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31 December 2006
Ancient trade in Papua New Guinea

A team of archaeologists investigating prehistoric trade and exchange in the East Sepik region (Papua New Guinea) find a connection between obsidian found there with Manus province. Research focused on two areas: Koil Island and Kep village. The team was led by Professor Glenn Summerhayes from the University of Otago and included staff and students from the Australian National University, University of Papua New Guinea and the National Museum and Art Gallery, Port Moresby.
     A closer inspection of oral traditions and archaeology in Kori indicates that it is at the centre of an ancient exchange and interaction network with links to the Sepik, the West New Britain region, the Lower Sepik and Manus. In the past, Koil Islanders used clay pots for both storage of foodstuffs such as saksak (sago) and also for cooking. Koil does not have natural deposits of clay sufficient for pot making, therefore, they had to get their pots from elsewhere. One place with a long history of clay pot production is Kep village. Oral tradition suggests that Kep clay pots were exchanged widely in the region both inland, up the Sepik River perhaps as far as Chambri and also along the coast.  Oral history suggestions that Koil Islanders used to trade their galip nuts in return for clay pots.
     Exchange for clay pots is not the only interaction the Koil people had with the Wewak coast. Although Koil has its own unique culture it also has the Haus Tambaran, a traditional ancestral worship house. Archaeologists from the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby have traced the origins of the Haus Tambaran to the Sepik River area. This is an indication that Koil had religious connections with the mainland extending back some hundreds of years. Although Koil Islanders had a similar religion and also traded with the mainland their language is remarkably different. This suggests that while Koil people had close connections with the Wewak coast, they also remarkably have ancestral connections to the east as well.
     While much of what is described above can be discerned from oral traditions there is one further twist in the tale. Recent archaeological excavations run by Prof. Summerhayes have unearthed exciting new information. In addition to a long history of clay pot use it is now clear that Koil people also used obsidian in the past. Obsidian is only found at a few places in the Papua New Guinea region. While research is still underway, it is most likely that the obsidian found on Koil came from Manus.
     While people are known to have first colonised Manus over 20,000 years ago the Koil evidence suggests purposive trading voyages. In support of the Manus connection hypothesis, there are some rudimentary aspects of canoe design that Manusians and the Koil people have in common. In particular, when constructing outrigger canoes both groups use what Prof. Haddon, classified as 'simple stick connectives' to join the booms to the float.
     While archaeologists are beginning to comprehend the extent of Koils prehistoric trade and exchange connections only further archaeological research will reveal its antiquity. Future archaeological research on Papua New Guinea's north coast will investigate the antiquity of galip nut production and use as an exchange item as well as the transportation of pottery and obsidian.

Source: The National (28 December 2006)

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