Towards publication of Ten Thousand Years of Gardening in Papua New Guinea (APSF 02-3)

APSF 02-3 | Amount: $ 5,000 | Project Leader: P Swadling | Project Period: Oct 2002 – May 2003

An activity undertaken at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, and supervised by P Swadling

The grant has been used to part fund the publication of the following book.

Title: Ten Thousand Years of Gardening
Subtitle: Kuk and the archaeology of agriculture in Papua New Guinea
Editors:    Jack Golson, Tim Denham, Pamela Swadling and John Muke

Some of the earliest evidence for agriculture in the world is claimed for Kuk, an archaeological site in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Following initial multi-disciplinary fieldwork at the site in the 1970s (directed by Jack Golson), claims were tentatively made for agriculture dating back to 10,000 cal BP (calibrated years before present) on the basis of the archaeological and geomorphological evidence. More robust evidence of on-site agriculture, grouped into several discrete phases dating from c.7000 cal BP to c.100 cal BP, was documented in archaeological evidence that represented artificial drainage of the wetland for cultivation. Recent multi-disciplinary investigations at the site (directed by Tim Denham) have yielded evidence to confirm a minimum 10,000 year old antiquity for agriculture in New Guinea. The characterisation of agricultural activities at Kuk has been undertaken using a range of multi-disciplinary techniques from archaeobotany (diatom, parenchyma, phytolith, pollen, seed, starch grain and wood analyses), sedimentology (micromorphology, X-radiography, X-ray diffraction) and radiometric dating (conventional and AMS).

Figure 1. Where agricultural practices are believed to have developed independently in the world.
Figure 2. The locations of the Kuk Station, Melpa speaking groups and places mentioned in the text.
Plate 1. The first evidence of early agriculture in the Western Highlands of PNG was discovered as a result of large-scale drainage of the upper Wahgi swamplands for tea and coffee plantations and resettlement schemes in the 1960s. This evidence consisted of spades, digging sticks and fence posts of wood and stone axes uncovered during drainage, together with the outlines of former water-disposal channels and garden ditches in the walls of the new drains that cut across them. Looking northwest this photo shows some of the new drains dug in 1972 as well as the vegetation covered lines of the latest prehistoric drains (Phase 6, which dates from about 350 to about 100 years ago). Ep ridge is in the background.
Plate 2. An 1972 aerial view looking over the area shown in Plate 1. Note the grid pattern of Phase 6 gardens.
Plate 3. Prehistoric drains exposed in the surface of the 9,000 year old grey clay. The excavation trenches are following a ditch of late Phase 3 (about 3000 years old). This is cut across by younger ditches belonging to subphases of Phase 5 (roughly dated from 1000 to 350 years ago).  All the prehistoric drains infilled once they were abandoned.

The book has five main parts that:

  1. review the site’s importance in global and Pacific contexts.
  2. review the archaeological evidence and interpretations from Kuk in terms of the prehistory of New Guinean agriculture.
  3. present in detail the prehistory of each phase.
  4. summarise the results of the specialist analyses.
  5. sketch the views of the local Kuk community and people of New Guinea on their own prehistory.

Each part is written by experts in the respective fields, and the results are interpreted by the original fieldworkers and multi-disciplinary specialists.

This book was produced to meet growing demands for information on Kuk for scientific, educational and conservation purposes. It aims to present a clear account of the prehistoric finds and their interpretations; and seeks to explain the modern Kuk community’s interest in the land, in the discoveries themselves and in the site’s proposed World Heritage listing. The book is an invaluable guide to the prehistory of agriculture in New Guinea. The book will be accessible to the general reader and will form the core of high school and undergraduate courses in New Guinea and beyond.

Key References (in chronological order):
Golson, J.  1977. No room at the top: agricultural intensification in the New Guinea Highlands. In J. Allen, J. Golson and R. Jones (eds) Sunda and Sahul: prehistoric studies in southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia, pp. 601-38. London: Academic Press.
Golson, J. and P.J. Hughes  1980. The appearance of plant and animal domestication in New Guinea. Journal de la Société des Océanistes 36: 294-303.
Hope, G.S. and J. Golson  1995. Late Quaternary change in the mountains of New Guinea. Antiquity 69 (Special Number 265): 818-30.
Denham, T.P., S. Haberle, C. Lentfer, R. Fullagar, J. Field, M. Therin, N. Porch and B. Winsborough  2003. Origins of agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea. Science 301: 189-193.
Neumann, K.  2003. New Guinea: a cradle of agriculture. Science 301: 180-1. (a Perspective on Denham et al. 2003).