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The history of the human landscapes of New Guinea


Figure 1: Location of selected archaeological and palaeoecological sites mentioned in the text

Perhaps because of the higher populations and a greater concentration of research, evidence for early settlement in the highlands is slightly more abundant. People are present by 32,000 or earlier at Kosipe (White et al. 1970), near Chuave (Mountain 1993), Mount Hagen and the Baliem Valley (Hope 1998; Haberle et al. 2001). Although our knowledge of earliest settlement is extremely sketchy, there is a better understanding of the Pleistocene climates, thanks in part to long environmental records from marine cores (for example Wang et al. 1999), which allow extrapolation of less continuous terrestrial records. From these it is known that the ice age climates of New Guinea were drier than present, grasslands and savannah probably extending right across the Torresian Plain. The climate at high altitudes was also colder, with ice caps on many mountains along the central ranges. Alpine vegetation covered over 50,000 km2 above 2700 m altitude at the height of the glaciation about 20–15,000 years ago (Hope 1996) compared to ca 800 km2 today above 3900 m. Despite changes in composition through time, the mountain flanks and northern coasts may not have changed very much. Pollen evidence from peat sections near Mount Trikora (Hope et al. 1993), Tari (Haberle 1998) and Lake Sentani (Hope & Tulip 1994) provide records back 50,000 years or more. These suggest that closed tropical and montane forests have continuously occupied many areas from before the likely arrival times for people. The wet conditions that supported the rainforests seem to have been maintained all along, indicating that the warm tropical waters north of New Guinea named the Western Pacific Warm Pool have persisted through the late Pleistocene (Thunnell et al. 1994). However it is likely that rainshadow effects north of the main range were strengthened. The Popondetta, Markham, upper Ramu, Sepik and Sentani areas may have been drier than present, dominated by Nauclea woodlands and possibly experiencing

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