The unearthing of 10,000 years of agriculture

Peter Jokisie

An entry in the Award for Essays and Journalism

The history of agriculture in Papua New Guinea goes back about 10,000 years, with the country recognised as one of the global birthplaces of plant domestication.

The Kuk swamp in the Waghi valley of the Western Highlands has provided archaeological evidence of the agricultural practises of the people of that time, who probably first occupied the region 50,000 years ago.

Digging tools at the bottom of the oldest excavated ditch were carbon dated to about 10,000 years ago with samples showing that plants like taro, yam, banana and sugarcane were being cultivated well before the arrival of the sweet potato about 500 years ago.

In the 1950s, the Australian Administration, with the agreement of the local community, had established a tea and coffee plantation in the area which required draining the swamp.

Quite by chance, at one of the excavated sites called Warrawau, a worker saw a stone mortar that had been unearthed together with stone axes, wooden digging sticks, paddle-shaped spades and fence posts.

He wrote a letter to experts in Australia and in 1961 a man named Jack Golson and his assistant Philip Hughes together with the help of local workers started work on the site.

The team uncovered ancient fragmented pieces of tools like digging sticks and stakes, fire charcoal as well as fence posts which could mean the farmers wanted to keep pigs (probably wild boars) out of the garden.

Photographs taken from the air showed a neat gridded ditching system and cultivation plots which meant that the farmers were implementing wetland cultivation, draining water to grow crops.

That priceless evidence placed Papua New Guinea amongst some of the world’s oldest known civilisations such as the Mesopotamia, Jiahu China and ancient Egypt.

The Kuk dwellers independently had domesticated plants about the same time as the Mesopotamians domesticated plants at the beginning of the Neolithic age. The ancient New Guineans had initiated plant domestication long before the pyramids were built.

In 2008, the Kuk Swamp was inducted as a World Heritage site and recognised as one of the original birthplaces of agriculture on the planet.

With that proud history and heritage of agriculture behind PNG, prime minister James Marape has said more recently he wants PNG to be one of the leading agricultural nations.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe that the secret of getting our country moving and the combustion of engine that will drive our economy lie in agriculture and as a country, we are trying to move away from dependence on oil and gas,” he said.

“Our future relies on agriculture – we want to be a food production nation for the world.”

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