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Indigenous peoples of West Papua are rapidly being overtaken by the 21st century.

Peoples of West Papua

New Guinea's indigenous peoples, the Papuans, with their typically fuzzy to tightly-coiled hair and variably dark skins, are an astonishingly diverse ethnic and linguistic assemblage, representing one fifth of the world's languages, crammed into an area only slightly larger than Texas. They are the variably intertwined descendants of two waves of human expansion: an early one, when modern humans first drifted out of Africa, and a much later one, during the last few millenia, out of Southern China ultimately.

The first islanders

Eugène Dubois' famous 'Java Man' fossils from Central Java in western Indonesia, represent the type material of Homo erectus ('Upright Man'), and attest to the presence of pre-human hominins on the Sunda Shelf as early as 1.8 million years ago. This is roughly contemporaneous with the oldest finds of Homo erectus in East Africa (sometimes treated as a different species, Homo ergaster or 'Working Man'), and thus falls during the early Pleistocene, the epoch from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago that spans Earth's recent period of repeated glaciations. The Sunda Shelf is an extension of Asia's shallow continental shelf, and during Pleistocene glacial maxima, when sea level is variously estimated to have dipped 120 to 150 meters below its present level, proto-humans could freely have wandered overland from mainland Southeast Asia, across the Sunda landscape, to the present-day Greater Sunda Islands of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali.

But there is also convincing evidence of overwater dispersal by Homo erectus in the form of 840,000 year old stone tools that have been recovered further east on the island of Flores along Indonesia's Lesser Sunda island chain, separated from the Greater Sundas by the deep and permanent Lombok Strait. That water barrier may actually have been reduced down to 12 kilometers during Pleistocene glacial maxima, and hence the assumed original peopling of a visible island by Homo erectus may have been through sheer luck. In any case, Homo erectus got stuck on Flores and by 38,000 years ago had evolved into a dwarfed form, Homo floresiensis or 'Flores Man', through the same speciation process of insular dwarfism observed in other contemporaneous animals on Flores, including a species of the proboscidean genus Stegodon on which the hominin apparently hunted cooperatively. Stegodon florensis insularis vanished 12,000 years ago, but if the accounts of 16th century Portuguese sailors are correct, 'Flores Man' may have survived into recent times.

In any case, Homo floresiensis lived contemporaneously with our own kind, Homo sapiens ('Wise Man'), which started to drift out of Africa around 70,000 years ago and used the Lesser Sunda Islands as stepping stones to reach the two hemi-continents of Australia and New Guinea (then connected to one another in a single land mass, Greater Australia) by 60,000 years ago, virtually completely replacing all other earlier hominins in the process. The colonization of Greater Australia by fully modern humans implied the crossing of a number of water channels, the widest of which span 120 kilometers, beyond which Australia remained invisible altogether. Mankind's first use of watercraft, possibly simple bamboo rafts or canoes, is widely being invoked here, and the final stages of this earliest eastward drift of modern humans, into the Bismarck and Solomon archipelagos by 35,000 years ago, also had required significant maritime travel. Elsewhere in the world, the first strong evidence of watercraft arose only 13,000 years ago in the Mediterranean Sea.

The future-eaters

The first humans to enter Greater Australia encountered giant kangaroos, rhinolike marsupials called diprotodonts and reaching the size of a cow, a two-hundred-kilogram flightless bird, a one-ton lizzard, a giant python, and land-dwelling crocodiles. This distinctive megafauna became extint 35,000 years ago for reasons that are still prone to some debate. If the dating of the arrival of humans around 60,000 years ago at Lake Mungo in southern Australia is correct, this would mean that megafauna and humans coexisted locally for about 25 millennia. However, in many areas of Australia and New Guinea radiocarbon-dated sites attest to the presence of humans between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago only, in which case the arrival of humans coincides suspiciously with the disappearance of the big beasts. Having evolved in complete isolation and therefore likely showing no fear of humans, it really looks like the giants of Greater Australia simply had the misfortune of suddenly being exposed to invading modern humans with fully developed hunting skills, while climate change may have been a contributory factor in dry areas of Australia. Whatever the reason, while humans spread rapidly throughout Greater Australia and successfully adapted to a wide range of difficult environments, from deserts to montane rainforests, the disappearance of the megafauna had major consequences for subsequent human history in Australia and New Guinea as it left humans there without any potentially domesticable animals for food-production, transportation and traction.

Masters of a difficult environment

After this initial peopling of Greater Australia there is no compelling evidence of further human invasions into Australia or New Guinea until the Austronesian expansion in the last few thousand years, by a sea-faring people of ultimately South Chinese origin. Thus the original Non-Austronesian settlers of Australia and New Guinea evolved in prolonged isolation, not only from their founding populations in Southeast Asia, but also from one another. For after the rising of the Arafura Sea, separating Australia and New Guinea from each other around 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Holocene, only tenuous contact remained between the two hemi-continents along the chain of small Torres Strait islands.

Australia's Aborigines experienced firsthand that geography just isn't fair. In the absence of natural resources, they remained nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small bands and with a limited total population of only a few hundred thousand people, fragmented into several ecologically more productive and populous regions, separated by vast expanses of thinly populated desert. New Guinea swamp dwellers, like the Fayu, remained band-living nomadic hunter-gatherers too, heavily depending on the starchy pith of wild sago palms which yield three times more calories per hour's work than does gardening. Lowland New Guineans on the seacoast, such as the coastal Asmat, lived in permanent villages and relied heavily on fish, while those on dry ground away from the coast and rivers, such as the Korowai, subsisted at low densities by slash-and-burn agriculture based on bananas and yams, supplemented by hunting and gathering. But a few broad highland valleys along New Guinea's central cordillera, such as the Baliem Valley of the Snow Mountains, the heartlands of the Dani people, were the scene of independent development of technologically advanced food production, in fact one of only nine areas in the world where agriculture arose independently.

It is now generally acknowledged that agriculture arose indigenously in the New Guinea highlands around 9,000 years ago by domestication of New Guinea wild plant species. The founding crops were sugarcane, several leafy vegetables, edible grass stems, bananas, taro and certain yams. The development of New Guinea highland agriculture must have triggered a big population explosion locally by 6,000 years ago, when complex systems of drainage ditches in swampy areas and terraces on steep slopes become widespread. By 5,000 years ago evidence from pollen analysis already testifies to the widespread deforestation of highland valleys. The arrival of chickens and pigs, domesticated in Southeast Asia and introduced to New Guinea around 3,600 years ago by the Austronesians, must gradually have exacerbated the pressure on remaining forests in the valleys. And by 1,200 years ago the deforestation must have been so massive that a wood crisis triggered a big surge in the silviculture of native Casuarina oligodon. These fast-growing evergreen trees with leaves resembling pine-needles and very hard but easily split wood, solved many problems associated with deforestation, including wood supply and soil fertility. An even bigger surge in casuarina silviculture between 600 and 300 years ago has been linked to the Tibito tephra, an event of massive volcanic ashfall and associated boost to soil fertility in the region. However, it also coincides suspiciously with the presumed arrival of the Andean sweet potato Ipomoea batatas in the New Guinea highlands. That crop is assumed to have reached New Guinea through native trade after it was introduced in The Philippines in the 16th century by Spaniards from its South American homelands. Once established, the sweet potato overtook taro as the highlands' leading crop because of its shorter time to reach maturity, higher yields per acre, and greater tolerance of poor soil conditions, again leading to local population increase.

New Guinea highlanders had developed sophisticated farming methods, to the point that modern European agronomists haven't quite fathomed yet why certain traditional methods work where well-intentioned European farming innovations fail. However, the low protein content of dietary staples, the lack of domesticated animals for traction, the overall limited available area for highland agriculture, and the highly fragmented nature of New Guinea's populations and the chronic warfare between them, kept the total population of traditional New Guinea below one million, far too low to develop the technology, writing and political systems that arose among populations of tens of millions in Southwest Asia, China, the Andes and Mesoamerica.

