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From Lapita to the Hiri: archaeology of the Kouri Lowlands, Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea

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posted on 27.02.2017, 23:32 authored by Skelly, Robert John
The ethnographically-described hiri has long raised questions concerning the history and origins of social interactions along the south coast of Papua New Guinea. A fundamental problem, however, has been a paucity of research chronologically enchaining material traces of the hiri that we have come to know from ethnohistorical sources with the material remains from more ancient periods of time. Such secure chronological seriation is of particular interest in the Gulf of Papua where data are limited. It is also of particular relevance to this region, as here a re-evaluation of the age of previously excavated sites and archaeological materials is overdue. Previous archaeological research has demonstrated that for the past two millennia, people in the Gulf of Papua have been exchanging pottery, and/or ideas about making pottery, along some 500 km of coastline, extending from at least as far east as present-day Port Moresby westward to the Kikori River. In addition, previous research had identified a lull in the arrival of pottery into the Kikori River region between c. 950-500 cal BP. Archaeological investigations presented here test the hypothesis that social and cultural interactions contracted eastward c. 950 cal BP and then expanded again after 500 cal BP when new relationships were established that led ultimately to the ethnographically-described hiri. Connecting the archaeology with the ethnography requires the identification of an unbroken chronological sequence of archaeological data. To achieve this, I have followed two archaeological site surveying strategies. One traces origin migration stories as retold in local oral traditions, in the expectation that known ancestral village sites would contain evidence of ‘recent’ occupation dating to the past few hundred years. In the other, old beach lines left inland by rapidly prograding coastlines are investigated with the aim of identifying occupation sites located in more ancient beach-fronting locations. Excavations at 13 sites provide a secure AMS radiocarbon chronology for this, the Kouri lowlands in the mid-section of the Gulf of Papua. In doing so, a succession of settlements and ceramic conventions are revealed, beginning with the arrival of Lapita peoples along the Kouri coastline c. 2600 cal BP to ethnographic times. Comparing and contrasting cultural trends on the Kouri lowlands with those from other parts of the south coast of PNG then enables me to contextualise past social relationships at multiple and nested geographical scales, connecting the mid-section of the Gulf of Papua with other parts of the south coast. The journey from Lapita to the hiri is shown to be a human story of long-standing relationships dependant on cultural interactions that at times grew in complexity and diversity along truncated trajectories of expansion and contraction, eventually crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries in an inter-connected sea and land domain that in time came to connect the descendants of incoming Austronesian-speaking Lapita peoples with local populations of the Gulf of Papua by way of the hiri.


Principal supervisor

Bruno David

Additional supervisor 1

Ian McNiven

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Geography and Environmental Science


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts