| 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.”
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.