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A Brief History of Newguinea

To understand, what it meant to people, their culture, and the state of PNG, to introduce big mining projects like Ok Tedi Mine to the country, history and mining on New Guinea are described briefly.

The inhabitants of Newguinea scarcely left durable signs of their existence. Therefore it is very difficult, to dig and to date the history of development on the island. Boldest estimates say, immigration from the Asian continent and the Indonesian islands started 80,000 years ago, more cautious archaeologists assume 50,000 years. The immigrants had to cross the sea, because even at the maximum of glacialisation, which means lowest sea level, there was no land bridge to the Australian plate. Otherwise, land animals from Asia, and marsupials from Australia, were to be found on both sides. Pigs and the "singing dog", a close relative to the dingo, were introduced as domestic animals, some of which escaped to the wilderness. The ancient Papuans were bold seafarers, long before their European relatives dared to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach the Aegean islands. At the National Museum at Port Moresby, they take some pride of that fact.
Map by Map Machine @
The first immigrants and those who followed adapted their way of life to the Newguinean enviroment. Some built sophisticated boats and navigated around the Pacific islands, to trade their pottery. Others had to struggle for survival in rough and hardly accessible mountains, that did not allow to reach to a high technical level. Split into small tribes, and isolated from each other by the nature of the country, people developed many diverse cultures and languages. Obviously, no tribe emerged as a dominant power, to form a large nation.

2000 years ago, the people who called themselves the "Min", began to move into the area around the Star Mountains and Hindenburg Range, and settled on both sides of the divide in the valleys of the upper Sepik River watershed to the north, and the upper Fly River (Ok Tedi, Fly, and Strickland) to the south. The highest elevations and most remote places were reached 200 years ago. The different tribes changed their location or were forced by neighbours, some were even extinguished by war, so the pattern of population was shifted permanently. Their languages have a common root, but developed till they are quite distinct today. Their myths and regulations of daily life refer to their ancestress Afek, who lived 300-400 years ago. Though She was a woman, it's men who are privileged in the Min society.

Since the mountainous terrain is very difficult to walk, a Min almost never left an area of a distance of 40 km from his village. Rivers are too wild, to travel by boat, like the inhabitants of the lowlands do. Nevertheless, there always has been trade and other relations (e.g. warfare) even across the divide.
Villages have a size of about a dozen families. People lived on gardening, pig husbandry, collecting, and hunting. Because of the tropical climate, nutrients are readily washed out of the soil. The gardens, or a complete village, had to be relocated after some time. Therefore, and because suitable places to settle are scarce in the mountains, population density was very low. The maximum is 3 inhab/km2, when the basic food is taro, the traditional staple crop. The introduction of the sweet potato from South America 300 years ago, allowed a nutritional base on higher elevations than taro and an increase of population. This took place in only some of the Min clans.
The difficulties, to sustain life at all, did not allow the Min to accumulate riches. Cult houses are the summit of "luxury".

"The Telefolip cult house is the tallest man-made structure in the Min territories. It is always rebuilt on exactly the same spot, its last restructure (the 13th) was carried out in 1977. Telefolip is to the Min as the inner sancture of Vatican to Christians." Photo and text by Schuurkamp

When explorers from Europe, USA and Australia started to move into the interior of Newguinea 100 years ago - the early Spanish, Dutch, and English discoverers only knew the coastline - they met people running naked, talking strange, living in small groups, and bearing stone adzes (in contrast to axes, which have the blade parallel to the shaft, the adze blade stands perpendicular). To this situation, they attached the label "stone age". Readers of National Geographic Magazine (in the USA), or of Heinrich Harrer's book "I Come from Stone Age" (very popular in Germany) eagerly perceived this image. One has to keep in mind, that the idea of prehistoric development of man was introduced just in the middle of the 19th century. What we really know about stone age, is still very little. Probably some people on Newguinea lived in a way more similar to stone age, than people in a civilization of electricity and cities. But this does not make them living fossiles.

What Newguineans had to learn, to meet the challenge of a changing world, were the abstract and scientific explanations of their world, the separation of material from spiritual meanings. E.g., Kina or Dollar is just an abstract currency, but cowry shell is something that had lived, and is traded for things connected to life and dead. Land is not simply a solid state of earth, to build houses on, do farming, or dig for minerals. In the myths of the Min, the spirits of the dead still live on earth, and not in some remote heaven. On their way to their last residence, they cross Ok Tedi at Moyansil (near Tabubil), and pass Mount Fubilan, where their great ancestress Afek had buried her adze ("fubi"). This is the reason, why Min living north of the great divide around Telefolmin, who are not affected by mining materially, nevertheless are paid compensations from OTML.
In general, the traditional cosmos is distinguished from the modern world, and people know well, when to apply which. However, the technical civilization spread in leaps and bounces, so people adopted it to different extent and at different pace. Thus conflicts arise between groups of the population, down to families, split into elders and children. The Min around Ok Tedi Mine were no different from the rest of PNG, but they had least time - less than one generation.

This elder of the Faiwol is wearing a traditional head decoration, a pig's tusk through his nose, and two cassowary quills pierced through his nostrils. He added the new fashion of rubber O-rings around the neck - O-rings were introduced for machinery at the mine, and dissipated to even remote villages. Foto by G. Schuurkamp

When the state of PNG gained independence from Australian rule in 1975, it faced serious problems,

    to join a diverse collection of tribes, some of which had led grim wars against each other, to a nation
    to aquire the skills, to administrate a country
    to bargain with global companies and bankers, and not be cheated
    to guide the cultural change, that came inevitably. 
Compared to other developing countries, PNG managed the transition quite well - except the Bougainville civil war. Though cabinets were sacked frequently, all were elected according to constitution. PNG developed a language of its own, the Tok Pisin, formerly despised as Pidgin English by colonial masters. Now all are wantoks (wantok = one talk, of ones own tribe). Tribes and villages remained stable social units, that still provide care for the elderly and for children. The landowner system means, the land belongs to the people who traditionally live upon it. Only 3% of the area of PNG is state property and directly available for infrastructure projects, or mining enterprises. All in all, the landowner system is more a stabilizing factor, than an obstacle to development. In America or Australia, indigenous people are frequently denied land rights. At PNG, even the least developed Min kept their land. This is a strong backing, to preserve their culture.

The new parliament building at Port Moresby, a fine piece of architecture, stands as am example, that the disadvantages of both culturs may match as well. Inside the hall, the speaker of parliament, Bernard Naropobi, is cited, that the architecture copies the style of men's cult houses. But cult houses are strictly taboo for women. In parliament, and throughout PNG, women practically are far from equal rights, though theoretically they are guaranteed.

Original issue April 2001
last update February 2003

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