in that area. (It can be seen at the bottom of the map above.) The researchers correctly conclude that their findings apply to the highlands in general.

The ‘white oak’ that the article refers to is found throughout the highlands and is known in the Hagen language as the ‘Kuang’ tree, more precisely ‘nde kuang rokoua’ (scientific name ‘Castanopsis acumeninatissma’).

Leo Keta a forester once supplied me with a list of trees including the Melpa name and the scientific name.

These ‘kuang’ trees were considered special in Hagen culture and one could start a tribal war if one cut down an oak tree belonging to someone else.

The discovery that the nuts from this tree were also a useful food item in the era before the sweet potato became common can help to explain the importance attached to these trees.

(Mt Hagen technical college was established on land seized by the government authorities back around 1968 after a major tribal war between two sections of the Jika Tribe, started because someone had cut down the oak tree belonging to someone else.)

As the article notes, stone bowls or mortars have been found throughout PNG. I remember several being kept at the Catholic mission at Minj (now in Jiwaka). One stone mortar was even used as a ‘holy water font’ at the entrance to a church.

I do remember earlier literature speculating on what these stone bowls were used for. Now we know at least one definite reason for their use.

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