Monday, August 05, 2013

New Guinea
Growth within Limits

Farms: Highlands New Guinea

In the 1920’s when people began to explore the interior of the island of New Guinea what they found surprised them immensely. Beforehand the dense jungles and swamps of the coast and the fact that these areas were chock full of fevers, disease and parasites aside from being a stunningly forbidden landscape of primeval jungle had prevented European explorers from getting far into the interior. The coastlines were generally not that thickly populated with a Neolithic tribal people divided into numerous small tribes that spoke numerous diverse languages. The expectation was that they would find that the interior was similarly populated with scattered tribes separated by thick jungle in a thinly populated landscape.

The actuality was a surprise instead of thick jungle with a thin tribal population; they found a thick population of Neolithic farmers living in mile after mile of villages and gardens numbering in the millions. The population of Highland New Guinea was dense; where one village and its gardens ended another began. Jungle was confined to high steep areas and swamps and was scattered about in isolated spots.

To say no one expected this is an underestimate. It was the last thing that westerners expected to find. Further these were a Neolithic people with stone tools and virtually no use of metal for any purpose whatsoever. Further they were divided into hundreds of small tribal groups speaking hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages. In fact their culture was so Stone Age that they didn’t even have “Chiefs”, what they had were what Anthropologists call “Big Men”. The difference being that “Chiefs” had some sort of coercive authority and prestige and the position had hereditary aspects and further that chiefs acquired products for redistribution that further cemented their authority by setting up networks of obligation. In the case of “Big Men”, the coercive authority was non-existent, networks of obligation minimal to non-existent. “Big Men” were simply men who had acquired more influence than others in local affairs.

In fact the societies were pretty egalitarian and the only truly significant difference in status was a rather sharp sexual division of labour. The other common characteristic of the various societies was a rather chronic state of war between the various tribal groups. The result was a fairly significant level of deaths in males through inter-tribal conflict. In fact it was the very loose way in which authority was structured that prevented conflicts from being settled in any permanent fashion so that disputes become conflicts that created a situation of feud and counter feud. The resulting violence was endemic and persistent. The lack of the authority of "Chiefs" or the equivalent meant that conflicts could never be settled securely.

What did emerge was the codification and ritualization of violence and dispute settlement that helped to keep the violence within bounds and to at least some of the time settle disputes. Thus war between tribes in New Guinea tended to be highly ritualized and refined. Although this presumably helped to keep the violence from wreaking the societies involved it didn’t particularly help end it. That would have required an exterior authority imposing peace and since no such authority existed, peace was at best intermittent.

The intrusion of Western influence did bring that outside authority and it was able to impose peace of a kind. Something that the older generation of New Guineans are perfectly happy with. Other changes not so much.

And aside from being linguistically so different from each other. The cultural variety among the New Guineans was and is amazing. Not surprisingly it has provided much grist for the anthropological mill since then. And for being the source of a great many stories of headhunting and cannibalism.

When Westerners first saw these societies they thought that they were seeing a fossilized series of Neolithic societies that had little changed in thousands of years. Thus New Guinea 1000 or 2000 etc., years ago would be little different from what is now and that New Guinea society provided a glimpse into the past of human societies during the Neolithic period.

The argument was that basically New Guinean societies had little “real” history and that things stayed the same. Further that New Guinean society and people “must” be highly conservative and fearful of change so that their societies would change so little over the years. Added to this it was thought that agriculture in New Guinea at most c. 3,000 years ago where it was adopted by the hunter gatherers of the island who swiftly adopted it and then basically stagnated shortly after the adoption.

All of the above is simply wrong.

New Guinea seems to have been originally settled more than 45,000 years ago by hunter gatherers who lived in and off the dense jungles with their abundant plant and animal life. For almost 37,000 years New Guineans lived has hunter gathers in New Guinea. Then agriculture came. And remarkably it was far older than anyone expected. It was thought that agriculture had entered New Guinea from outside that proved not to be the case.

Firstly agriculture was established in New Guinea not 2,000 - 3,000 years ago but more than 7,000 years ago and further the New Guineans had developed agriculture on their own.

The New Guineans cultivated taro, bananas, yams and sugarcane, which they appear to have domesticated entirely on their own. Thus making New Guinea one of the small number of places on Earth in which agriculture originated independently. The New Guineans added to the list of items they cultivated and domesticated, pigs, chickens and most importantly the sweet potato. Those three items came from outside New Guinea. And they also had the dog. They of course continued to exploit jungle and rivers and creeks for their natural resources.

After the adoption of agriculture the population of the New Guinea highlands slowly increased and the jungle decreased. This was because as the population expanded the areas under cultivation grew. Further the woods were increasingly mined out for wood. The resulting deforestation was gradually apparent and by 1,200 years ago it appears a crisis was reached. Now often the effects of deforestation are cataclysmic in this case the New Guineans adopted a solution. They, if the pollen, records are anything to go by, fairly quickly took up silviculture, the planting and cultivation of trees. They started growing en-mass and deliberately the Casuarina tree, (“Ironwood”). For both fuel and for buildings material and tools. The tree also grows fairly quickly and has a positive effect on the soil. The wood is also very hard, hence the name “Ironwood”, although it is also brittle. This enabled the New Guineans to stop the continuous encroaching on what was left of the native forests in the highlands and so preserved them for future generations to exploit for their natural resources.

