History of Papua New Guinea

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The prehistory of Papua New Guinea can be traced back to about 60,000 years ago when people first migrated towards the Australian continent. The written history began when European navigators first sighted New Guinea in the early part of the 16th century.



Archeological evidence indicates that humans arrived on New Guinea at least 60,000 years ago, probably by sea from Southeast Asia during an Ice Age period when the sea was lower and distances between islands shorter. Although the first arrivals were hunters and gatherers, early evidence shows that people managed the forest environment to provide food. There also are indications of gardening having been practiced at the same time that agriculture was developing in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Today's staples—sweet potatoes and pigs—were later arrivals, but shellfish and fish have long been mainstays of coastal dwellers' diets. Recent archaeological research suggests that 50,000 years ago, people may have occupied sites in the highlands at altitudes of up to 2000 metres, rather than being restricted to warmer coastal areas.[1]

European discovery

When Europeans first arrived, inhabitants of New Guinea and nearby islands - while still relying on bone, wood, and stone tools - had a productive agricultural system. They traded along the coast, mainly in pottery, shell ornaments and foodstuffs, and in the interior, where forest products were exchanged for shells and other sea products.

The first Europeans to sight New Guinea were probably the Portuguese and Spanish navigators sailing in the South Pacific in the early part of the 16th century. In 1526-27, the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Menezes accidentally came upon the principal island and is credited with naming it Papua, a Malay word for the frizzled quality of Melanesian hair. The term New Guinea was applied to the island in 1545 by a Spaniard, Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, because of a resemblance between the islands' inhabitants and those found on the African Guinea coast.

Although European navigators visited the islands and explored their coastlines thereafter, little was known of the inhabitants by Europeans until the 1870s, when Russian anthropologist Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai made a number of expeditions to New Guinea, spending several years living among native tribes, and described their way of life in a comprehensive treatise.

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