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Papua New Guinea Before Contact History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally varied countries on Earth, with over 850 indigenous languages and at least as many traditional societies, out of a population of just under 7 million. This diversity results in no traditional name for the indigenous peoples. The country is one of the worlds least explored, culturally and biologically, and many undiscovered species of plants and animals are believed to dwell in the interior of Papua New Guinea.

Humans have first estimated to have lived in New Guinea as far back as 50,000 years ago. New Guinea was one of the first landmasses after Africa and Eurasia to be populated by modern humans, with the first migration at approximately the same time as that of Indigenous Australia. Early communities had little contact with each other because of rough and mountainous terrain and so maintained their independence, as well as their distinct languages and customs, leading to such diverse cultural life.

First arrivals were hunters and gatherers, early evidence shows that people managed to utilise the forest environment to provide food. I/AAAAAAAALo4/NcyzlB00U8Q/s400/irving_penn_11.jpg


Timeline: Pre-colonisation of New Guinea

50,000 years ago (Pleistocene Epoch)

Humans first arrive from Southeast Asia, by sea, although during this time sea level was lower and a land bridge connected Australia and New Guinea.

6000-7000 years ago

Austronesians (known today as Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos and Polynesians) sail from southern China and settle along the coast of New Guinea and on surrounding islands. These people live in villages, plant food crops such as yams, make clay pots and raise pigs and chickens.


First recorded European sighting of New Guinea is made by two Portuguese explorers who are sailing by the island but do not land.

Jorge de Meneses, first Portuguese governor of the Moluccas, names the island “Ilhas dos Papuas” from the Malay phrase “Orang papuwah” which means “frizzy haired man.”


Ynigo Ortiz de Reyes, Spanish captain sailing from Mexico, claims New Guinea for the King of Spain. It is debated whether he chose the name “Nueva Guinea” for the resemblance of the people or coastline of Guinea in Africa /images/medd_01_img0019.jpg

During Contact

Papua New Guinea had two non-indigenous countries colonise it, Germany and Britain. The Germans wanted to colonise Papua New Guinea because of Europe’s growing desire for coconut oil whereas Britain claimed it mainly for land and exploration purposes.

Britain first arrived in the south-eastern province of New Guinea in 1883 after a formal decision to annex the island by Sir Thomas McIlwraith, the Premier of Queensland at the time. It took until 1884 before financial support was delivered and the colony officially became a British protectorate known as the ‘Territory of Papua’ in 1905. In 1906 Britain transferred total responsibility for the territory to Australia.

The Germans arrived in the north-eastern islands of New Guinea around the same time as the British. This annexed area was known as ‘German New Guinea’. As the terrain was so mountainous and separated contact between the two countries was somewhat uncommon and usually peaceful. During World War 1, Australian forces seized German New Guinea, which in 1920 became the Territory of New Guinea. Both territories were merged into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1949.

New Guinea from 1884-1919. The Netherlands controlled the western half of New Guinea, Germany the north-eastern part, and Britain the south-eastern part.

Nature of arrival

Both the Germans and the British met the natives in a rather peaceful manner. The colonisation occurred after Australia’s and the British approached the new country more carefully and in a friendlier way to avoid an uprising from the natives of New Guinea akin to that of the Australian Aborigines

The natives were taught basic skills that helped both themselves and the British, such as farming, domestication of animals such as fowl and language skills that helped them communicate with the British.

The British also helped establish a bartering and economic system for the formally nomadic people. They made stalls and shops where the locals could trade and sell grown goods and items that they were quickly accustomed to, such as soap and blankets.

A group of people gather in front of a store in Mount Hagen.

A group of people gather in front of a

store in Mount Hagen.

Response of the natives

When both countries arrived, they met the natives with somewhat peaceful intentions. With over a thousand language groups all spread out along the country, most tribes were around 100 large and were thinly spaced along the land meaning that resistance was not as great as in Australia.

Shortly after colonisation, the natives were combined into large towns and were given education, health care and food which would’ve been a weird experience as before colonisation there were no towns or large populations, only small, dispersed settlements.

Nearly all of the natives took to these changes rapidly and easily, with the only exception of religious beliefs. Some New Guineans resisted the changes Christian missionaries represented, while others accepted opportunities for new forms of wealth, power, and age and gender relations.

With next to no recounts of major violent resistance, the colonisation of Papua New Guinea was one of the more peaceful and successful ones.

Comparison to Australia

The colonisation of New Guinea was very different to that of Australia and one of the major reasons why was because it occurred after Australia had been colonised, meaning that the British didn’t want a repeat of the violence and death that had happened there.

Slavery was still present in Papua New Guinea, however slaves and servants had a lot more freedom and rights then the Aboriginals did and most were considered just ‘workers’ as opposed to servants.

Due to the amount of space between native settlements there are still plenty of settlements that were never colonised or approached, even today there are still native groups that have never been met by non-indigenous populations.

There was also a lot less prejudice about the locals of New Guinea than there was with Aboriginals, as the locals of New Guinea were given more rights and space than Aboriginals. New Guinean’s culture and beliefs wrapped around the colonisation and those who kept their traditional ways weren’t forced to change or conform.

Results of colonisation for both the indigenous and non-indigenous people

The results of colonisation for both the indigenous and non-indigenous people were mainly positive with both the German and British protectorates treating the locals fairly. The local’s quality of life improved dramatically when they were colonised as healthcare and education were quickly introduced to the newfound villages and towns.

Before colonization, an individual’s identity was based on their kin group and rarely extended beyond the kin groups of close relatives. After colonization, Papua New Guineans experienced political, social, and economic integration that helped them adapt to their new style of living.

The British and Germans both used the locals for things like building houses and labour but most of the structures that were built also benefited the natives as well, such as houses and huts that they lived in and shops that helped give the indigenous people a sense of economics and easy to access goods.

With colonization, dispersed settlements were combined into larger villages for easier administration and the provision of education and health care. The first towns grew up around mission and administrative centres, near airstrips, or on hillsides overlooking good harbours. Towns were small, and homes and non-residential structures were simple one-story buildings. The first Papua New Guineans to live in towns were men. Many workers were chosen from nearby villages to which they were expected to return at night, but some lived in servants’ quarters ( boi haus ) or company barracks.

The New Guineans nearly always lived separate from the European settlements and rarely interfered with each other. This was a positive step in the Europeans’ minds as it allowed the locals to integrate and get used to their new way of living without obstruction from the British.

The New Guineans were treated more as individuals rather than ‘natives’. This freedom was something that helped the locals and gave them leeway to live their lives how they were before colonisation.

In 1975 the people of New Guinea were granted independence and are now officially a self-governing nation.

Comparison of colonisation

Overall the indigenous people of New Guinea had a much better result of colonisation than that of Aboriginal people. Quality of life was better during and after the British and Germans arrived, because of the independence that the Europeans gave them along with basic goods and tools that they quickly learned to use.

There is also less of a cultural barrier as a whole between towns and villages, the Europeans let them live their lives whereas in colonial Australia, Aboriginals were treated as inferior and were often enslaved.

During colonisation and even in some parts of Australia today, Aboriginals have a lower standard of living along with less education and higher mortality rates. In Papua New Guinea there were and are still problems affecting young children, but as a whole, the population have a higher standard of living than Aboriginal Australians.

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