New Guinea’s Neolithic period may have started without outside help

Artifacts counter the idea that cultural changes sparked by farming were imported from Asia

Excavations at New Guinea’s Waim site began in 2016 after local residents discovered these stone artifacts. The finds included mortars, pestles, carved faces and club heads.

B. Shaw

Signs of a cultural shift in toolmaking and lifestyles sparked by farming, previously found at ancient Asian and European sites, have surfaced for the first time on New Guinea.

Excavations at a highland site called Waim produced relics of a cultural transition to village life, which played out on the remote island north of Australia around 5,050 to 4,200 years ago. Archaeologist Ben Shaw of the University of New South Wales in Sydney and colleagues report the findings March 25 in Science Advances.

Agriculture on New Guinea originated in the island’s highlands an estimated 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. But corresponding cultural changes, such as living in villages and making elaborate ritual and symbolic objects, have often been assumed to have emerged only when Lapita farmers from Southeast Asia reached New Guinea around 3,000 years ago (SN: 9/2/15). In Asia and Europe, those cultural changes mark the beginning of the Neolithic period. The new finds suggest that a Neolithic period also independently developed in New Guinea.

Key finds at Waim consist of a piece of a carved human or animal face that probably had symbolic meaning and two stone pestles bearing traces of yam, fruit and nut starches.

Other discoveries include a stone cutting or chopping tool, a pigment-stained stone with deep incisions that may have been used to apply coloring to plant fibers and an iron-rich rock fragment that was likely struck with other stones to create sparks for igniting fires.

Farming’s rise on New Guinea apparently inspired long-distance, seagoing trade, the scientists say. Chemical analysis of an unearthed chunk of obsidian — displaying marks created when someone hammered off sharp flakes — indicates it was imported from an island located at least 800 kilometers away.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content