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Early culture found in New Guinea.

Early culture found in New Guinea

Investigators have uncovered evidence of the earliest known human occupation of the island of New Guinea, at least 40,000 years ago. This provides the first archaeological support for the suggestion that New Guinea was inhabited at an early stage in the settlement of Australia by people from Indonesia and Indochina; at the time, New Guinea and Australia were connected by a land bridge.

Anthropologist Les Groube of the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby and his colleagues uncovered more than 100 "waisted' stone axes at the north coast site. These axes are notched on both sides, giving the appearance of a waist, and are similar to tools found at Australian sites dated at 35,000 to 40,000 years old.

Several of the New Guinea axes are especially noteworthy, report the scientists in the Dec. 4 NATURE. Horizontal grooves on the stone implements indicate the axes were attached to some type of handle and, according to the researchers, provide the earliest evidence for the use of tool handles anywhere in the world.

The axes were found among a series of raised coral terraces that were once covered by water. Digging was conducted along a creekbank near one terrace dated, through a method measuring the decay of radioactive uranium and thorium, at between 45,000 and 53,000 years old. The researchers excavated three layers of sticky, clay-like volcanic material, in which the axes with handle grooves were found. Other axes were lying in the open, either on or just above the terrace.

Thermoluminescence dating, a technique based on the decay of radioactive potassium, was used to examine quartz particles from the volcanic accumulations. The three layers were estimated to be about 40,000 years old. This is a conservative estimate, say the investigators, since soil moisture at the site affects potassium decay and reduces thermoluminescence dates.

Before the new find, the earliest site in New Guinea containing waisted axes was dated at 26,000 years old.

"A distinctive "waisted axe' culture appears to have existed in New Guinea and probably in Australia in the late Pleistocene [from around 60,000 to 10,000 years ago],' conclude the researchers. Archaeological evidence of forerunners for this culture in east and southeast Asia has not, however, been excavated.

Photo: Two of the waisted axes discovered along New Guinea's north coast.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 13, 1986
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