Prehistoric New Guineans Discovered Farming Independently

New Guinean highlanders developed agriculture a millennia before their neighbors, and without the cultural developments marking the Neolithic transition elsewhere in the world

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The archaeologists' base camp in Waim
The archaeologists' base camp in WaimCredit: Judith Field

That eureka moment can happen more than once, and about 7,000 years ago in the highlands of New Guinea, the inhabitants began to transition from a precarious lifestyle of hunting and gathering to the slightly less precarious lifestyle of hunting, gathering and farming. They did so independently, without learning these special skills of sowing and reaping from anybody else, archaeologists conclude based on excavation of a site called Waim.

By around 5,000 to 4,000 years ago the New Guinea highlanders had mastered wetland agriculture, the archaeologists write this week in Science Advances. That was over a thousand years before the peoples around them.

The Ice Age passes

Starting around 12,000 years ago, as the Ice Age waned and the northern hemisphere warmed, peoples around the Levant began to develop agriculture. It may have even begun in today's Turkey. Agriculture also started to develop in Asia. There are indicators of much earlier experimentation with growing some grains – as long as 23,000 years ago in what is today Israel – but those efforts were short of subsistence-level agriculture.

The process of abandoning the nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle for early subsistence farming during the period defined as the Neolithic era happened gradually, over hundreds and thousands of years. People continued to hunt and gather as they learned to sow and reap (and still do, especially if you count the supermarket as a hunting-foraging ground).

Generally speaking, as various peoples discovered the advantages of gaining some control over their intake relative to trapping micro-mammals and chasing flying food and quadrupeds, this lifestyle transition during the Neolithic had certain common features in terms of social and technological systems.

Complex prehistoric stone artifacts recovered by Waim residents which spurred excavationCredit: Ben Shaw

And that is how the University of New South Wales’ Ben Shaw and the team realized that in the highlands of New Guinea, the Neolithic transition that began about 7,000 years ago was different: The typical common hallmarks of the Neolithic weren’t there.

Elsewhere in the world, primarily in the Middle East and China, early agriculture led to huge changes in technology and in how people organized themselves, Shaw explains. Starting from concentration in villages, eventually formalized civilization arose, such as the mighty Sumerians. In South America the great Mayan civilization arose, to give another example. Diversity became less, not more.

Not so in New Guinea, Shaw tells Haaretz. In fact until now archaeologists had thought there was no Neolithic transition in New Guinea at all: Okay, they grew some stuff, but things carried on the way they always had. Agriculture didn’t seem to have had a major influence on how they lived their lives. Their diversity was immense: To this day the island, no giant, has over 800 languages.

When humans roamed

Anatomically modern humans would have reached New Guinea before or at about the same time that they reached Australia. Tens of thousands of years ago sea levels were lower: A lot of water was still locked up in northerly ice, and New Guinea and Australia were a single land mass. They became separated about 8,000 years ago, Shaw explains.

So for the sake of convenience, let us say that data on the early modern human occupation of Australia also applies to New Guinea.

New GuineaCredit: Google Maps

When that happened is a contentious issue. The theory that Australia and New Guinea were peopled as long as 65,000 years ago has been sharply criticized. A date of 50,000 years ago is more accepted.

Shaw isn’t going there, settling for saying that people arrived in New Guinea between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago.

“The earliest evidence we have in New Guinea itself is in the mountains to the east of our site, and that dates to between 49,000 and 44,000 years ago,” he says. “My argument would be that people made it to the mountains at the other end of the continent by 50,000 years ago. They had to get from mainland Asia through islands to the other end of New Guinea, so it must have happened earlier.”

Like other early modern humans, the denizens of New Guinea subsisted on hunting and gathering. But like others, at various points in the Holocene – the post-Ice Age period – they began to grow food as well as grub for it or catch it. And by around 5,000 to 4,000 years ago the highlanders isolated on the island were perfecting their techniques, Shaw says, making large-scale gardening systems with ditches and drainage organized in what seems to have been family plots. They villagers did seem to start to become more territorial, Shaw says following the excavation of the village area at Waim.

