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From where Highlanders emerged

Highlands menJOE KETAN
| Edited extracts

MT HAGEN - It is widely accepted that people have been living on the island of New Guinea for at least 50,000 years BP (before present).

The ancestors of New Guinea Highlanders were among the earliest Papuan language speakers to arrive in the Pacific region.

Recent migrants settled on the coastal lowlands and islands of Melanesia around 20,000 years BP, by which time Papuans were already living in the intermountain valleys of the central mountain chain (cordillera) of the island of New Guinea.

Ironically, New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, is so huge and rugged that New Guinea Highlanders had lived in small isolated communities in hidden valleys for thousands of years without realising that they were islanders living in the Pacific Islands region.

There are no historical records of a seafaring Papuan people sailing across the vast Pacific Ocean from South-East Asia to New Guinea. New Guinea Highlanders have no oral history of such a migration.

In spite of the lack of a seafaring tradition, scientists are almost certain that New Guinea Highlanders had in fact come from a South-East Asian homeland, an area that may not necessarily have been inhabited by Asian people but perhaps by Papuan people, while the Austronesian speakers came out of Taiwan.

Further archaeological and genetic studies on human origins will show whether or not people of dark skin complexion with fuzzy wuzzy (Afro) hair had once lived in mainland South-East Asia.

CaptureThe Austronesians are believed to be the ancestors of coastal Melanesians, Polynesians and possibly Micronesians.

The Papuans are the ancestors of New Guinea Highlanders in both the West Papua Province of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

We do not have skulls from over 20,000 years to reconstruct clay models to get a picture of what our Papuan ancestors may have looked like.

But we think their facial features and physical appearances closely resemble those of present day New Guinea Highlanders of either the Baliem Valley or the Wahgi Valley.

All human populations started out in the same way – as hunters and gatherers.

They lived in small bands of 10-20 people and depended almost exclusively on the environment for their existence.

In the Sepik and the Fly River basins of New Guinea, as well as among the Min groups of Ok Ma and Telifomin, the transition from hunter-gatherer to farming occurred only recently in the last 100-200 years.

Capture 1
Aerial view of wet land field systems, Haeapugua Swamp in the Tari region, 1978 (Mapmakers Pty Ltd)

While New Guinea Highlanders occasionally hunt for game meat, they made the transition from hunting to farming over 9,000 years ago, at a time when people in Africa, Asia, Europe and America were still living in caves and foraging for food.

The birth of human civilization around 5,000 BP was made possible by the development of agriculture.

Civilisation supposedly involves the development of complex social hierarchy and writing, although new evidence on egalitarian societies from the New Guinea Highlands has forced social scientists to rethink ideas on social evolution.

The greatest technological leap in the history of humanity – from nomadic life based on hunting and gathering to permanent settlement based on agriculture – was first made in only three places in the world.

Agriculture originated independently in the Middle East, China and New Guinea over 9,000 years ago.

Ten thousand yearsThe birthplaces of global agriculture were pointed out by Peter Bellwood in the book, ‘Ten Thousand Years of Cultivation at the Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, which you can download here as a free PDF. Bellwood writes:

“The worldwide archaeological record offers many instances, dated with varying degrees of reliability, of the appearance of domesticated crops and animals and the beginnings of settled agricultural life.

“At present, this database indicates to the satisfaction of most archaeologists that agriculture emerged directly from a hunter-gatherer background, without external diffusion, in at least six regions of the world.

“These are, with approximate starting dates for pre-domestication cultivation in brackets in years BP (Before Present, AD 1950 by radiocarbon convention):

“The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East (11,000 BP); the middle and lower courses of the Yangzi and Yellow River basins of China (9000 BP); the New Guinea highlands (between 10,000 and 6500 BP); Mesoamerica (8000 BP); northern South America and the central Andes (8000 BP), with perhaps more than one origin region; and the Eastern Woodlands of the USA (4000 BP).”

The ancestors of modern New Guinea Highlanders first entered the cold rugged interior of New Guinea around 30,000 years ago, during the last Great Ice Age Era, when there were permanent ice caps on the peaks of Mt Hagen, Mt Giluwe and the Kubor Range.

People lived in small groups on the relatively warm lowlands like the Baiyer Valley and later migrated to higher montane valleys, like the Wahgi, after the melting of the ice around 12,000 years ago.

There is archaeological evidence of human occupation of rock shelters in the Highlands around 20,000 years ago.

The scientific evidence is still too sketchy to map out the exact routes of early waves of human migration into the Highlands, but some archaeologists, like Dr Pamela Swadling, former Curator of Prehistory at the PNG National Museum, think that the Sepik basin may have provided access routes for human groups to move from one place to another and finally ending up in the Highlands.

The traditional trade routes may offer us some clues to map migration routes. There are several well established trade routes from the coast:

  • from the Sepik to the Western Highlands, via the Ruti and Baiyer valleys and Enga

  • from Madang to the Wahgi Valley, via the Jimi Valley, as well as through the Ramu basin, Bundi and Chimbu

  • from the Gulf of Papua to the Southern Highlands

  • from Morobe to the Eastern Highlands

The most likely routes taken by the pioneer migrants would be the Ruti-Baiyer-Enga link and the Ramu-Bundi-Chimbu track.

