New Evidence and Revised Interpretations of Early Agriculture in Highland New Guinea

Article excerpt


Several areas in the Highlands of New Guinea, in particular the Upper Wahgi Valley, are significant for interpreting the emergence of agriculture during the early to mid-Holocene. Of these sites, Kuk Swamp (hereafter referred to as "Kuk") is the most important because it has been investigated in greatest detail, provides the longest chronology and is the "type-site" for the investigation of prehistoric plant exploitation in the interior of New Guinea (Denham 2003a; Denham et al. 2003; Golson 1977a, 1982, 1985, 1990, 1991a, 1991b; Golson & Hughes 1980; Hope & Golson 1995). The international significance of Kuk derives from the presence of successive phases of drainage for agriculture dating from 6950-6440 cal BP or earlier (Golson 1977a, 1991 a, 1991 b; Golson & Hughes 1980; cf. Denham 2004; Denham et al. 2003; Table 1, see The evidence at Kuk has provided a basis for the interpretation of early and independent agricultural origins in the Highlands of New Guinea.

In this paper, new multi-disciplinary findings on early and mid-Holocene plant exploitation at Kuk, including archaeological, archaeobotanical and palaeoecological research, are presented and interpreted with respect to the prehistory of the Upper Wahgi Valley. These results endorse previous interpretations that New Guinea was a centre of independent agricultural origins, but question previous ideas that agriculture was necessarily developed in the lowlands and brought into the Highlands with climatic amelioration and stabilisation at the beginning of the Holocene (Hope & Golson 1995:818-819, 827-8). According to our alternative argument, agricultural practices arose in the Highlands of New Guinea during the early to mid-Holocene through the transformation of pre-existing plant exploitation strategies (following Denham & Barton in press; Haberle 1993: 299-305); the nature and timing of the earliest innovations require clarification through further research.

The early and mid-Holocene remains, corresponding to Phases 1 and 2 at Kuk, are directly relevant to understanding the origins of agriculture in New Guinea. The early and mid-Holocene remains pre-date any known Southeast Asian influence on New Guinea after its initial colonisation by at least c. 40 000 cal BP (Groube et al. 1986). Mid-Holocene Southeast Asian influences are usually associated with the expansion of Austronesian language-speakers to Melanesia at 3500-3300 cal BP (see Bellwood 1997:210-54), or at c 3200-3300 cal BP (Spriggs 2001: 240). The influence of Austronesian diffusion on mainland New Guinea, marked by the Lapita cultural complex in island Melanesia (Green 1991), is unclear because there is a near absence of Lapita pottery and other well-dated traits on the island of New Guinea (see Terrell & Welsch 1997 for the exceptions). On linguistic grounds, Austronesian influence on New Guinea is considered to post-date the onset of Lapita culture by at least 1000 years (Bellwood 1996: 487).

Site location

The wetland archaeological site at Kuk Swamp is located approximately 12 kilometres (km) north-east of the town of Mount Hagen in the Upper Wahgi Valley, Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea (Figure 1). Kuk is located in the Highlands, i.e., land above 1200 metres above mean sea level (m), at an altitude of c. 1560 m. Kuk Swamp forms part of extensive wetlands carpeting the floor of the Upper Wahgi Valley, which is part of one of the largest inter-montane valleys in the interior of New Guinea. The archaeological site is located on the former Kuk Agricultural (originally Tea) Research Station that covered 280 hectares (ha). Approximately 100 ha of the southeast corner were subject to multi-disciplinary investigation (Golson 1977a: 610).


Like other wetlands in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Kuk was artificially drained in the late 1960s and early 1970s for planting. …