A NEW look at ancient pottery fragments found in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea could change the way scientists look at the movements of early migrants to Melanesia.

Researchers from the University of Otago analysed carbon material found near pottery fragments collected from Wañelek, located on an open ridge top in the Kaironk Valley of the Bismarck Schrader Ranges in the Highlands region of PNG.

They found that, while the samples were originally collected between 1972 and 1973, the pottery was about 3,000 years old.

Up until this latest study, no pottery in the Highlands region has had confirmed dating beyond 1000 years ago.

The findings were published in open-access scientific journal PLOS ONE, with University of Otago archaeology master’s student Dylan Gaffney as lead author.

Settlers from South East Asia, known as Austronesian people, were originally believed to have simply skirted the coastal areas of Papua New Guinea and not interacted with inland populations when they arrived, Mr Gaffney said.

“It was thought that they bypassed this large landmass, opting instead to settle on islands in the Bismarck Archipelago before continuing an epic migration that ended with the colonisation of remote Pacific Islands such as those of Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa,” he said.

Instead, the pottery showed that influences of these Austronesian-speaking peoples had penetrated into the already populated remote interior of New Guinea by 3,000 years ago and were interacting with the indigenous populations they found there.

Analysis of the pottery found that it was both produced on-site and brought in from elsewhere, which Mr Gaffney said suggested the movements of people and technological practices, as well as objects.

“Whether the pottery, and the knowledge of its production, came with the original Austronesian speakers or was traded and copied will require further research from a wider area,” the paper said.

But it was known that the shoreline was much closer to the Wañelek site when the pottery arrived, allowing travellers access up the Ramu and Yuat Rivers and across the divide.

“This demonstrates that early strategies of interaction were not solely focussed along the coast and offshore islands, but also up river valleys,” the paper said.

With many fragments resembling the Lapita plain-ware pottery style associated with Austronesian colonisation of neighbouring Western Pacific islands during the same period, it also showed that the Highlands were inter-connected with coastal regions and islands off the north coast, not only enabling the flow of pottery, but also enabling the movement of people and the technical ability to make it, the report said.

Mr Gaffney’s research appears in the article Earliest Pottery on New Guinea Mainland reveals Austronesian Influences in Highland Environments 3000 Years Ago.