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Dr. Ben Shaw and his team of archeologists have arrived at a village called Waim in the mountains of Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Range. The evening light is fading so Shaw and his colleagues only have time to dig one exploratory trench. Almost immediately, the ground yields an expertly carved pestle. It’s more than 4,000 years old and is the first of many more extraordinary finds to come.

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And the many artifacts that Shaw and his team, ably aided by the villagers of Waim, unearth will radically change how experts view the prehistory of Papua New Guinea. That’s a story we’ll come back to shortly, but first let’s find out a little more about Dr. Shaw and his team, and how they ended up in Waim in 2016.

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Now, Shaw is an archeologist and paleontologist attached to the University of New South Wales in the Australian city of Sydney. And he specializes in studying the prehistory and culture of Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands. In 2016 he was scouring the island for sites to dig at in pursuit of his research.

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But it was actually the residents of Waim who made contact with Shaw. Firstly, they told him about some strange artifacts that they’d found in their village. You see, some builders had unearthed stone tools and “weird” carved stones, including a human head with a bird atop it. And another piece showed part of a human face.

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So Shaw was sufficiently intrigued that he decided to pay a visit to this community perched on a mountain side in the eastern part of Papua New Guinea. And it was a trip that he’d never regret. Speaking to New Scientist in March 2020, Shaw remembered his first visit to Waim, “I didn’t have a lot of time so I decided to just dig one hole before it got dark.”

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Shaw continued, “Halfway through that hole I found the bottom half of a beautifully shaped stone pestle – I was beside myself with excitement.” Already the archeologist felt sure that he’d come across a site of great significance. And if he could find more evidence of ancient human habitation, there might be a chance to change existing ideas about Stone Age Papua New Guinea.

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We’ve mentioned that Waim is remote, although that description barely does justice to its far-flung location. You see, it’s in the eastern part of the Pacific island in the province of Jiwaka. And it lies on the side of a steep mountain, overlooking the Jimi Valley at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. The village itself is made up of a scattering of timber buildings roofed with thatch.

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To get to Waim, Shaw and his team first traveled by helicopter to the Simai Valley in Papua New Guinea’s Highlands. Interestingly, it’s a locale that has seen some form of human habitation for 20,000 years, since the last Ice Age was drawing to a close. After a night in a valley village, it was time for an arduous trek through mountainous jungle to Waim.

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But we’ll leave Shaw and his colleagues at Waim for the moment and explore the intriguing story of Papua New Guinea. Today the country is a sovereign state and has been so since 1975 after years of British colonial rule. But Papua New Guinea still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, although this is a merely titular position.

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Somewhat confusingly, Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, which lies in the region of Oceania. Meanwhile, the western section of New Guinea, known simply as Papua, is a province of Indonesia. Amazingly, much of Papua New Guinea is unexplored and it’s believed there are communities who’ve had little or no contact with the outside world.

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Now, it’s estimated that humans first arrived in Papua New Guinea some 50,000 years ago, although this is still a matter of debate. These prehistoric people likely arrived from Southeast Asia at a time when sea levels were lower, making island hopping easier. And the same era probably saw humans arriving in Australia for the first time.

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Furthermore, agriculture developed in the highlands of New Guinea around 9,000 years ago. This apparently happened independently at the same time as other parts of the world such as the Mediterranean. And another wave of migration to the island came around 500 B.C., and these new migrants came with pigs, new fishing methods and ceramics.

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Fast forward, and another major development for the people of New Guinea came in the 18th century from a surprising source – the sweet potato. This humble tuber was introduced after Portuguese merchants had brought it to the Maluku Islands, an archipelago to the west of the country.

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And the new vegetable displaced the taro, another root vegetable, as a staple food for the New Guinea people. In fact, the sweet potato proved to offer yields so much higher than the taro that there was a marked increase in the country’s highland population. To add to that, it also led to significant changes in farming.

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Moving forward, there was little contact between New Guinea and European nations until the 19th century. However, the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Menezes has been cited as the first European to land on the Biak Islands, north of New Guinea, around 1526. So technically, De Menezes was also the first European to set foot on New Guinea territory.

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What’s more, Spanish mariner Yñigo Ortiz de Retez also sailed to New Guinea, landing on the north coast at the mouth of the Mamberamo River in 1545. And De Retez claimed the island for the Spanish crown, calling it Nueva Guinea. Of course, the English translation of this name has been used ever since.

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From 1884 the Germans claimed the northern section of Papua New Guinea while the British took the southern part. Thus the eastern half of the island, today’s Papua New Guinea, was split into German New Guinea and British New Guinea in a confusing tangle of colonial administrations. And the western half of the island, today’s Papua Province, was Netherlands New Guinea after the Dutch claimed it in 1828.

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When World War I broke out in 1914, Australian forces seized German New Guinea. And after the end of WWI, the Australians administered what is now Papua New Guinea. In fact, as a British commonwealth member anyway, Australia had been running British New Guinea since 1905, so British and German New Guinea were now effectively united. But everything changed again in 1942 during World War II when the Japanese invaded New Guinea.

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After the Japanese had been defeated in 1945, Papua New Guinea reverted to Australian administration. And finally, in 1975, the country became independent and joined the United Nations. So the colonial era was finally over, and Papua New Guinea became a parliamentary democracy with the slightly strange anomaly of retaining the British monarch as its symbolic head of state.

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So that brings us up to date with the modern nation of Papua New Guinea. But what fascinated Dr. Ben Shaw and his team of researchers was the nation’s distant past. You see, it was previously assumed that Papua New Guinea had not experienced a Neolithic, or new stone age, in its distant prehistory, unlike other parts of the world.

