Archaeological Mysteries Solved by New PNG Research

Professor Glenn Summerhayes at the 'Joes' Garden' site in the Ivane Valley in the New Guinea highlands. (Image: University of Otago)

New research that “fills in the blanks” on what ancient Papuan New Guineans ate, and how they processed food, has ended decades-long speculation on tool use and food stables in the highlands of New Guinea several thousand years ago.

A recent research report detailing findings from the “Joe’s Garden” site in the Ivane Valley in the New Guinea highlands ends several decades of academic speculation about what a formally manufactured mortar and other tools were used for, and shows a variety of once widely eaten starchy plants were processed at the site.

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Professor Summerhayes and members of the dig team. (Image: University of Otago)
Professor Summerhayes and members of the dig team. (Image: University of Otago)

Report co-author and University of Otago Archaeology Professor Glenn Summerhayes says the research means several archaeological mysteries have finally been solved.

Clinging to the stone tools recovered from the site are microscopic starch grains from tree nuts (Castanopsis acumeninatissma) and Pueraria labota (tuber), which were first proposed as common stables by researchers in the mid-1960s. Summerhayes said:

The research adds to the findings from other studies by demonstrating the long-term survival of starchy residues in an open site in a montane setting at 2000 m above sea level, and confirms the resilience of these microfossils in equatorial/tropical contexts. Summerhayes says over the last 300 or so years, the predominance of sweet potato in subsistence gardening practices has led to a range of starchy plants falling into disuse.

Professor Summerhayes (left) with members of field crew. (Image: University of Otago)
Professor Summerhayes (left) with members of field crew. (Image: University of Otago)

While previous studies in the region have mainly focused on the use of taro, banana, and some yams, the researchers found several species, including Castanopsis sp. — commonly referred to as chinquapin or chinkapin — may have played an important, if up until now an invisible, role in highland diets over the millennia. Similarly, the widely available C. acuminatissima — commonly known as white oak or New Guinea oak — has been recorded as eaten on hunting trips, but has never been clearly identified as a common starchy staple.

As with pestles from the Waim site, the Ivane mortars confirm the consumption of these tree nuts was widespread. Some areas recognize these dietary links with the past; in the highland Kaironk Valley in Madang Province, at least one stand of C. acuminatissima has conservation status. Summerhayes said:

The research was undertaken by Otago archaeologist Professor Glenn Summerhayes and his team from the University of New South Wales, the University of Papua New Guinea, and the National Museum of PNG, and funded by a Marsden grant from the New Zealand Royal Society to Professor Summerhayes, with a subsequent Australian Research Council Grant to Dr. Field and Professor Summerhayes.

Waim village (Image: University of Otago)
Waim village (Image: University of Otago)

The report Functional studies of flaked and ground stone artefacts reveal starchy tree nut and root exploitation in mid-Holocene highland New Guinea was recently published in the prestigious international journal The Holocene.

Provided by: University of Otago [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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