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Nu Gini

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Of all the places I have been, Papua was the least like any other. The reason is simple: despite the diversity of language, religion and food across Southeast Asia, many of the characteristics of the countries in the region are shared. New Guinea, on the other hand, is not Asian. There is plenty to say about the place and it is hanging over me like an essay crisis, so I’ll split the posts into two and start with the background briefing.

The five biggest islands in the world are Greenland, New Guinea, Borneo, Madagascar and Sumatra. Indonesia owns all or part of three of them.

At slightly under 800,000 square kilometres, New Guinea is only a little larger than Borneo. The land west of 141º E is Papua, a part of Indonesia previously known as Irian Jaya (irian means land of hot weather in the language of Biak). It accounts for 22% of Indonesia’s land area.

The second-largest rain forest in the world is in New Guinea. It is not as rich in tropical hardwoods as Borneo and so has not been so intensively logged. However, we did see a lot of evidence of logging in Biak, where there is a sawmill.

The island and its mountains are relatively young. Sedimentary limestone, sandstone and shale have been pushed up as the Sahul Shelf and the Pacific Ocean Plate collide, and so the island is mountainous. There is an igneous intrusion in the Sudirman range, at the western end of the central spine. Gold, silver and copper are found here, and mined by Freeport.

The two highest mountains in southeast Asia are often said to be in Papua. They are permanently glaciated. The highest is Puncak Jayakésuma, which reaches either 4,884 m or 5,029 m depending on your source; about the height of Mont Blanc.

But New Guinea shares its continental shelf with Australia, to which it was attached until the end of the last Ice Age, and it must be considered part of Australia, not Asia. If so, the highest mountain in southeast Asia is in Burma.

The two parts of the Australian continent are wholly different, as Jared Diamond points out in his fascinating book Guns, Germs and Steel. New Guinea is very mountainous; Australia is the flattest continent. New Guinea is one of the wettest places on earth (most places receive over 2,500mm of rainfall annually, the highlands over 5,000 mm); Australia one of the driest (mostly under 500 mm annually). New Guinea has permanent large rivers; Australia’s rivers mostly dry up in the summer. New Guinea lies just off the equator; most of Australia is sub-tropical or temperate. New Guinea is covered in rainforest; the Australian interior is desert. Australia has the oldest rocks, and the oldest and most infertile soils on earth. New Guinea has young, fertile soil. New Guinea, a tenth of the size of Australia, has as many species of birds and mammals. And, by the way, indigenous Australian languages appear to be unrelated to New Guinean.


The very shallow Arafura Sea separates the two hemi-continents, and land bridges to Australia have appeared occasionally. When the two halves have been connected, the bridge has been dry savannah, not rainforest. The last land bridge disappeared 16,000-18,000 years ago. Temperatures were seven degrees cooler then, and the snow line lay only a thousand metres above sea level.

The largest indigenous animal is the cassowary (kasuari).


Many, but not all, native mammals are marsupials. The native marsupials are wallabies, tree kangaroos, bandicoots, possums and cuscus. There are two monotremes (‘one-holes’, because they lay eggs and defecate through the same orifice): the short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, also found in Australia, and the long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijni, endemic to New Guinea. Most of the amphibians and many of the small mammals (rodents and bats) are Asian in origin. Overall there are 63 marsupials, two monotremes, 59 murids and 77 bats. (The population of mammals is massively more diverse than anywhere in the nearby Moluccas, where the largest island, Halmahera, has only 31 species. Almost all the mammals of the Moluccas are bats and rats.)

There are more frogs in New Guinea than anywhere else: over two hundred species. Twenty new species were discovered on an expedition into the interior only two years ago. There are also estuarine crocodiles, monitors, other lizards, and lots of snakes.

So far 640 species of birds have been found in Papua – fewer than in Thailand, but still plenty. They include crowned pigeons, parrots, cockatoos, lories, kingfishers, megapods, bower birds, cassowaries, and, of course, birds of paradise.

There are 42 species of Paradisaeidae – which also include riflebirds and sicklebills - including 36 in New Guinea. Birds of paradise have been traded across the world for centuries. Janissaries’ headdresses bore their feathers in the fourteenth century. The birds were traded as skins without feet, and hence grew the myth, accepted by Linnaeus, that the birds themselves did not have legs.

I thought I saw one in the Baliem Valley. It was a dull brown colour, and appeared at first sight to be carrying a huge golden feather, which was in fact probably its tail. I asked the boy walking next to me what it was. “Burung”, he said. “A bird.” Ah. Actually, birds of paradise live in the Bird’s Head peninsula, to the northwest, and on Pulau Yapen near Biak, not in the highlands. [I'm not so sure any more. In Throwim Way Leg, zoologist Tim Flannery recounts seeing several different species of bird of paradise in the highlands of New Guinea. I think it may well have been a bird of paradise. This is a bark picture on sale on an island in Lake Sentani; the bird I saw looked much the same.]


The trade in birds of paradise is now banned, but I saw some bags made of birds of paradise in Wamena. One bag had a whole bird on it, beak included.


As for arthropods, there are very large butterflies in the region, including very large Papilio and Idea species, and Pieridae. There are stick insects and katydids, and thousands upon thousands of species of beetles.


