Was Papua New Guinea an Early Agriculture Pioneer?

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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.

Societal Impact

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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