A study on the distribution of stone figurines and mortars and pestles in the Sepik Basin and Enga suggests a definite trade link between the Sepik and Highlands.

Capture 2
Clearing a channel at Haeapugua Swamp with traditional wooden rakes, 1991 (Chris Ballard)

The Bundi track linking Madang to the Highlands is the next most likely route taken by the ancestors of New Guinea Highlanders.

The pioneer Catholic missionary, Fr William Ross, and his team were guided by locals through the Ramu basin up to Bundi, where there was already a catholic Mission, and on to Mingende in Chimbu and finally Mount Hagen.

The Catholic missionaries came through the Panimbai passage, near Mount Wilhelm, and arrived at Kelsugu in Chimbu.

The leader of the local group that escorted the catholic missionaries from Bundi to Mingende was a fearless Chimbu warrior called Kavagl, an imposing man of great physique, who had a Bundi wife, and travelled back and forth freely.

Although gold-lip pearl shells were traded from the Torres Strait Islands to the Wahgi, via the Southern Highlands, human settlement in Papua is more recent, so we are sure that New Guinea Highlanders did not come from there.

The oldest human settlement is at Bobongarra in the Huon Peninsula in Morobe Province, so it is possible that people populated other parts of the country from there, but we do not think they made it directly into the Highlands, for the simple reason that there are no trade routes connecting the Wahgi to the Huon Gulf.

That the 1933 Taylor-Leahy Patrol entered the Wahgi from Okapa in the Eastern Highlands suggests there may have been historic trade routes connecting the eastern part of the Highlands to the western end, and possibly with people in the mountains of Bulolo-Wau, Morobe Province, to people in the Kainantu area.

But again there is no evidence of human settlement in these areas surpassing 10,000 years, so we can rule out that possibility.

The development of agriculture around 10,000 years BP at Kuk led to the development of cultural complexes of Melanesia and Polynesia.

Capture 3
A men's round house near Kuk Swamp

New Guinea Highland farmers at Kuk were cultivating sugarcane, bananas, taro, yams, winged beans, pandanus (fruits and nuts), and leafy vegetables like aibika.

On the foundations laid by agriculture, New Guinea Highlands societies developed elaborate social structures, leadership systems and cultural practices.

Population growth led to conflicts between neighbouring groups, which, in turn, led to migration and colonisation of new territories and the creation new tribes.

The tribes that we find in the Western Highlands today are recent creations, perhaps only a few hundred years old. A comparison of populations of current tribes in the 1960s and 2000, for example, will indicate that the populations of these groups have grown almost exponentially.

On tribal history, our project has identified over 100 of the 200 tribes in the Western Highlands.

We have the names and histories of all tribes in Hagen, Anglimp, South Wahgi, North Wahgi, Dei and Mul. We have only names of tribes in Tambul, Nebilyer, Kagul, Baiyer and Lumusa. We need names and histories of tribes in Enga, Kambia and Jimi.

On Christian church history, we have covered the establishment of the mainstream churches in the Western Highlands, including their educational and health institutions.

The arrival of the Catholic and Lutheran missionaries in 1934, a year after first contact, was followed by others after World War II: SDA (1947), PNG Bible Church (1948), Gutnius Lutheran Church (1948), Baptist Church (1949), EBC (1954), Nazarene (1956), United (1969) and Filadelfia/AOG (1976).

The mainstream churches work in partnership with the PNG government to deliver health and educational services to people in provinces where they operate.

The oldest existing school in the western part of the Highlands from Jiwaka to Hela is at Rebiamul, built by Fr Ross and Brother Eugene Frank in 1938.

There are now over 300 educational institutions and around 50 health centres operated by the main Christian churches in this region. There are hundreds of local churches and parishes affiliated to these churches.

Information on the activities of the recently established Pentecostal churches is not readily available.

On plantation history, we have so far recorded the history of 75 coffee and tea plantations in the Western Highlands and Jiwaka provinces.

They include 40 large colonial estates (seven planted with tea) developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Australian planters and other expatriates; 15 established by indigenous businessmen in the 1970s; and 20 coffee projects (mini-plantations) planted by Hagen entrepreneurs, Goimba Kot (of Ou Management/Raembka) and Michael Mel of (NatGro/Pipilka) in the 1980s.

The mini plantations were developed in equal (fifty-fifty) partnership with local landowners in Dei, Mount Ambra and in Anglimp-South Wahgi.

Western Highlands village and gardens

Our next job is to establish the history of government institutions, transport infrastructure, and health and educational institutions in the Western Highlands.

The end product will be a major monograph on the history of the Western Highlands, comprising benchmark information for future generations. \

We hope the book will generate sufficient interest, and funds, to establish a regional cultural centre for educational, scientific research, and for recreational purposes, for present and future generations of Western highlanders, Papua New Guineans and Pacific Islanders.

You can contact Dr Ketan on email [email protected]. This work is supported by the Catholic Archdiocese of Mount Hagen, the Melpa Lutheran Church, Flyers Inn and Tininga Ltd


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Ponege Poya

Very interesting read. Thank you so much for the particulars of the churches and when they came to Western Highlands Province and surrounding areas.

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