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


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.


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