New Guinea people

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from left to right: Child from Pukapuki village, Sepik , Papua New Guinea / Local woman in traditional dress, Rhoku village, Western Province, Papua New Guinea / Pukapuki village local, Job, in traditional costume, with the April River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik River behind him. Papua New Guinea. December 2004
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK .

Almost 9 million people, 1,100 languages, 1 island

New Guinea’s people and lifestyles are the image of the island’s extraordinary natural world - unique, complex, and full of contradictions.
This is especially the case in the forests of New Guinea. In these isolated areas, many humans continue to live the same as they did thousands of years ago. But like so many places elsewhere, their lifestyles are slowly being affected by a shrinking world.

Who are the people of New Guinea?

Categorizing the people of New Guinea is tricky. There are approximately 8.5 million inhabitants, who are either residents of Papua New Guinea (PNG), in the eastern half of the island, or the provinces of Papua and West Irian in Indonesia, in the west.   However, just distinguishing islanders based on their nationality does little justice to the diversity of peoples and traditions found here.

The New Guinea language phenomenon

There are about 1,100 different indigenous groups in New Guinea, most of which have separate languages. That’s a massive one-fifth of the world's languages.

Papua New Guinea alone has 817 living and distinct languages, which is approximately one eighth of the world’s human languages in one thousandth of its land area (17 times the languages of Europe in an area the size of France). Tok Pisin – a pidgin dialect - and English are now widely accepted as the national languages.1

History of the New Guinea people

The many thousands of years of human occupation of New Guinea has led to a great deal of ethnic diversity. This has been increased by the arrival of the Austronesians (described below) and the more recent history of European colonization.2

Humans first tread on New Guinea…

About 40,000 years ago 3 , a primitive boat with a group of humans landed on New Guinea for the first time. From archaeological, linguistic and biological evidence, it is thought that these first visitors, the Papuans, are the oldest human residents of New Guinea.

Much later on, probably about 1,600 B.C., seafaring people that had set off thousands of years before from Taiwan also reached New Guinea.

These people, the Austronesians, colonized many offshore islands in the north and east of New Guinea. In some places, they settled on coastal areas of the mainland, where they remain today.

Strikingly, Austronesians did not colonize the interior of New Guinea, already occupied by Papuans. It is thought that Papuans, who were naturally immune to diseases brought by Austronesians and already advanced food producers, were able to effectively fend themselves from the colonists.4
 / ©: Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK
Local men in traditional dress, Rhoku village. The headdress is made from the feathers of the Cassowary - Papua New Guinea's largest bird. Western Province, Papua New Guinea. December 2004
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK

Agricultural bonanza

Settlers developed agriculture very early because of the island’s fertile soils in the highlands, abundant rainfall and the presence of many plant species suitable for cultivation. Some plants grown in New Guinea were much later used in Europe. 5

Agriculture in New Guinea is characterized by mulching (adding organic material on soil and plant roots to protect them from crusting and erosion), crop rotations and tilling, practices which are used on terraces with complex irrigation systems.6

Animal food was hard to find until dogs, introduced by the Austronesians, started being used for hunting. Dogs are believed to be the cause of the extinction of several mammal species in New Guinea.7

Life in New Guinea today

Today, more than 80% of the island's people live outside of towns and follow a largely subsistence lifestyle. Natural resources provide for basic needs that cover food, education, health and other needs.

Land ownership
In PNG, 97% of the country's land is owned and managed under customary tenure and stewardship. Communities have the final say in all resource management decisions, as guaranteed by the country’s constitution. Clans or individuals usually own customary land, which is usually inherited along paternal or maternal lines. 8

In Papua province, on the Indonesian side, community tenure is also increasingly recognized.

In a land of abundance, people struggle to make ends meet
While New Guinea abounds in dense forests, precious minerals, gas and oil, most people do not benefit from these resources. Here like in other places across the world, people living in areas of abundant and precious natural resources frequently live below the poverty line.

The people of New Guinea are no exception to this rule, with poverty in some parts of the island rivalling that of some of the poorest countries in Africa.

Birds for wear

The bird fauna is culturally important to Papua New Guineans. Feathers, skins, beaks and bones of many species are used for personal adornment, decoration, weapons and tools. The feathers of many species are used for head - dresses worn during "sing-sings" (dancing, chanting and singing) and in social exchanges. Birds and bird parts are important as clan and tribal totems, as symbols of wealth and prestige, for purposes of social exchange (including payment of bride price), and as spiritual idols.
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1 WWF US. Forests of New Guinea - People and Culture of Papua New Guinea. Accessed 11/12/2005.
2 Wikipedia. New Guinea. Accessed 12/01/2005.
3 Diamond J. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton and Company. 494 pp.
4 Diamond J. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton and Company. 494 pp.
5 Flannery T. 1994. The Future Eaters. Reed New Holland. 422 pp.
6 Wikipedia. New Guinea. Accessed 12/01/2005.
7 Flannery T. 1994. The Future Eaters. Reed New Holland. 422 pp.
8 JICA. 2002. Country Profile on Environment – PNG. Planning and Evaluation Department.

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