In the meantime several volcanic eruptions significantly increased soil fertility and thus led to an expanding population. But far more important in leading to an expanding population was the arrival of the sweet potato c. 400 years ago. The sweet potato from the Americas wasn’t just a supplement to the previously domesticated plants and animals it was a earth shaking arrival. That was because the yields of sweet potato per acre of cultivated land were several time that of the other New Guinea domesticated plants. The result was a population explosion. Yet it appears the New Guineans adapted. By intensification of their cultivation techniques.

Thus the New Guineans used intensively natural fertilizers, such as weeds and, grass etc., pig and chicken manure, even ash from fires. They practiced irrigation to both get water to where it was needed and to carry it away. They practiced crop rotation, built terraces on steep slopes. And so on and so forth. The Casuarina tree proved to be a perfect tree in that it could be grown in amidst their gardens. It had a large leaf fall that added nutrients to the soil and further its roots helped to fix nitrogen into the soil.

Agricultural fields
Highlands New Guinea

The New Guineans were thus able to avoid a collapse caused by too much pressure on the ecological system. In fact the only serious problem New Guinean’s faced traditionally was getting enough protein in their diets hence the importance of chickens and pigs.

However it is also clear that the New Guinean’s do have a history. They developed agriculture by domesticating their own plants then their population expanded has agriculture spread throughout highland New Guinea. They then adopted from outside both the Chicken and the pig, with the ecological and social changes that brought. Later still they coped with, successfully volcanic eruptions and with the population growth brought by the adoption of the sweet potato. Thus these Neolithic / stone age people did in fact have a history. It was however a history with limits. Instead of stagnation we have change over time within the matrix of Neolithic, hoe agriculture societies. In fact the fragmentation and variety of New Guinea traditional societies was a the product of vigorous growth both in population and changes in technology and social relations brought on by both.

Thus instead of being a picture of the past New Guinea when first encountered in the early part of the 20th century were the end product of thousands of years of change and adaption. And pretty successful adaption at that.  

For it appears to be the very fact that traditional New Guinea societies were so fragmented that helped them to adapt. Has said above traditional New Guinea societies do not even have chiefs. The result is that things are decided by endless discussion and debate until a decision is reached. This is important because it means that decisions once made are implemented locally in these small scale societies. So how did this help them to adapt?

Well the very fact that societies were small scale made moving very difficult. You try to move and you run into angry neighbours who won’t let you move. So just moving away was not much of a solution. Also there were too many societies to make dispossession of your neighbours a realistic option to begin with. The highly ritualized nature of warfare also didn’t help. Further the democratic ethos of the societies inhibited the emergence of war chiefs who could have created or tried to create a militaristic society. Well if moving and conquering was not an option than adaptions had to be local.

Everyone could see that deforestation, poor yields from gardens, lack of wood was a problem. Since moving was not an option other solutions had to be tried. The democratic ethos ensured that decisions had the approval of the majority and so were carried out by consensus and peer pressure. Since everyone could see the problem and new solutions had to be found and that moving was not an option, solutions were found, adopted and carried through to completion.

Thus within the limits imposed by the geography and culture of New Guinea societies growth happened and change happened. This was no world outside of history but a world of growth and change within limits.

I wonder if this as any lessons for us? I suppose what it means is that growth does not necessarily have to involve endless qualitative growth to greater and greater accelerating growth and development. Growth can involve the steady improvement of technique within limits. The limits being that the structure of society and even certain basic technologies change surprisingly little. It is possible that human technology does indeed have growth limits. I suppose that the continued growth of output of human power sources does have a limit. After all on current trends the growth of such energy sources would turn cause the earth surface to radiate temperatures of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a few centuries. Or that in a few thousand years the number of humans would weigh as much as all the mass in the Universe. So I suppose there are real limits.

Of course the New Guinean’s didn’t live in paradise. The area had lots of tropical diseases, there were certain dietary problems that occurred and of course the chronic state of inter-tribal warfare didn’t help things. Still over all the New Guineans adapted and adapted successfully to various challenges over the past couple of thousands years. And so can we.

New Guinea Man


Practically all the stuff about New Guinea and adaption to change is taken from:

Diamond, Jared, Collapse, Penguin Books, London, 2005, pp. 277-286.

Other material

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs and Steel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998, pp. 147-150, 303-304, 306-307, 317-319, 346-347.

Neumann, Katharina, New Guinea: A Cradle of Agriculture, Science Express, June 19, 2003.

Denham, Ted, Envisaging early agriculture in the Highlands of New Guinea: landscapes, plants and practices, World Archaeology, v. 37, no. 2, 2005, pp. 290-306.

Denham, T. P., Haberle, S. G, Lentfer, C, Fullagar, R, Field, J, Therin, M, Porch, N, Winsborough, B, Origins of Agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea, Science Express, June 19, 2003.

For a view of how agriculture, ecology and culture interact in a traditional New Guinea society along with warfare see:

Rappaport, Roy A., Pigs for the Ancestors, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, New, enlarged Edition, 1984.

For an interesting if exaggerated gloom and doom prediction of man’s future and limits to growth see:

Meadows, Donella H., Randers, Jorgen, Meadows, Dennis L., Behrens, William W., The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York, 1972.

Pierre Cloutier 

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