There are also 800 species of spider, including the bird-eating spider. The strangest spider we saw was small, wider than it was long, and shell-bound like a crab (I saw the same in Banda) - possibly a spiny-backed orb weaver.

New Guinea may host the greatest concentration of plant species in the world: perhaps 16,000. There are 2,500 species of orchid alone. Perhaps 90% of its flowering plant species are unique to New Guinea. The swamps to the south of the central mountains have the most extensive patches of sago palm in the world. Sago is the staple of all lowland Papuans. As Wallace observed, it is the least labour-intensive of all staples. It requires less than half the man hours required to obtain the equivalent amount of starch growing wet rice. The sago palm is not farmed, merely collected.

Here are some sago palms next to Lake Sentani, in northeast Papua.


And Indonesia has more mangroves than any other country. Seventy per cent of them are in Papua.

A life of ease causes a problem. Hunter-gatherers have usually switched to settled farming when the cost-benefit analysis (energy produced minus energy consumed in production) favours farming, although there are other factors in this decision. So easy is sago to collect that the inhabitants of the southern swamps remained hunter-gatherers until modern times, even though their neighbours to the north began farming 9,000 years ago. Wallace observed that wherever people rely on sago, they are poor.

(The Austronesians never relied on sago. They were the ones who traded with Tidore, Bugis and China. Their main exports were bird of paradise skins and slaves.)

Homo sapiens settled New Guinea and Australia 30,000-40,000 years ago at the latest. Papuans and Australian Aborigines are the descendants of the early arrivals. Although there are populated islands all the way between New Guinea and Cape York, the two populations have been substantially genetically isolated for at least ten thousand years, and they look surprisingly different. Papuans are typically frizzy-haired and hairy. They often have hair on their backs, although oddly not in the region of their penis gourds; perhaps it is shaved. Australian Aborigines tend to have curly or wavy hair rather than frizzy. (And blood group B occurs in the Papuan population but not in indigenous Australians.)

Even within New Guinea, populations have been relatively isolated, both by the rugged terrain and by the constant warfare. Despite the relatively high population density in the highlands, the population of New Guinea never exceeded a million before the arrival of colonial administrations, which brought medicine and largely ended warfare. This was fragmented into tiny micropopulations. A lot of languages are spoken – perhaps 1,000, a sixth of the languages of the world. (The figures vary wildly depending on the source.) The population is only 2.7 million, so most languages are spoken by very few people: more than half have fewer than 500 speakers. Many of these languages are completely unrelated. They can be divided into at least five phyla, which share only tiny fractions of their vocabularies and are as unrelated as English and Basque: the East Bird’s Head; Cenderawasih Bay; West Irian; Austronesian; and Trans-New Guinea. The Trans-New Guinea phylum accounts of 84% of speakers of Papuan languages and two thirds of the languages.

Austronesian languages are spoken natively in parts of the north and northwest coasts (Indonesian is spoken by everyone who has been to school). The Austronesians began spreading, perhaps from Taiwan, down through the Philippines and into Malaysia and Indonesia, beginning 6,000-7,000 years ago. They reached most of the Indonesian islands around 3,000 BC. Everywhere they went, they displaced the original inhabitants – except in New Guinea, which had long before reached a high degree of agricultural sophistication. Instead the Austronesians settled along the coast, from where they gave Papuan languages many loan words. At the same time the Trans-New Guinea languages were spreading west to Timor, Alor and Pantar, and into the highlands of New Guinea.

(The source for most of this information is Irian Jaya, by Kal Muller.)

The most densely populated part of New Guinea was always the highlands. People have lived here for at least 25,000 years. The high valleys are fertile, temperate and have little malaria. This is where agriculture began in New Guinea, 9,000 years or more ago.

Irrigation seems to have been discovered very early; the earliest drainage ditches discovered are 9,000 years old, and they are similar to today’s. This allowed for very short fallow periods. They cut down forests, drained swamps, fenced fields and turned the valley into gardens. Even 5,000 years ago, deforestation was already well advanced. Taro and yams may have been the first crops; later came sugar cane and bananas. Taro and sugar cane are from New Guinea, as are some yams; bananas were assumed to be introduced from Asia but some species are actually endemic. In fact there are no highland crops known unequivocally to have come from Asia. Agriculture undoubtedly occurred here independently of Asia, by domestication of local wild species. New Guinea may have been left behind technologically, but once upon a time it was not backward at all; the Austronesians failed to colonise the interior of Papua, probably because it was already intensively farmed. (One thing they did always lack was domesticated animals capable of providing power, like oxen.)

There were later agricultural revolutions arising from the introduction of foreigners: pigs; the sweet potato. Each agricultural revolution supports a higher population density. Chickens are also certainly foreign. Chickens and pigs were domesticated in Asia and brought to Papua by the Austronesians 3,500 years ago (although pigs may have arrived earlier). Wet rice was introduced at some time point after 1,000 BC, but it never took off in the highlands.


Sweet potatoes came from the Andes. They may have arrived from the Philippines, where they were introduced by the Spanish, or they may have arrived by some other route 2,000 years earlier. They grow more rapidly, have a higher yield per acre and they grow well at higher altitudes and in poorer soil than taro, so they quickly replaced it as the staple in the highlands.


Posted by Wardsan 16:07 Archived in Indonesia

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