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History of Papua New Guinea

The first people to arrive to what is today Papua New Guinea probably arrived about 60,000 years ago, although there is debate as to exactly when they arrived. These people likely came from what is today Southeast Asia and arrived by boat.

Little is known about the culture and lifestyles of these early people. They appeared to have been hunters, gathers, and fishers. Most of the population lived along the coasts and relied on fishing for a substantial part of their diet and way of life. Over time the people shifted from living just along the seas to become farmers and traders as they slowly moved inland.

Over time the people settled the mountainous island and, due to both the mountains as well as the forests, the people became very isolated from each other and from the outside world. Soon there was no uniform culture throughout New Guinea as every valley and region had a very different culture and way of life.

The first Europeans arrived to the island of New Guinea in the 1500s. Few of these early explorers spent much time on the islands, although many stopped. Ynigo Ortiz de Retez from Spain named the island New Guinea after the Guinea coast of Africa, since he believed the people resembled each other. However, none of these early explorers made an effort to settle or colonize the region as the culture and people changed little with the arrival of the earliest Europeans.

From this point until the 1800s numerous explorers and fortune seekers came to the island and they recorded many observations and spread rumors, most of which were based on facts. From these explorers came stories of head hunters among others. It seems head hunting was done in order to gain a slave in the afterlife as the people believed that if you killed a person and obtained their head in this life you would have that person as a slave for your entire afterlife. Most head hunts were done in order to gain one head; it was not done as a result of war. This practice also suggests a belief in a religious system and an afterlife by those involved in the practice.

The first attempts to actually settle and colonize New Guinea came in the late 1800s when the Germans expressed an interest in the island. This encouraged the British to claim the southeastern half of the island as a protectorate in 1884 (which was later passed under the control of Australia), while the Germans held the northern half of the island, and the Dutch held the western half of the island (today a part of Indonesia).

Despite the European claims on the island and the small islands off the coasts, there was little activity in the way of settling the islands. The British saw little economic gain from the islands and this was the primary reason for colonization and settlement. Because of this, the people and culture of the native people in southern Papua New Guinea remained almost unchanged well into the 1900s. This was especially true in the island's interior, which was seldom explored or visited by Europeans.

The Germans saw more economic value in the lands and used them for the growth and production of coconut oil and cocoa. They hired local workers to farm these plants and in this way they vastly altered the people and their culture as the people (at least those along the northeast coast employed by the Germans) became accustomed to modern technology as they altered their traditional way of life. The Germans also brought in Christian missionaries who made more inroads and also made a great effort to educate the local people.

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I (WWI), the Australians, who controlled the southern half of New Guinea, took over the German-controlled regions. After the war, Australia gave land grants to veterans and encouraged settlement of the region. Again this altered the local culture, but only a relatively small number of people actually settled the islands and few made their way beyond the coast. These people made almost no impact on the local cultural, although the displacement of the Germans did end that influence, which was quickly changing a number of aspects of the local culture.

With World War II (WWII), the Japanese took over the islands of Bougainville, New Britain, and most of New Guinea in 1941. The land and water battles on and around New Guinea were brutal with many of the locals participating, whether by choice or not. The locals gained great knowledge of western technology and gained a fair number of guns and other arms through these years.

By war's end the Australians and Americans won the battles in New Guinea and pushed the Japanese out. After the war, the region was placed under the protection of Australia, where they remained until independence in 1975.

Under Australian protection little changed in Papua New Guinea. The Australians slowly introduced changes to the political structure and the economic system in the country that, at the time, was still very dependent on agriculture and natural resources.

Since independence Papua New Guinea has struggled with political stability. Numerous politicians have been ousted with no confidence votes and the representative government is extraordinarily divided. This division and these arguments are primarily based on the fact that the country is very divided ethnically as the numerous tribes, languages, and people struggle to see eye to eye.

Issues facing the government have also been vocal in the island Bougainville, in the country's southeast. The people of this island are very different from many people in Papua New Guinea and tend to have more ethnic and linguistic similarities to the people of the nearby Solomon Islands. Bougainville has continuously sought independence, leading to wars and violence on a regular basis.

International relations have also been poor as corruption is rife in Papua New Guinea and this, along with numerous other issues such as human rights issues, have delayed or hurt talks with numerous foreign countries, most noticeably Australia. None-the-less the people of Papua New Guinea seem to move forward with little focus on the outside world (at least in the country's interior). Most of the people living in the mountains maintain their traditional culture and way of life with noticeable changes, such as the end of head hunting and the conversion to Christianity. Those in Port Moresby and along the coast tend to seek a more western economic, political, and social life.

This page was last updated: February, 2013