Ancient lagoons hypothesis

New Guinea Island has long been portrayed in tourist pamphlets and the popular press as a “Lost World,” a place so remote and cut off from the rest of humanity that until the 20th century (or so the story goes), this island sheltered survivors from the Stone Age.  The truth, needless to say, is much more interesting.

The northern coastline of New Guinea (the second largest island in the world with a land area of 808,000 km2) runs from northwest to southeast between 0º–6º south of the equator along the edge of the Australian Plate where it strikes into the West Pacific Plate. 

The mountain ranges of New Guinea are great folds in the earth’s crust that have been thrust up by the impact of these two huge continental plates. The northern coastline is an impact zone of continuing tectonic instability resulting in frequent earthquakes and landslides.

Experts disagree on the real magnitude of the eustatic downdraw of sea level during the last Ice Age.  Estimates of a drop of 120-130m are common. 

Whatever the actual fall, this coastline during the last Ice Age must have been rugged and uninviting.  It is likely that this part of the Pacific was only sparsely inhabited until around 6,000-7,000 years ago when global sea levels had again risen to within a few meters of their present stand.

It is our current working hypothesis that much of the genetic and cultural distinctiveness of human populations in the Pacific may be a reflection of these ancient Pleistocene living circumstances.

To phrase our suspicions colloquially, during much of human history in the Pacific, New Guinea had turned a cold shoulder to Asia.  To be more formal in stating our hypothesis, if relatively few people were living beside the northern beaches of the island for many thousands of years, New Guinea’s links with people elsewhere in Oceania must have been far weaker than they would have been under other and more favorable living conditions.

This hypothesis, however, is only about Pleistocene New Guinea. 

We now also hypothesize that by mid Holocene times—that is, around 7,000 years ago—settlement on this coast had become a lot more inviting, so much so that the give-and-take between people here and elsewhere became much more vibrant as coastal areas throughout the southwestern Pacific had started to develop rich floodplains,  river deltas,  and lagoons.  

Coastal villagers throughout the region could now take advantage of expanding stands of sago palms; they could exploit newly forming lagoons rich in fish and shellfish.

New Guinea’s place in the southwestern Pacific

Bathymetry downloaded from:
based on the ETOPO5 5x5 minutes Navy database

Consequently, by mid Holocene times, New Guinea’s long isolation may have finally given way to new commerce and intercourse as people began to travel and trade with much greater reach.

For further discussion, please see:

John Edward Terrell  (2002).  Tropical agroforestry, coastal lagoons, and Holocene prehistory in greater Near Oceania.”  Monbusho International Symposium.   In Shuji Yoshida and Peter J. Matthews (eds.), Vegeculture in Eastern Asia and Oceania, pp. 195-216.  JCAS Symposium Series No. 16. Osaka:  Japan Centre for Area Studies.

John Edward Terrell  (2004).  Island models of reticulate evolution:  The ‘ancient lagoons’ hypothesis.  In Voyages of Discovery:  The Archaeology of Islands, Scott Fitzpatrick (ed.), pp. 203-222.  Westport, Connecticut:  Greenwood Press.

John Edward Terrell  (2004).  "Austronesia" and the great Austronesian migration.  
World Archaeology 36: 586-590.

John Edward Terrell  (2004).  The "sleeping giant" hypothesis and New Guinea’s place in the prehistory of Greater Near Oceania. 
World Archaeology 36: 601-609.

John Edward Terrell  (2006).  Human biogeography:  Evidence of our place in nature. 
Journal of Biogeography 33: 2088-2098.

Kevin M. Pope and John Edward Terrell  (2008).  Environmental setting of human migrations in the Circum-Pacific region.  Journal of Biogeography 35: 1-21.