Early Agriculture in New Guinea and the Torres Strait Divide

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The high and low islands of Torres Strait, scattered between the tip of Queensland and the coast of Papua New Guinea, make a unique frontier in later world prehistory: between a continent of hunter-gatherers and the majority world of cultivators. Consideration of just what archaeology there is in the Torres Strait Islands, and of its date, improve on the conventional question.. was the Strait a bridge or a barrier?

The transitions considered by fellow-contributors to this volume span great swathes of time and space, and encompass a wide range of environmental, archaeological, economic and social changes. But, among all the themes and data discussed, the `transition' from `hunting and gathering' to `agriculture' - or lack of it - occupies a privileged position. It has been a focus of (European) speculation and enquiry ever since Captain James Cook landed on Possession Island off Cape York in August 1770 and reflected that `the Natives know nothing of Cultivation' and `When one considers the Proximity of this Country with New-Guiney, New-Britain and several other Islands which produce Cocoa-Nutts and many other fruits proper for the Support of Man it seems strange that they should not long ago have been transplanted here' (Beaglehole 1955: 393, 397-8). Cook's puzzlement was echoed a century later by Captain John Moresby in his observation - well known to Australian archaeologists since Peter White quoted it in his 1971 paper on New Guinea and Australian prehistory - that `it seems strange that these people [the Aborigines of Cape York] have never learnt to cultivate the earth and build houses ... whilst their Papuan neighbours, in the near Torres Strait islands, build good huts [and] supply themselves with constant vegetable foods, [Moresby 1876: 18).

The comments of Cook and Moresby reveal of course the then-prevailing European view that the cultivation of crops `proper for the Support of Man' was a step on the road to civilization, that the adoption of agriculture was a natural advance in social evolution, and that hunter-gatherers who had not achieved it were necessarily `backward'. There is no need here to recapitulate how this view was generally overthrown in anthropology and archaeology in the late 1960s, notably by Binford (1968), Flannery (1968) and Sahlins (1968), or how Peter White redefined the Australian `Neolithic Problem' in 1971 by replacing the old question of why was there never a `Neolithic Revolution' in Australia with the proposition that the hunter-gatherers of the tropical north were `simply too well off to bother about agriculture' (White 1971: 182-4). To redefine the problem is not however to define it away. As White himself argued, and demonstrated from both ethnographic and archaeological data, the question of what kinds of cultural contact took place between northern Australia and island Southeast Asia/Melanesia remained central to the interpretation of Australian, and New Guinean, prehistory - a key part of which has been the assumption that Torres Strait was a significant divide or boundary between `hunter-gatherer Australia' and `agricultural New Guinea'. It is that assumption that we need to re-examine, in relation both to Torres Strait itself and to New Guinea as a whole. But before doing so - and in order to be able to recognize evidence for it - we must first clarify what we mean by `agriculture'.

In previous publications I have suggested that the human exploitation of plants for food can be conceptualized as an evolutionary continuum of people-plant interaction, within which different plant-food yielding systems can be distinguished according to how the plants are exploited and how much energy people invest in the process (Harris 1989), 1990). This allows an initial distinction to be made between plant-food procurement and plant-food production. The former is restricted to the gathering and protective tending of wild plants; the latter encompasses production from wild plants and domesticated crops. …