History

 

Archaeological evidence indicates that humans first arrived in Papua New Guinea around 42,000 to 45,000 years ago. They were descendants of migrants out of Africa, in one of the early waves of human migration.

Kerepunu women at the marketplace of Kalo, British New Guinea, 1885

Agriculture was independently developed in the New Guinea highlands around 7000 BC, making it one of the few areas in the world where people independently domesticated plants.  A major migration of Austronesian-speaking peoples to coastal regions of New Guinea took place around 500 BC. This has been correlated with the introduction of pottery, pigs, and certain fishing techniques.

In the 18th century, traders brought the sweet potato to New Guinea, where it was adopted and became part of the staples. Portuguese traders had obtained it from South America and introduced it to the Moluccas. The far higher crop yields from sweet potato gardens radically transformed traditional agriculture and societies. Sweet potato largely supplanted the previous staple, taro, and resulted in a significant increase in population in the highlands.

Although by the late 20th century headhunting and cannibalism had been practically eradicated, in the past they were practised in many parts of the country as part of rituals related to warfare and taking in enemy spirits or powers. In 1901, on Goaribari Island in the Gulf of Papua, missionary Harry Dauncey found 10,000 skulls in the island’s Long Houses, a demonstration of past practises. According to writer Marianna Torgovnick, “The most fully documented instances of cannibalism as a social institution come from New Guinea, where head-hunting and ritual cannibalism survived, in certain isolated areas, into the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and still leave traces within certain social groups.”

Little was known in Europe about the island until the 19th century, although Portuguese and Spanish explorers, such as Dom Jorge de Meneses and Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, had encountered it as early as the 16th century. Traders from Southeast Asia had visited New Guinea beginning 5,000 years ago to collect bird of paradise plumes.

The country’s dual name results from its complex administrative history before independence. The word papua is derived from an old local term of uncertain origin.[28] “New Guinea” (Nueva Guinea) was the name coined by the Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez. In 1545, he noted the resemblance of the people to those he had earlier seen along the Guinea coast of Africa. Guinea, in its turn, is etymologically derived from Portuguese word Guiné. The name is one of several toponyms sharing similar etymologies, ultimately meaning “land of the blacks” or similar meanings, in reference to the dark skin of the inhabitants.

In the nineteenth century, Germany ruled the northern half of the country for some decades, beginning in 1884, as a colony named German New Guinea. In 1914 after the outbreak of the Great War, Australian forces landed and captured German New Guinea in a small military campaign. Australia maintained occupation of the territory with its forces through the war. After the war, in which Germany and the Central Powers were defeated, the League of Nations authorised Australia to administer this area as a Mandate territory.

The southern half of the country had been colonised in 1884 by the United Kingdom as British New Guinea. With the Papua Act 1905, the UK transferred this territory to the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia, which took on its administration. Additionally, from 1905, British New Guinea was renamed as the Territory of Papua. In contrast to establishing an Australian mandate in former German New Guinea, the League of Nations determined that Papua was an External Territory of the Australian Commonwealth; as a matter of law it remained a British possession. The difference in legal status meant that until 1949, Papua and New Guinea had entirely separate administrations, both controlled by Australia. These conditions contributed to the complexity of organising the country’s post-independence legal system.

Australian forces attack Japanese positions during the Battle of Buna–Gona, 7 January 1943.

During World War II, the New Guinea campaign (1942–1945) was one of the major military campaigns and conflicts between Japan and the Allies. Approximately 216,000 Japanese, Australian, and US servicemen died.  After World War II and the victory of the Allies, the two territories were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. This was later referred to as “Papua New Guinea”.

The natives of Papua appealed to the United Nations for oversight and independence. The nation established independence from Australia on 16 September 1975, becoming a Commonwealth realm, continuing to share Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. It maintains close ties with Australia, which continues to be its largest aid donor. Papua New Guinea was admitted to membership in the United Nations on 10 October 1975.

A secessionist revolt in 1975–76 on Bougainville Island resulted in an eleventh-hour modification of the draft Constitution of Papua New Guinea to allow for Bougainville and the other eighteen districts to have quasi-federal status as provinces. A renewed uprising on Bougainville Island started in 1988 and claimed 20,000 lives until it was resolved in 1997. Bougainville had been the chief mining region of the country, generating 40% of the national budget. The native peoples felt they were bearing the adverse environmental effects of the mining, which poisoned the land, water and air, without gaining a fair share of the profits.

The government and rebels negotiated a peace agreement that established the Bougainville Autonomous District and Province. The autonomous Bougainville elected Joseph Kabui as president in 2005, who served until his death in 2008. He was succeeded by his deputy John Tabinaman as acting president while an election to fill the unexpired term was organised. James Tanis won that election in December 2008 and served until the inauguration of John Momis, the winner of the 2010 elections. As part of the current peace settlement, a referendum on independence is planned to be held in Bougainville sometime before mid-2020. Preparations were underway in 2015.

Numerous Chinese have worked and lived in Papua New Guinea, establishing Chinese-majority communities. Chinese merchants became established in the islands before European exploration. Anti-Chinese rioting involving tens of thousands of people broke out in May 2009. The initial spark was a fight between ethnic Chinese and Papua New Guinean workers at a nickel factory under construction by a Chinese company. Native resentment against Chinese ownership of numerous small businesses and their commercial monopoly in the islands led to the rioting. The Chinese have long been merchants in Papua New Guinea.

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