Hi Alexander

You wrote
> As far as I understand, this zone doesn't include Australia. Right?

The Yams and Pandanus nuts are found also in Northern Australia.
Recent evidence shows that the people living in these areas knew the
principles of domestication, but found the "effort" not worthwhile.
There are recorded cases of women transplanting pre-harvestable yams
found growing in unfavourable locations, in more suitable ones.

The evidence regarding the early dates for PNG gardening are leading
to a re-evaluation of Aboriginal practices in Australia. "Firestick
farming" has been recognised as a much more sophisticated land
management practice than it was once thought (as comparative studies
between white and Aboriginal burning practices are showing). At the
same time there are a number of pre-cursors to agriculture that have
been found in a number of locations.

For instance

1. stone villages were built along the routes of the Victorian fish-
traps, which seems to have led to perminent settlement in this

2. hay-stacks built along the Murray (reported by Charles Sturt) show
the intensive harvesting of semi-wild grasslands, that led to
domestication in the Middle East was here practiced.

The latest evidence is that cultivation in Australia did not occur
because of ignorance, or because the principles of plant propagation
were unknown. Tim Flannery suggests that it is due to a peculiar set
of seasonal factors. Australia is the odd continent because the
differences between seasons (summer and winter - wet and dry) is less
than the difference between years ("droughts and flooding rains" as
the poem by Dorothea McKellar states). This means that any move
towards a sedentary cultivation would have been destroyed by El Nino-
La Nina events of unusual severity.

This is currently causing a search in Australia for evidence of
repeated (and disrupted) movements towards incipient agriculture.

There is another effect that seems to have been present in the
Aboriginal case, a cultural adaption for the inter year climatic
severity. Australian Aboriginal cultures generally seem to have
maintained populations at 1/3rd to 1/5th what the climate seems to
have been able to support. This seems to have occurred through a
number of cultural practices (eg, circumcision and sub-incision, late
and deferred marriages, long lengths of taboos against sexual
cohabiting, infanticide and voluntary euthenasia amongst the frail
aged etc). This meant that when a severe drought did occur, the
stretched environment basically still provided for the needs of the

With the avoidance of population pressure, Aboriginal people managed
to avoid the overpopulation that researchers are suggesting that led
to the development of farming cultures in the Middle East.

I wrote
> > This has led Ethnobotanists to suggest (before the discovery of
> > recent evidence at Kuk and the Solomons) "the extent to which
> > plants indigenous to the island (of New Guinea) are cultivated in
> > gardens here makes it reasonable to suggest that agriculture
> > could have begun in New Guinea independently of South East Asia."

You asked
> And what is your personal opinion, John?
> Are there 2 independent zones in the Indopacific region (somewhere
> in Indochina and in New Guinea)?
> Or the Indochina center is a secondary one, a kind of "subsidiary"
> for the PNG center?
> Or modern Papuans and Melanesians are not direct descendants of
> those who dealt with the taro starch 28,000 BP?

Three questions! I'll answer them all separately.

Q.1. My personal opinion is that there is a great deal about the past
cultures (outside of Europe most especially) still waiting to be
discovered. The iconoclast in me leads me to hope that the recent
evidence is right and we are sitting on a very early separate zone of
cultivation - stretching back far further than that seen elsewhere.
Mainstream archaeology is only just beginning to catch up (I have
seen some recent historical atlases which suggest the Kuk cultivation
is co-equal in age with the earliest elsewhere), but they have not
dealt with

a. Kuk is at the altitudinal extemity of cultivation for the crops
found. There were no wild precursors for them here - they are all
from lowland elevations.

b. The factoring in of the Solomon Island and Finchaven evidence.

Q.2. I think the evidence is that there are two zones. Whether they
are independent or not is still to be determined. Previous to the
newer research it was thought that the Papua New Guinean zone was
dependent upon the South East Asian zone (associated with the
introduction of pigs, dogs and chickens, 5,000 BP, from South East
Asia). At the moment the evidence seems to be suggesting two
separate zones, (for example the evidence from Spirit Cave in
Thailand), but with the horizon for PNG pushed out to 25,000 BCE, and
the evidence of maritime voyages (from PNG to New Britain, New
Ireland, Bougainville and the Solomons), and evidence of linguistics
and genetics of movements from PNG back into Indonesia (Timor and
Halmahera), perhaps the south east Asian zone is secondary and
dependent upon the PNG zone. Agriculture in South East Asia seems to
have been associated with the spread of the Hao Binh culture, and may
also be earlier than the spread of agriculture in the Middle East.
(The relationship between Munda and Austroasiatic languages suggests
an early split here). The jury still appears out on this matter.

Q.3. Genetic studies done on Papua New Guineans for the Human Genome
diversity project suggest two separate ethnic groups in Papua New
Guinea, with a great degree of hybridisation between the two.
Firstly the Highlander is clearly distinct and only related at a
genetic distance of 50,000 years or so with the northern Australian
Aboriginals. Coastal people show a clear admixture of Austronesian
genes, associated with the spread of the Austronesians east from the
Central region of the Moluccas.

This shows a similarity to the linguistic picture. Stephen Wurm's
Trans New Guinea Phylum, has been shown to have deeper links to the
Toricelli, Sepik Ramu and other phyla, at the level of Indo-Pacific.
I have not been keeping up with the field but know they have recently
added Andaman Island languages to the Indo-Pacific group suggesting
an early spread, possibly out of PNG into South East Asia. These
people generally dwell in the interior (as in Timor), with
Austronesian (Oceanic) languages along the coasts.

> I think that we should start from the model "every cultivar has been
> domesticated only once".

Interesting thought.

You wrote

> Such time depth could help us to explain the unique language
> superfamilies density in PNG. If the process of the divergence
> started so early and none of branches had a serious technological
> advantage to press out the neighbours, the picture should be as
> complex as we see.

Yes, I feel that this is one of the reasons for the extreme
linguistic diversity of the country. It is interesting that there is
one piece of "advantage" that is associated 350 years ago with the
introduction of Sweet potato (Impopea batatas) into the country. It
has been suggested that this was introduced into the Ramu River area
first, travelling into the highlands via the Medlpa and Enga language
groups. Enga is today the most populaous language group in the
country. Medlpa is 2nd and Huli (a close relation of Enga) is 6th.

Papua New Guinea seems to have certain cultural characteristics which
fostered linguistic diversity, and makes the development and
appearance of new languages much more frequent than we find in other
parts of the world. At every level diversity is valued
(monolingualism is, they consider, a form of intellectual disability).

> And what about many modern (say, just before the Europeans came)
> Papua groups? Can you imagine them without gardens and pigs?

There has been some interesting studies based upon the percollation
of iron tools into the interior of Papua New Guinea from the 1870s.
It is suggested from 1870 a minor agricultural revolution started in
the Highlands with a huge expansion of clearance, and with spades
replacing digging sticks allowing larger acreages to be cultivated
and turned to pigs (as status/trade items). From about 1890s
intertribal warfare started to grow reaching a crescendo just before
white contact. It is qite possible the huge "moka" (ritual exchange
pig kills) and "sing-sing" so much a feature of modern New Guinea,
are relatively recent cultural acquisitions.

I wrote
> > In any case, the priority currently given to the seed and grain
> > crops in the Middle East as the first cultivars may be in need of
> > a recent revision fairly soon.

You replied
> What do you mean? A non-cereals (based on roots) phase in the Near
> East agriculture? But it is a non-equatorial zone, so an analogy
> might here not work.

No, I was referring to the displacement of the Middle East as the
source of the first historical plant cultivation.

Hope this helps