The Austronesians

In terms of the great distances it covered, the Austronesian expansion was one of the biggest population movements of the past 6,000 years. It completed mankind's occupation of the most isolated permanently habitable corners of our planet. Austronesian languages are spoken today from Madagascar to Easter Island, across two-thirds of the world's circumference. At the basis of this expansion stood the invention of the double-outrigger sailing canoe, a stable watercraft for deep-sea fishing and long-range maritime travel, still widely used in Indonesia today. Taiwan Strait, separating the island of the same name from mainland Southern China, is where the Austronesians initially developed the skills required for long-distance overwater colonization. Following the successful occupation of Taiwan around 5,500 years ago, the Austronesians worked their way south through the Philippine archipelago around 5,000 years ago, to reach the islands of Borneo, Sulawesi and Timor around 4,500 years ago, and the islands of Java and Sumatra around 4,000 years ago. Around 3,600 years ago the Austronesians suddenly appear in the New Guinea region, almost simultaneously on the island of Halmahera in the Moluccas, in the Bismarck Archipelago, and in the Solomon Islands.

Wherever the food-producing Austronesians settled, they either completely replaced the previously established hunter-gatherers or else reduced them to relic populations on suboptimal or marginal lands. However, the Austronesians failed to make much headway on New Guinea itself, presumably because the subcontinental island was already occupied by food-producing Papuans in sufficiently high densities to resist the invaders. Closely related Austronesian languages eventually did become established throughout the Raja Ampat archipelago off New Guinea's western tip, much of the coastal and insular Geelvink or Cenderawasih Bay region, and further in isolated pockets along the northern and southeastern coasts of New Guinea. Today, the speakers of these languages physically are variably intermediate between highland Papuans with their dark skin and tightly coiled hair, and Malays or Polynesians with their light skin and straight hair. Fine details of the characteristics and distribution of Austronesian versus Non-Austronesian or Papuan languages in northern New Guinea also attest to the prolonged contact over thousands of years between the newly invading Austronesians and the previously established Papuans. In fact, both the Austronesian and Papuan languages of the region show massive influences from each other's vocabulary and grammar, to the point that it is sometimes impossible to determine whether a language is essentially Papuan with Austronesian influences or the other way round.

The general picture that emerges of the Austronesians in the New Guinea region is that they mostly persisted in low numbers in coastal and off-shore areas as specialized craftsmen and long-distance traders, heavily dependent on marine resources for subsistence, and that they were gradually genetically and culturally diluted by the Papuans through intermarriage. Uniquely, in the Raja Ampat archipelago, at the crossroads between the Moluccas and New Guinea, a process of political unification had begun among the Ma'ya people. These speakers of Austronesian languages, but with typically Papuan cultural traits, already recognized hereditary chiefs at times anterior to the emergence of influence from the Moluccan Sultanate of Tidore over the region around 500 years ago.

Further reading

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company. New York & London. ISBN 978-0-393-31755-8.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-241-95868-1.

Flannery, T. (2002). The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People. Grove Press. ISBN 978-0802139436.

Morris, I. (2010). Why the West Rules For Now. The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. ISBN 978-0-374-29002-3.

Muller, K. (2008). Introducing Papua. Daisy World Books. ISBN 978-981-08-0191-5.

Papuans can well be proud of the accomplishments of their ancestors. There is no reason for any feelings of inferiority just because, until relatively recently, many Papuans lived in the Stone Age. The lack of technological advances did not preclude a rich and complex set of cultures with highly developed agriculture allowing for large populations with well-attended and complex rituals. Modern agricultural technology has not been able to improve yields from the highly efficient traditional farming methods in many areas, including the Baliem Valley, Kolopom/Dolak Island and elsewhere.
K. Muller, 2008

The ongoing changes in
Irian Jaya represent the continuation, backed by a centralized government's full resources, of the Austronesian expansion that began to reach New Guinea 3,500 years ago. Indonesians are modern Austronesians.
J. M. Diamond, 1997

With time the Austronesian expansion would certainly have had more impact on New Guinea. Western New Guinea would eventually have been incorporated into the sultanates of eastern Indonesia, and metal tools might have spread from eastern Indonesia to New Guinea.
But that hadn't quite happened in 1511, the year the Portuguese arrived in the Moluccas and truncated Indonesia's separate train of developments.
J. M. Diamond, 1997