3,000 Years of Pottery

Peter Jokisie

An Entry in the Award for Essays and Journalism

Clay pots in many parts of Papua New Guinea are household items and people say they enjoy food cooked in clay pots.

In the Markham valley, the signature clay pot, or ‘gurr’ as we call it, is on the fire every day of the week.

Boy, could I eat some sweet orange long bananas and taro with pig meat simmered in greens, herbs and spices drowned in steaming coconut milk and served with sides of pumpkin, corn and potato straight from the good old graun pot?

Mmm, maybe later, first I want to share some tales with you.

Pots are ancient cooking items in the traditional Markham culture and a proud part of our heritage.

People even wrote songs about them: ‘Ten burning warriors, all lined up in a row, all lined up in a row.’

Pots often feature in our legends and superstition, but I’d rather not go into tumbuna story but pull out some archaeological facts showing how these clay pots came to places like 360 km north-west of the Markham valley in the mountains of the Wanelek area.

Clay pots were made by coastal people and I have a theory that the Markham pots could have originated from the north coast of Madang and been carried along an ancient trade track between Markham and Saidor.

But before then history tells us of two ancient waves of migration that populated the island of New Guinea.

The first wave is dated to 50,000–60,000 years ago, the prehistoric ancestors of the Melanesian race came – the original inhabitants of New Guinea island. But they didn’t make clay pots.

The second wave is known as the Lapita migration of the oceanic people – around 3,500–4,000 years ago. These were the ancestors of the Polynesian and Micronesian peoples. They made clay pots.

The consensus amongst historians is that the second wave of migration briefly stopped on the northern islands of New Guinea but never interacted with the indigenous people and canoed off further into the Pacific islands (modern day Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and others).

However, the recent discovery of a 3,000-year-old fragmented piece of pottery in the Wanelek area near the mountainous Madang-Western Highlands border, a short distance from the ancient Kuk swamp, has significantly rewritten that history.

Analysis of the pieces of clay pot by researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago show that the second wave of oceanic people did not just skirt the northern parts and canoe off.

No, they did settle on the New Guinea coastline first – and for some 2,200 years – before moving further into the oceanic region.

Furthermore, the discovery of 3,000-year-old pottery so far inland means that the technology of the oceanic people – designed pottery, outrigger canoes, building houses over water, body tattoos, pigs, dogs and chickens, varieties of bananas and yams – were all shared at that time with the indigenous people of PNG.

Genes were shared as well. Those ancient Melanesians and Polynesians were definitely busy.

The genes of the Lapita people show they mixed with Melanesians, reversing the view that Polynesians and Micronesians are direct ancestors of south-east Asians and never interacted with Melanesians.

The Motuans, for example, have a distinct physical appearance that resembles the Lapita people, clearly standing out from the darker complexion of the Melanesian people to the north.

I have a crazy theory of how our famous ground-pots (gurr) could have found their way into the vast savannah plains of the Markham valley.

There’s an ancient trade track called the Kaiapit-Saidor track that the ancient people of the Markham used for back and forth trade with people on the north coast of Madang. Kaiapit to Saidor is much closer than Kaiapit to Lae.

This track was still active when the Japanese used it in World War II. Well, 3,000 years ago, there was no Lae city, so folks would be like: “Hey, let’s head north to the coast and get some fish and pigs, we’ll trade those with our marafrijirabs and umant (bananas and taro)”.

It could have been that on one of those trips north, our people could have come into contact with the oceanic people who might have traded pots amongst other things.

As the relationship grew, the skills of making those pots could have been passed on to our people. Evidence of pots dug up in the Markham plains shows resemblances to the patterns of Lapita pottery and those pots stretch up to the Agarabi area near Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands.

To me, this indicates an active cultural trade and interaction in those areas around 3,000-4,000 years ago.

In conclusion, a little team we put together will attempt to journey the Kaiapit-Saidor track (if it still exists) to hunt for artefacts.

If my theory is proven and new artefacts are found along the north coast of Madang that pre-date or matches those of the inland Wanelek, that could clearly show the influence that the oceanic people had on indigenous folks, especially the Markham people.

I’m a science major but who wouldn’t want to go on an adventure hunting for old ancient treasures?

Clay pots are a hallmark of our ancient culture and proud historical heritage. I think there’s a story there worth documenting and sharing.

Possible spread of pottery from Madang to Kaiapit and Wanelek-Simbai.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu