FACT SHEETS

Deciphering the clues linking indigenous Australia and PNG

03.10.17

Any fan of adventure stories would relish in the epic tales of the hiri from Papua New Guinea, a history of entrepreneurship and exchange of skills, culture and building of relationships.

Work is still being done to discover how the hiri story connects with the Torres Strait Islands and the northern coast of Australia.

Prof. Ian McNiven and Prof. Sean Ulm are leading the charge, working closely with Prof. Bruno David and his extensive research of the hiri traders.

The exploration has uncovered a fascinating history that combines discoveries of rock art, head-hunting, language and pottery.

It’s a giant and complex puzzle.

Lakatoi ship (John William Lindt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Expert hiri potters
2,500 year-old hiri pottery found is only 3mm thick with beautiful red ochre on the outside
Unlikely language links
Shared language is another piece of the puzzle, with common words found thousands of kms apart

“We’re asking ourselves: why is all this happening?"

Unlocking history through pottery

There’s evidence of Lapita people establishing settlements along the south coast of PNG between 2,900 and 2,600 years ago.  Since then, pottery making along the south coast of PNG has never stopped.

“They had a distinctive style of pottery that we know as ‘Lapita’. It’s their descendants who ended up colonising the Pacific. So, the Polynesians are descendants of those early pottery makers,” Prof. David said.

Until recently, it wasn’t known that the Lapita people had moved further south and west towards Australia. However, trace elements found in pottery can give us clues to unlock secrets of the past.

“By looking at the different minerals in clay pots, you can work out their source – where the material came from.”

Back in 2000, Prof. McNiven found some very special, 2,500 year-old, pottery in the Torres Straight. It was made from local material, which means that people arrived knowing how to make pottery. They either showed locals how to do it, or stayed there and made pottery using local resources. It suggests in these cultural cross-roads that there was an exchange of skills.

“With pottery skills coming in from PNG, some people were taking up the challenge of making it themselves. Some of it is beautifully made, it’s very thin, some only 3mm thick, it has a beautiful red ochre on the outside. You’ve got to know what you’re doing to make pottery like that.”

 

Rock art: Discovering a painting of a crab claw sailing ship in the islands of Torres Strait

A compelling chapter in this story of Indigenous entrepreneurship connecting Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Australia, lies in a rock painting found in the Torres Strait island of Dauan.

On a sweltering afternoon in 2010, Prof. McNiven and Prof. David returned to a rock art site on Dauan with a rich oral history. Here, they chanced upon something very special.

The rock art was very faded and difficult to decipher, so the Professors started doing digital enhancements of photos of the paintings on their laptops.

Whilst it wasn’t exactly a Eureka moment on site, their exciting find was revealed back at the office.

“We got back and carefully examined our work on the computer, and it became obvious,” Prof. McNiven said.

“Out of the computer emerged a clear image of a crab-claw sail.”

What does this painting of a crab claw ship in the Torres Strait Island of Dauan tell us?

“It shows us that, at least on occasion – whether by design or by accident – those trading ships went further west than the regular route that we know of now,” Prof. David said.

Rock art: Discovering a painting of a crab claw sailing ship in the islands of Torres Strait

A compelling chapter in this story of Indigenous entrepreneurship connecting Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Australia, lies in a rock painting found in the Torres Strait island of Dauan.

On a sweltering afternoon in 2010, Prof. McNiven and Prof. David returned to a rock art site on Dauan with a rich oral history. Here, they chanced upon something very special.

The rock art was very faded and difficult to decipher, so the Professors started doing digital enhancements of photos of the paintings on their laptops.

Whilst it wasn’t exactly a Eureka moment on site, their exciting find was revealed back at the office.

“We got back and carefully examined our work on the computer, and it became obvious,” Prof. McNiven said.

“Out of the computer emerged a clear image of a crab-claw sail.”

What does this painting of a crab claw ship in the Torres Strait Island of Dauan tell us?

“It shows us that, at least on occasion – whether by design or by accident – those trading ships went further west than the regular route that we know of now,” Prof. David said.

 Pottery on Lizard Island: A strange new discovery

And in another crucial chapter linking the greater region with Australia, “We’ve got this really weird pottery we’ve picked up recently about 500km down the Queensland coast on Lizard Island,” Prof. McNiven said.

“There’s not meant to be Indigenous pottery in Australia, but we’ve got this pottery site that looks like Melanesian-type pottery in the intertidal zone on Lizard Island. We’re trying to work out what is going on there.”

The pottery was originally found by New Zealand archaeologist Dr Matthew Felgate in 2006. In 2012, Dr Felgate teamed up with Prof. McNiven and Prof. Ulm to recover further pottery sherds from the intertidal zone site on Lizard Island.

It’s hard to date, but the pottery is also telling CABAH archaeologists something about the antiquity of these interactions and movement of people in the region.

It’s a big find. Prof. McNiven and Prof. Ulm are about to return to Lizard Island to try to work out how old the pottery is.

How did this pottery get all the way to Lizard Island?

Initial work suggests that it could have been made locally on the Island, or at least from around that part of Cape York.

It makes Prof. McNiven and Prof. Ulm question what was happening there. Were Aboriginal people making pottery in the distant past?

The Lizard Island pottery adds a fascinating piece to the puzzle.

“It’s really bringing together all this other information we have from the north about this {Coral Sea} Interaction Sphere,” said Prof McNiven.

This pottery potentially brings that trade zone much further down the coast.

“There’s a lot of dynamism in northern Queensland, Aboriginal people were doing all sorts of things there, and interaction is always two-way”, Prof McNiven said.

A hiri crab-claw ship
Large quantities of pottery ready for trade

A common language thousands of kilometres apart

Prof McNiven has found that people were sharing a common term for outrigger canoes across thousands of kilometres.

“The bit that I find utterly intriguing is the word for ‘outrigger’ on the south coast of PNG, right from the eastern tip of PNG into Port Moresby, is the word coming through the Gulf of Papua through Torres Strait…over 1000km…it’s the same word,” Prof McNiven said.

“And in fact, you come nearly 500km further down the coast, the term for canoe on the mainland opposite Lizard Island, is the same generic term for canoe in the Pacific.”

This common term suggests even more connections into northern Australia, and a zone of trade far larger than ever realised.

Still thinking Indigenous Australia was isolated? Clearly there’s so much more going on than the history books tell us.

“We’re asking ourselves: why is all this happening, and why is it intensifying over the past 2-3,000 years?”

What’s changed to make people want to be connected and start sharing all these ideas between New Guinea and Australia?

Professor McNiven believes something’s behind it all.

“It may be related to population increases. A good way of managing lots of people on the landscape is by getting together and interacti, making sure you know what your neighbour’s doing, and investing in friendships and marriage relationships. People like being connected.”

A complex indigenous entrepreneurship 

What is this incredible story of the hiri traders, together with common language terms; the faded rock art of the crab-claw ship and pottery in Torres Strait; and recently discovered pottery on Lizard Island trying to tell us?

CABAH archaeologists Bruno David, Ian McNiven, Sean Ulm and their colleagues are working hard to find out how each piece of this giant puzzle fits together.

It’s one amazing adventure story. With more fascinating chapters waiting to be uncovered. Until now, it’s been a mystery – a secret history of an enterprising people, buried in the haze of time.

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