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18 The history of the human landscapes of New Guinea



Humans have been in the upland valleys of New Guinea for at least 30,000 years and presumably occupied the savannah plains that then connected the island to Australia for as much as 50,000 years or more. Through this immense time they have adapted and changed their environments until very few places on the island can be considered unaltered. In place of primary rainforests and seasonal forests they have created human landscapes such as the grasslands, secondary forests, and coastal woodlands. Prograded estuaries, infill in valleys and eroded slopes may be partially caused by human actions, together with the deliberate creation of terraced slopes and ditched plains. Fauna has become extinct and rare, offset by introductions through time. Dramatic climate change has also changed landscape and affected the potential of human societies over the same period. Did these events leave an imprint on populations or language? The record must be read from archaeology and studies of palaeoenvironments. This chapter reviews the history of human–environment interactions in New Guinea in three periods. These periods, roughly equating to pre-agriculture (ca 55,000–20,000 years ago), the spread of agriculture (20,000–5000 years ago) and post-Austronesian changes (5000 years ago to present) are not yet precisely defined; we do not have enough information to know how general and synchronous these were everywhere across the island. These periods span the whole prehistory of New Guinea during which modern people arrived from southeast Asia and became adapted to a new environment of strange animals and plants. The continuity of 2000 generations is expressed through language, stories and culture. The very broad periods discussed here represent the widespread adoption of new ways of life (perhaps cultural revolutions) that may have erased the previous cultures. But understanding the past may help understand the present.

Humans litter the landscape with the tools they use and stand out from other mammals by their use of fire. Evidence for their more indirect effects comes from dating geomorphological features such as alluvial fans, buried surfaces, activated sandsheets, and peaty infills in basins. Attribution of these features to human-caused erosion usually depends on correlations with archaeological deposits and specific human-caused features

Andrew Pawley, Robert Attenborough, Jack Golson and Robin Hide, eds, 2005, Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples, 541–554.

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