5000-Year-Old Papua New Guinea Artifacts Rewrite Neolithic History
Scientists unearth ancient Papua New Guinea artifacts in the highlands of the island that settle a longstanding archaeological argument regarding the emergence of complex culture on the island.
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 on the journal Science Advances, archaeologist Ben Shaw from the University of New South Wales in Australia explains that early cultures on Papua New Guinea “planted yams, bananas and other local crops,” but until this new research there hasn’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.
East and West Neolithic Cultures Emerged Synchronistically
This all started when in 2016 Dr. Ben Shaw was looking at archaeological sites in the eastern half of Papua New Guinea and residents of a village called Waim 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.
Waim village as seen from the air, in the rugged highlands where the Papua New Guinea artifacts were found. (UNSW / Ben Shaw)
The villagers guided Shaw to Waim, which is situated halfway up a steep mountain in Jiwaka Province and in an article on the New Scientist, the explorers says 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 behavior between 5050 and 4200 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.”
Dr Ben Shaw and some locals examine a few of the Papua New Guinea artifacts unearthed at the Waim dig site in the northern highlands. (UNSW / Ben Shaw)
Papua New Guinea Artifacts Reveal a Complex Island Culture
A news release from Dr Shaw explains that while scientists have known that wetland agriculture originated in the New Guinea highlands between 6000 and 2000 BC, little evidence for corresponding social changes like those that occurred in other parts of the world had been found. But a subsequent excavation at this 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 4200 to 5050 years old.
Some of the Papua New Guinea artifacts - formally manufactured stone carvings and pestles from Waim. (UNSW / Ben Shaw)
Evidence of complex cultural activities was established when the researchers learned that the ochre-stained rock was once a traditional tool for “dyeing organic fibers.” 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, who are known to have immigrated to New Guinea with what archaeologists call the Lapita culture over 1000 years later.
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A Culture Rich Enough to Rival the Greatest in Europe or Asia
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 says 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 are 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.
Top image: Some of the Papua New Guinea artifacts, including stone tools and art, that were dug up at the Waim dig site. Source: UNSW / Ben Shaw
By Ashley Cowie