Independence day

To us non-archaeological peasants, the concept that after, say, 300,000 years of evolution, humans independently began farming in various places around the world starting 20,000 or 12,000 or 7,000 years ago is bewildering. How could it have happened more or less simultaneously in Eurasia and the Near East? Doesn’t that argue that they were connected?

No, it doesn’t. “That’s the intriguing thing about it. Around Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean it all does start happening at once about 12,000 years ago. The reason for that is that from 12,000 years ago, we enter a new era, the Holocene,” Shaw explains. And as the glaciers retreated, to the dismay of the woolly mammoth et al, the world climate began to warm and stabilize.

Credit: Judith Field

And scientists studying prehistoric human cultures around the world noticed new levels of complexity in the way people organized. There were new innovations, agriculture being one of them. They had a sort of stable backdrop in which they could develop these innovations, Shaw says.

To be clear, it isn’t that people realized they could sow a seed and reap a harvest, and domesticate the pig, cow, sheep and goat for meat (and later for dairy) and threw away their spears. They continued hunting and some do so to this day. But the more or less simultaneous advent of agriculture doesn’t necessarily argue for contact between far-flung regions that far back, Shaw explains.

As for New Guinea, the Neolithic transition began earlier than anywhere around it, Shaw says. “All the evidence in the archaeological record for cultural changes from people migrating from other areas comes much later,” he says.

God of cassowaries?

Indeed, about 3,300 years ago, people arrived from Southeast Asia, where farming had become established by that time. They brought Asian domestic animals including the pig, dog and chicken, “plus rats that hitched a ride,” Shaw adds. 

The migrants and their edible escorts muddied the archaeological record because the ancient New Guineans embraced the animals, which would become the main source of protein for the next 3,300 years. Plus about 300 years ago, Spanish or Portuguese sailors or lord knows who brought over the sweet potato, which also became a dearly beloved foodstuff.

The Waim excavation makes it clear that the development of cultivation in New Guinea was not accompanied by animal domestication, unlike elsewhere. Of course, the island had no suitable candidates – mainly wild birds and possums.

Local Waim residents holding 4200 year old stone axe just after it came out of the ground.Credit: Judith Field

The Waim excavators were also able, for the first time in New Guinea, to date artifacts that until now had been found all over the place but never before in situ. People farming all over the island unearth figurines depicting humans, cassowaries and other life forms but don't necessarily think to call in scientists.

“Speaking to all these communities, [we’d say] we’re looking for these rare artifacts and strange enigmatic carvings – and people say hey, we have half a dozen under the house, want to have a look?” Shaw says.

Much like in the Middle East, society in New Guinea is clannish. There each clan is usually associated with an animal featuring in their mythology and cosmology. Possibly the ancient figurines of cassowaries and other creatures are signals from the early stages of this clan system. What the figurine they found of a human head with a bird perched on top says is anybody’s guess.

So there we have it. Farming began earlier in New Guinea than around it, and the sheer multiplicity of languages argues for independence in more ways than the obvious. Elsewhere in the world, the Neolithic transition led to less diversity, including lingual and genetic. But in New Guinea it’s the opposite.

Maybe the stone objects found around the island transcended language boundaries. Or maybe the figurines represented a sort of marker staking out the clans’ territories.

Actually, at Waim specifically, the archaeologists never found evidence of agriculture per se, Shaw says. They did find pestles, and residue analysis shows they were grinding plants that other studies found growing nearby, including banana, nuts and sugar cane. The prehistoric people of Waim might even have been trading stonework – figurines of cassowaries and others – for food grown at lower altitudes. You don’t need language to hold a stone bird in one hand and point a finger at a banana.

The first pestle found during initial spade pitting, the find that started it allCredit: Ben Shaw