Was Papua New Guinea an Early Agriculture Pioneer?
By John Roach
for National Geographic News
|June 23, 2003|
Once considered a "Neolithic backwater" by archaeologists, Papua New Guinea is emerging as one of the handful of places on Earth where agricultural practices developed independently from other cultures.
The evidence reported June 19 on the Science Express website by Tim Denham, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and colleagues, may put an end to a long-standing debate on the origin of agriculture in the swampy highlands on the island nation.
"People were definitely exploiting plants, including taro, at Kuk Swamp approximately 10,000 calendar years before present," said Denham. "There is then-evidence of banana cultivation from 6,950 to 6,440 calendar years before present."
Taro (Colcasia esculenta) is a tuber with edible leaves and starchy roots. It remains a staple in the Papua New Guinean diet today.
Prior to this discovery, many scientists regarded Papua New Guineans as passive recipients of domesticated plants and animals from Southeast Asia. But the dates for the rise of agriculture documented by Denham and colleagues predate the earliest known Southeast Asian influence by about 3,000 years.
Katharina Neumann, an archaeobotanist at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, writes in a related Science perspective that "only a few regions were geographically suited to become the homelands of full agricultural systems. New Guinea seems to have been one of them."
Denham and colleagues base their conclusions about the gradual rise of Agriculture in Papua New Guinea on a re-examination of the Kuk Swamp excavation site in the Wahgi Valley.
The site was first investigated in 1966 with subsequent excavations in the 1970s, but the details of the finds were never fully published and the evidence for agricultural practices were inconclusive, said Denham.
"The most serious problem was the absence of any remains of the plants which had been hypothetically exploited," said Neumann. "This is for a large part due to preservation, like in other humid, tropical regions."
But Denham and colleagues were able to find plant residues in the soils and on stone tools. According to the analysis of these residues, the researchers conclude that the Papua New Guineans were indeed exploiting taro and banana.
The team also dated features consistent with the planting, digging, and tethering of plants and localized drainage systems to 10,000 years ago. Mounds constructed to plant water-intolerant plants such as bananas, sugarcane, and yams are dated to about 6,500 years ago.
Neumann said "careful documentation of the archaeological features with a large number of radiocarbon dates and recovery and identification of microscopic plant remains" allowed Denham and colleagues to document the gradual rise of agriculture in Papua New Guinea.
Denham described the agricultural setting of the Wahgi Valley at approximately 6,500 years ago as a valley floor carpeted in grasslands that were periodically burnt and the Kuk site itself as cleared plots perched on a wetland edge. On mounds constructed in the plots grew bananas, sugar cane, and yams. Taro would have filled the wetter ground between the mounds.
To this day the island country between Australia and Southeast Asia does not fit models that try to link agriculture and the rise of civilization in terms of urban centers and social and political classes, said Denham.
"New Guinean societies are relatively egalitarian and characterized by the bigman institution whereby a man leads a community, or part of a community, largely through persuasion and prowess in particular activities," he said.
Leadership traits include the ability to talk, fight, produce, and maintain relationships of exchange. Exchange relationships were traditionally based on the trading of pigs, shells, and women but in modern times are being replaced by money and Western material goods, said Denham.
Neumann notes that the researchers do not resolve the question of how important agriculture was in relation to hunting and foraging, and thus it is possible that agriculture played only a minor role. For example, most of the plants found at Kuk are distributed in wild vegetation.
"But this does not diminish the value of the evidence for cultivation at Kuk," she said. "Agriculture and wild plant exploitation do not exclude each other. More and more scientists think that the development from foraging to farming was gradual and not a rapid revolution."
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