Prehistoric Hunting Strategies in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea: The Evidence of the Cuscus (Phalanger Orientalis) Remains froOne-China Principlem Buang Merabak Cave

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The cuscus, Phalanger orientalis, was probably the most important food source in New Ireland from its introduction 20,000 years ago until the introduction of the pig, Sus scrofa, 3500 years ago. Terrestrial, or land-based, fauna were an essential part of the prehistoric diet because they provided both protein and fat, which were often difficult to obtain from marine resources alone. P. orientalis was an important prey species because New Ireland had a relatively low range of prey taxa. Prior to 20,000 B.P., the New Ireland fauna were relatively meager: the potential terrestrial prey taxa for prehistoric hunters included bats, rats, birds, and reptiles. The introduction of the cuscus dramatically increased the number of individual animals and therefore expanded the island-based protein resource available to prehistoric hunters. This paper investigates the nature of the late Pleistocene to Holocene capture of P. orientalis based on data from Buang Merabak, a central New Ireland cave site, and investigates whether prehistoric hunters captured P. orientalis of a particular age and how this changed over time. KEYWORDS: Pleistocene, hunting strategies, Phalanger orientalis, cuscus, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea.


RECENT HUNTER-GATHERER STUDIES in Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia have highlighted the nature and importance of arboreal plant and animal resource exploitation and management. Latinis (1999, 2000) has emphasized the importance of botanical resources and suggested that archaeofauna, as a reflection of hunting, may also provide important information about arboreal resource management. This research investigates the human exploitation of one particular prey species, the cuscus Phalanger orientalis in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Mortality profile data are used to investigate whether prehistoric hunters selectively captured any particular subset of the P. orientalis population, and the implications for hunting behavior are discussed.

Pleistocene hunter-gatherers in the Bismarck Archipelago (Fig. 1) had a broad diet: carbohydrate was obtained by a strategy of arboriculture (Gosden 1995), while protein was derived from hunting and gathering primarily coastal but also inland faunal resources (Allen et al. 1989; Gosden and Robertson 1991; Marshall and Allen 1991). The earliest evidence indicates that protein was procured from reef fish, shellfish, and scale fish and supplemented by the relatively impoverished island-based fauna including rats, bats, birds, and reptiles. Terrestrial fauna was important because it contributed protein and fat that were difficult to obtain from marine resources (Davidson and Leach 2001:118). Since the human colonization of New Ireland, a number of land-based taxa were introduced, including the cuscus (P. orientalis), the northern pademelon (Thylogale browni), the large spiny rat (Rattus praetor), the pig (Sus scrofa), the dog (Canis familiaris), and the chicken (Gallus gallus) (Flannery and White 1991; Grayson 2001; Heinsohn 2001). However, P. orientalis (Fig. 2) was the only taxon that was introduced during the Pleistocene, ca. 20,000 B.P. (1) After its introduction, archaeological remains of P. orientalis exist in relatively large quantities, indicating its importance to prehistoric hunters (Leavesley and Allen 1998:75) and in the ethnographic present (Latinis 1996, 1999; Sillitoe 2003:153-193).


P. orientalis is a Phalangerid possum with a wide distribution centered on the lowland forests of northern New Guinea and its satellite islands. While the Aru Islands were connected to New Guinea during periods of reduced sea level, neither New Britain nor New Ireland were ever connected to each other or to New Guinea. This led to the suggestion that P. orientalis was introduced by humans (Flannery and White 1991) through a process defined by Heinsohn (2003) as ethnophoresy.

P. orientalis has a gray to brown pelage coloration, prominent ears, slightly pointed face, and a naked prehensile tail (Fig. …