Ancient pottery maps route to South Pacific

New dating of New Guinea artifacts is first hard evidence of 3,000-year-old cultural connection between islanders and seafarers

New Guinea pottery

HIGHLAND MIX  Pottery fragments (far right) found in New Guinea are more than 3,000 years old, suggesting to researchers that island natives — who also made various stone implements (center and left) — influenced an Asian seafaring culture that spread eastward.

D. Gaffney 2015

Ceramic shards unearthed in highland New Guinea more than 40 years ago have now been pegged as the oldest known pottery on the island, by a lot. That discovery offers a first glimpse of encounters between island residents and seafarers that influenced the rise of modern South Pacific societies.

Eleven of 20 pottery pieces excavated in 1972 and 1973 at Wañelek, a site in New Guinea’s highlands, date to between about 2,800 and 4,000 years ago. These new radiocarbon dates provide the first solid evidence that pottery-making sea voyagers with Asian roots engaged in a cultural give-and-take with New Guinea natives before colonizing a string of South Pacific islands. Archaeologist Dylan Gaffney of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and colleagues report the findings September 2 in PLOS ONE.

Until now, New Guinea pottery dated to within only the last thousand years.

MICRO VIEW A scanning electron microscope provided an extreme close-up of a New Guinea pottery fragment dating to over 3,000 years ago. Microscopic analysis of the artifact’s chemistry and mineral composition enabled scientists to estimate the geographic sources of the pottery’s clay. D. Gaffney 2015

The new finds are consistent with a theory proposed nearly 30 years ago by the late New Zealand archaeologist Roger Green. He suspected that seafaring people who left Taiwan more than 3,000 years ago moved through Southeast Asian islands and eventually reached the Bismarck Archipelago, a set of islands just northeast of New Guinea. A mixing of people, ideas and trade goods there, and perhaps on New Guinea, forged what archaeologists refer to as Lapita culture, Green proposed.

The oldest pottery found at the New Guinea highlands site was made either by early members of the Lapita culture or a previously unknown group of pottery makers from Asia, Gaffney suggests. Lapita pottery had appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago by 3,300 years ago. Within another 400 years, Lapita pottery spread eastward as far as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The Lapita expansion brought with it Asian-derived domestic animals, including pigs and chickens, and crops such as bananas and yams from the New Guinea region. Languages with mainland Asian origins are spoken in many Pacific islands today.

It now appears that the Lapita or another seagoing group moved from the Bismarck Archipelago to northern New Guinea at a time when higher sea levels enabled canoes to reach the highlands via river valleys, the researchers hold.

“The Wañelek artifacts are the only early evidence for cultural exchanges on the New Guinea mainland,” Gaffney says.

PACIFIC ENCOUNTERS Researchers have identified pottery older than 3,000 years ago at the Wañelek site in the New Guinea highlands. Pottery is currently made on New Guinea only in Agarabi villages southeast of Wañelek. Long ago, seafaring pottery makers could have reached the highlands via an inland sea that existed from 6,000 to 2,000 years ago. D. Gaffney et al/PLOS ONE 2015 (CC BY 4.0)

His team conducted microscopic and geochemical studies of 12 of the Wañelek pottery fragments. Mineral compositions of these artifacts indicated that 11 had been made in or near the highlands. One roughly 3,000-year-old pottery piece, bearing Lapita-like decorations, was traced to New Guinea’s northeast coast or nearby islands. “Potters were not just hugging the coast and offshore islands as we might expect, but had set up in the interior where existing populations lived,” Gaffney says.

Those populations traced their roots back to people from Southeast Asia who reached New Guinea by 50,000 years ago, when low sea levels created a land mass that connected the island to Australia (SN Online: 9/30/10).

New findings from Gaffney’s group fit a scenario in which Lapita voyagers reached the Bismarck Archipelago by 3,300 years ago and then trekked to highland New Guinea, remarks archaeologist Patrick Kirch of the University of California, Berkeley. “More work is needed to determine whether potsherds at Wañelek were manufactured on the coast or the Bismarck islands and traded inland, or whether inland dwellers adopted the art of making pottery,” Kirch says.

What’s clear is that pottery formerly regarded as a product of highland New Guinea people no more than perhaps a millennium ago originated earlier through contacts with Asian seafarers, says genetic anthropologist Jonathan Friedlaender of Temple University in Philadelphia.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated September 2, 2015, to correct a quote from Patrick Kirch. who referred to inland dwellers, not island dwellers.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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