Archaeological Evidence for Mid-Holocene Agriculture in the Interior of Papua New Guinea: A Critical Review

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Abstract

Claims for the early and independent origins of agriculture in New Guinea partially rest on the archaeological evidence for mid-Holocene drainage and land use at five sites in the interior. The five sites are Kuk, Kana, Mugumamp and Warrawau in the Wahgi Valley and Ruti Flats in the Lower Jimi Valley, all in Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. The archaeological remains, morphological comparisons and chronological correlations at each site are critically evaluated. Problems with the constitution of the mid-Holocene remains are raised, with claims for agricultural remains at two sites, Kana and Ruti Flats, considered questionable on the available, published evidence. The archaeological remains at Kuk, Mugumamp and Warrawau consist of palaeosurfaces interpreted to represent prehistoric cultivation using mounds. ********** Trajeetories from the Past

In attempting to unravel the origins of agriculture in New Guinea, Golson adopted a multi-stranded approach in which the archaeological remains documented at Kuk Swamp, Wahgi Valley and other wetland sites were situated within broader, multi-disciplinary lines of evidence. These broader contexts included the archaeological record from New Guinea and beyond, palaeoecological and geophysical investigations of wetlands in the Highlands, archaeobotany and phytogeography, ethnography, geomorphology and linguistics (e.g., Golson 1977a, 1989, 1997; Golson and Hughes 1980). Golson's method is akin to Kirch's 'triangulation' concept, in which multiple lines of evidence are applied to the reconstruction of the past (Kirch 2000:215).

The archaeological evidence for Phases 1 and 2 (Table 1) at Kuk is a significant plank grounding an argument for the independent development of agriculture in New Guinea (Golson 1991: Yen 1991; Hope and Golson 1995). In the absence of a comprehensive archaeobotanical record of the plants formerly grown, which is currently being constructed, the wetland archaeological remains are the most direct evidence of former horticultural activities. Palaeoenvironmental indications of vegetation clearance (Haberle this issue) and increased erosion rates (Hughes et al. 1991) provide indirect evidence of former subsistence practices. Uncertainties concerning the artificiality and function of the early phases from Kuk and other sites have fostered scepticism regarding the propositions of early, pre-Austronesian agriculture in New Guinea (e.g., Spriggs 1996:528-9, 1997:62).

In a recent review, the wetland archaeological evidence for Phase 1 at Kuk was found to be inconsistent with previous claims of artificial manipulation of the wetland for agriculture (Denham In press a). The artificial construction of the Phase 1 palaeochannel was rejected and interpretations of practices on the palaeosurface were revised, although they are still considered to represent plant exploitation (Denham 2003). Following a review of diachronic and synchronic sources, a long-term trajectory of 'agricultural' development in the Highlands was proposed, which was intended to broaden subsequent debates from a focus on the early Holocene archaeological remains at Kuk. The palaeoecological record from Kuk and other inter-montane valleys represents anthropogenic clearance beginning in the Terminal Pleistocene and continuing through the early Holocene. The scale of these practices reflects the emergence of practices akin to agriculture, both in terms of their effects upon the landscape and the dependence of people upon them for their subsistence.

In this paper, the mid-Holocene evidence from wetland archaeological sites at Kuk, Kana, Mugumamp and Warrawau (Manton's site) in the Wahgi Valley and from the Ruti Flats in the Lower Jimi Valley, all in Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea are reviewed (Figure 1). This body of evidence requires critical evaluation because mid-Holocene remains, known as Phase 2 at Kuk, may represent the earliest episodes of wetland management for agriculture in the Highlands and, consequently, are significant for determining the origins of agriculture in New Guinea. …

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