Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Finding the Right Question: Learning from Stone Tools on the Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Finding the Right Question: Learning from Stone Tools on the Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


As the most abundant, and frequently the only, archaeological evidence preserved within the volcanic soils of the Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea, stone artefacts carry a heavy burden for scholars seeking to write the prehistory of subsistence and land use. Efforts to squeeze information from these recalcitrant informal assemblages of obsidian tools have produced contradictory and unsatisfactory results. Although alternative approaches should certainly be sought to find ways to make these silent stones speak about topics that archaeologists want to hear, other important stories concerning social process and exchange are beginning to be told by ongoing research being developed in West New Britain. These new results raise broader questions about the social functions of humble stone tools in other parts of the world.

Keywords: obsidian, New Britain, stone tools, exchange, Lapita origins


Studies of chipped stone artefacts have yet to make a sustained significant contribution to answering the 'big' why questions in Pacific archaeology, e.g. origins of agriculture, colonisation of new regions, social complexity, etc. Scholars working in this part of the world have preferred to put their faith in dating techniques, pottery, monuments and to a lesser degree in faunal and botanical data, despite pleas for more technological studies (e.g. Summerhayes 2004: 153, 154). Although Pacific chipped stone assemblages are notorious for being informal and undiagnostic (e.g. Allen and Bell 1988), the lack of attention to this class of data may stem more from the kinds of questions that have been asked of it than the nature of the material itself. I argue that rather than conceived solely as functional, utilitarian items, some of which may have been exchanged, the primary value of even simple flakes may have been social. Through a critical review of stone tool research based in the Willaumez Peninsula on New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea (Figure 1), this paper illustrates the potential of adopting new conceptions about the social roles of raw materials in general and of chipped stone artefacts in particular.

Archaeological research on Garua Island and in the Isthmus region of the Willaumez Peninsula was developed within the contemporary frameworks of 1990's Melanesian archaeology in which a 'hot' topic was the origin and history of 'agriculture'. For example, one of the main questions posed by the Lapita Homeland Project asked 'was horticulture part of the subsistence strategy throughout the Holocene in the Bismarck Archipelago or was it a later introduction' (Allen 1991: 3; cf. Spriggs 1997: 87). The focus on cultivation was largely a response to the raging controversy about whether new forms of subsistence and settlement had been introduced by the supposed migrants who brought Lapita style pottery to the region (e.g. Spriggs 1997: 71, 88; Kirch 2000: 91-93; Bellwood 2005). For example, Spriggs (1996) made a sharp distinction between the sedentary agriculturalists that migrated into the area contemporary with Lapita pottery and the hunter-horticulturalists who had preceeded them. In his view the mere presence of plant domestication and cultivation was clearly different from a system of subsistence in which sedentary groups were locked into a dependence on agricultural products (Spriggs 1996). With these issues in mind, an obvious goal for my research was to trace changes in land use from earliest colonisation in the Pleistocene up to the Lapita sedentary agriculturalists and test whether the character of the change was gradual or as abrupt as some had predicted.

Given the high rainfall and acidic volcanic soils of the region, however, organic remains are not preserved and obsidian flaked tools are generally the only archaeological find, except during the brief time of Lapita style pottery (c. 3200-1700 BP). To address the research agenda, it was therefore necessary to develop a suite of established and new methods largely focused on geomorphology and microfossils. …

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