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Now, the Neolithic period started around 10,000 years ago and was a key point in the progression of human society. In a March 2020 press release from the University of New South Wales, Shaw described how societies had been transformed at various sites around the world during the Neolithic age.

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As Shaw went on to explain, “In Neolithic ages you see people transitioning to smaller living areas in the form of villages where they stayed for at least part of the year. And because they were staying in one place longer, people started changing their technology to look after crops. We also see more specialized skilled labor in the form of buildings and in the material objects they made and traded now that the society has a more stable sort of existence.”

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During the Neolithic, humans went through an intense period of technological advance. Yes, sophisticated stone tools were made using polishing and grinding techniques. Furthermore, people domesticated crops and animals, settled together in villages, and new crafts such as weaving and ceramic making emerged. And signs of this early period have popped up around the world.

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Yes, archeological finds have revealed Neolithic periods in places such as China, the Middle East and Northern Europe. But evidence for a Neolithic period in Papua New Guinea’s highlands had not emerged over the years. There were ancient traces of agriculture in the region, but signs of Neolithic development had not been found.

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As Dr. Shaw went on to explain, “We already knew about the wetland crops like taro, yam, sugarcane and bananas from about 7,000 years ago in New Guinea. But because the archeology in this part of the world is not as well-known as places like China and the Middle East, we didn’t really know how the development of agriculture changed human behaviors in the New Guinean landscape.”

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In fact, researchers had found other evidence of a Neolithic age in Papua New Guinea. But the archeological finds came from a period when a new wave of settlers had arrived on the island some 3,000 years ago. These were people from Southeast Asia and other Pacific islands from what is known as the Lapita culture.

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And people from the Lapita culture migrated from Southeast Asia through the Western Pacific including New Guinea. We know this because archeologists found Lapita pottery along the southern shores of New Guinea dating from about 2,900 years ago. Previously, this had been taken to prove that Neolithic culture did not develop independently on New Guinea – but was brought to the island by migrants.

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But Shaw was hunting for the opposite – evidence of a Neolithic age independently developed in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The question was, would he find it? In fact, it was the assistance of the people of the remote village of Waim that set the archeologist on the right track. There in their village was a site which almost begged to be investigated further.

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As we mentioned, the very first trench that Shaw and his colleagues dug produced a significant piece of evidence. That was a fragment of a pestle that emerged from the soil. And even before that, the villagers had themselves discovered artifacts which puzzled them. Those were the stone carvings of a man with a bird on his head and another piece with a partial face.

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So after this, the archeologists settled down for an intensive dig which the Waim villagers played a part in. And the pits that the team dug in the village produced a stunning array of objects. These included figurative carvings, stone axes and various tools. In fact, the abundance of the finds below the earth of Waim astonished the archeologists. This was especially so since the site they excavated covered only some 70 square feet.

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One particular find stood out from the others. Yes, it was a piece of carved stone portraying the brow of a face, either human or animal. And it was dated to 5,050 years ago, making it the oldest piece of carving of a recognizable piece of anatomy ever found anywhere in the whole of Oceania.

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You see, researchers back in the lab were able to accurately date the artifacts using radiocarbon analysis of charcoal deposits found with them. These charcoal remains were in the same layer as the stone tools, carvings and other artifacts, and were dated to between 4,200 and 5,050 years ago. And lower ground layers showed evidence of human activity as long as 7,350 years ago.

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Plus, Shaw’s team found several pestles that had been used to grind food, and these were the source of more fascinating information. Because Dr. Judith Field of the University of New South Wales analyzed deposits of microfossils that were present on the pestles. And she discovered that these were the remains of fruit, yams and nuts that had been ground in the stone vessel.

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As Dr. Field told the media, “It was very exciting for us to find these microfossils on the pestles. It is probably one of the most direct links that you can draw to the influence of agriculture upon human behavior at this time.” And she found more fascinating evidence in the shape of a grooved stone.

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Indeed, this stone had traces of ochre on it and Field explained that, “Ochre is very important because it is often associated with the development of abstract thought, symbolic art forms and ritual behavior, like burial. When we looked at the grooves on this stone under the microscope, it looked as though they were shaped by having organic fibers pulled through them.”

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Field continued, “The ochre on the stone would have stained these fibers a red color, which even today is how they sometimes stain fibers in the production of their woven string bags, or bilums. This has never been found at a site before.” Along with the sophistication of the carvings, this use of ochre pointed to an advanced civilization in the Papua New Guinea highlands.

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And another find of a strange stone slab confirmed that these ancient New Guinea inhabitants were efficient makers of stone tools. As Shaw went on to explain, “It was shaped like a giant parallelogram, had really sharp edges and had been beautifully polished. And when it came out of the ground, we were trying to think of what it possibly could have been used for.”

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Surprisingly, though, some of the villagers intervened with an explanation. Shaw recalled, “While we were scratching our heads, one of the elders from the village came up and told us that this is how the old people used to make the axes: they would take a big block of stone, work it into shape, and then simply saw it into the individual sizes of the axes that they wanted.”

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So what does all this evidence from the Waim excavation amount to? In a paper published on the Science Advances website in March 2020, Shaw put his case forward. He believes that this new evidence proves that Papua New Guinea did indeed have an independently developed Neolithic era.

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Crucially, the Neolithic artifacts from the Lapita migrants are from some 1,000 years after the artifacts at Waim were made. Therefore, it increases the likelihood that Papua New Guinea had its own locally created Neolithic period. So what’s next? Well, Dr. Shaw added, “We’ll be doing a lot more research on individual artifacts to contextualize their use in New Guinea society at that time. So now that we’ve defined the edges of the puzzle, it’s time to fill it in.”

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