25 June 2003

New Guinea Went Bananas: Agriculture's roots get a South Pacific twist
Situated in the South Pacific islands, remote New Guinea seems an unlikely place for the invention of agriculture. Yet that's precisely what happened there nearly 7,000 years ago, according to a new investigation.

Inhabitants of this tropical outpost cultivated large quantities of bananas about 3 millennia before the arrival of Southeast Asian seafarers, say archaeologist Tim P. Denham of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and his colleagues. Agriculture thus arose independently in New Guinea, the scientists conclude in an upcoming Science.

Until now, convincing evidence for ancient agriculture came only from the Middle East (SN: 10/28/00, p. 280), China, the eastern United States (SN: 9/20/97, p. 180), South America, and a region encompassing parts of Mexico and Central America (SN: 5/24/97, p. 322). Reports in the 1970s that New Guinea belonged in this group were criticized for relying on patchy remains and uncertain dates from an excavation of a swampy highland site called Kuk.

"Only a few regions were geographically suited to become homelands of full agricultural systems," says archaeologist Katharina Neumann of J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, in a commentary accompanying the new article. "New Guinea seems to have been one of them."

This discovery challenges the traditional notion that agriculture inevitably led to the rise of large civilizations with stratified social classes, Denham and his coworkers assert. Current New Guinea societies are relatively small and grounded in egalitarian practices, much as they seem to have been before the rise of agriculture, according to the researchers.

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