Highland New Guinea hunter-gatherers : the evidence of Nombe Rockshelter, Simbu, with emphasis on the Pleistocene

Abstract

Nombe rockshelter was excavated by M-J. Mountain between 1971 and 1980. Human activity is first documented at the site at about 25,000 bp and continues through to the present. Four extinct Pleistocene herbivores, Protemnodon nombe,Protemnodon tumbuna,Dendrolagus noibano and a diprotodontid,occur in late Pleistocene strata together with human artefacts. Large quantities of animal bone were recovered and the analysis of these supplies the major data for the research. Three main issues are addressed: 1. The nature of the relationship between the early humans and their environment through the period that covers the late glacial maximum at about 18,000 bp. 2. The relationship between humans and the extinct species, including the thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus, which was a major predator at the site, contributing bone to the deposits during the Pleistocene. 3.The use of faunal evidence as an indicator of economic and subsistence activities as well as local environmental changes. The data show that the human activity during the late Pleistocene at Nombe was sporadic over the period from about 25,000 bp to about 15,000 bp. Hunters were probably targeting the large herbivores living in high altitude forest and other species adapted to high altitude cold environments. Humans and large herbivores coexisted for about 10,000 years before the animals disappeared from the record. This coexistence does not suggest a rapid demise through human overkill. Palynological evidence suggests that people were deliberately firing small patches of highland forest as early as 30,000 bp. Such clearing could have been used to promote forest-edge plants especially Pandanus, which has rich oily nuts. These small clearings could also have been used as an aid to hunting. By the end of the Pleistocene, human hunting had switched to emphasise medium and smaller forest animals, especially fruitbats, macropodids, phalangers and possums. Bat hunting was especially important at Nombe, which is in a limestone area with many caves. In the early Holocene the temperatures rose and sub-alpine grasslands were greatly reduced as forest spread to higher altitudes. The archaeological evidence shows that more sites were occupied by 10,000 bp than before and the faunal data at Nombe indicate a steep rise in the grassland wallaby, Thylogale brunii. This species adapts easily to forest disturbance and may indicate that forest clearance was increasing in the locality. The early Holocene was the period of intense human settlement of the site. The faunal analysis employed in this study is designed to test the broad questions about human:...environment relationships rather than to supply detailed information about the size and sex representation in the species present. Species are often dealt with as a group and no individual bone measurements have been taken. The computer database has been designed to produce a flexible data set that can easily be adapted to taxonomic change. The success of the approach suggests that faunal evidence can be a sensitive indicator of environmental change and can be used to examine human predation strategies and changes in economic subsistence.

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Keywords

Papua New Guinea, archaeological excavation, taphonomy, faunal data, thylacinus cynocephalus, canis sp., extinct fauna: protemnodon nombe, protemnodon tumbuna, dendrolagus noibano, diprotodon, spp., edge-ground axe, waisted artefact

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Thesis (PhD)

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DOI

10.25911/5d78db2729df7

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