Arboriculture and Agriculture in Coastal Papua New Guinea

By Gosden, Chris | Antiquity, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview
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Arboriculture and Agriculture in Coastal Papua New Guinea


Gosden, Chris, Antiquity


A central issue in the regional prehistory over the Transition - and therefore of this whole set of papers - is the different life-ways that came to be followed in Papua New Guinea and in Australia itself; the one became agricultural, the other hunter-gatherer. There is more to the story than that divide; this is a story of a human and created world, rather than a simple response to directing environment.

In discussing the effects of the marine transgression that occurred between 15,000 and 7000 b.p. I will commit a transgression of my own. I will break the rule which divides Australia from Papua New Guinea on the lines of hunter - gatherers versus farmers. That people farm in Papua New Guinea is clear, as is the fact that they have done so for a long time. What I would question, however, is the notion that farming is the key to life in Papua New Guinea past and present and that this form of life can be divided off neatly from Australian hunting and gathering. In a classic article Peter White (1971), asking `Why was there never a "Neolithic Revolution" in Australia?', gave as his main answer that these were foragers far too affluent to countenance such excessive toil.

This characterization of the two continents has been very fruitful in providing the framework, explicit or implicit, for much research. Now, however, the time has come to rethink this framework. The reason is a growing realization amongst those working on the archaeology of northern Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands in the Bismarck Archipelago that the evidence we are unearthing will not fit well into the conventional categories of hunter - gatherer and farmer. This has led to some creative playing with these categories (Spriggs 1993), but perhaps we need to find some new bottles for the new wine. I start by discussing a different approach to problems of subsistence and its social effects, before examining how far this allows us to appreciate novel aspects of new data.

Creating a world: the deployment of materials

Arguments starting from the nature of subsistence have a particular structure to them. The requirements of the subsistence round are said to determine the nature and pattern of movement or sedentism, while the products derived from subsistence influence the levels of population possible and the amounts of trade or exchange, craft specialization etc., which are possible. Subsistence is the base on which all other elements of social life must be built.

To overcome the determinisms, environmental and economic, built into this view, let us take a different starting-point which does not necessarily privilege subsistence. People in all times and places attempt to create a world for themselves to live in, using the materials to hand and the social and technical skills at their disposal. Food and drink are a vital consideration when creating a world, but they are a necessary, rather than a sufficient condition in this shaping. The world in which people live is structured to some extent on the nature of the physical world, but has extra social dimensions. As European colonization of many parts of the world, including Australia, has shown us, different groups of people can inhabit the same areas but make totally different worlds out of them.

A humanly created world has the same dimensions as the physical world which it occupies. It has extension in space and depth in time. Extension in space depends upon the regular movements that people make in carrying out tasks and maintaining social connections. Movement and connection always have a material dimension, depending on mode of transport and the use of materials, including food to bind and divide groups. Depth in time derives from a common tradition, a basic fund of taken-for-granted and conscious knowledge, transmitted from one generation to the next which people can use and change to meet present circumstances.

A stress on creation should not blind us to the fact that people are constrained by the world they live in.

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