Refereed Article Pleistocene colonisation of the Bismarck Archipelago: new evidence from West New Britain

Citation: Torrence R., Neall, V., Doelman, T., Rhodes E., McKee C., Davies, H., Bonetti, R., Guglielmetti A., Manzoni A., Oddone, M., Parr, J. and Wallace, R.. 2004. Pleistocene colonisation of the Bismarck Archipelago: new evidence from West New Britain. Archaeology in Oceania. 39. 101-130.

Abstract:

The geological and archaeological signatures at the site of Kupona na Dari on the Willaumez Peninsula, West New Britain provide important new data about human colonisation of the Bismarck Archipelago. Analyses of the stratigraphy and weathering of paleosols and manuports, when combined with fission track, radiocarbon, and luminescence dating, indicate that the site was first occupied at about 35-45,000 years ago. During the whole period of occupation, people were exposed to a series of volcanic events which varied in terms of their potential impacts on the local environment. A PIXE-PIGME characterisation study of the obsidian artefacts at the site demonstrates that from the earliest period stone resources were acquired from outcrops located across a relatively large region. When compared with Early-Middle Holocene assemblages from nearby localities, the Pleistocene stone tool technology differs in only a few minor respects. From this analysis we infer that groups were mobile in both periods, but slightly different strategies for the procurement and maintenance of the stone tools were required for the more extensive ranges exploited during the Pleistocene. The inter-disciplinary study of Kupona na Dari concludes that colonisation comprised a long term process of settling into this volcanically active environment. Due to variability in the environments that people encountered, the pattern of colonisation may not have been similar across the entire Bismarck Archipelago.

The results of the Lapita Homeland Project and its successors have demonstrated that people had arrived on the islands of Near Oceania by at least 40,000 years ago (e.g. Allen and Gosden 1991; 1996; Allen 1993; 1996; 2000; 2003; Gosden 1993; 1995; Leavesley and Allen 1998; Leavesley et al. 2002; Rosenfeld 1997; Spriggs 1997: 26-39; 2001). In New Britain they spread very rapidly from the coast into the rugged interior (Pavlides and Gosden 1994; Pavlides 1999; 2004). On the basis of these new data, Gosden (1993; 1995) and Allen (1996; 2000; Allen and Gosden 1996) proposed a two stage scenario for colonisation of this region. They identified a change in subsistence and settlement from a pattern in which people moved their camps frequently between resource patches to one in which resources from a number of different settings were transported back to base camps. The finding of Kupona na Dari (FABM) on the Willaumez Peninsula, an open site with numerous obsidian artefacts well stratified between layers of volcanic tephra (Torrence et al. 1999) (Figure 1), provides an opportunity for re-examining their model of Pleistocene colonisation in the Bismarck Archipelago from the perspective of a very different environmental setting. The active volcanoes on the north coast of New Britain would have created particular challenges for the first settlers that were not present in limestone regions. Furthermore, the human activities at this open site are likely to have varied from those which took place in the rock shelters that have previously dominated research. The purpose of this paper is to report the results of excavations conducted at Kupona na Dari in 2001 and to consider what new light these shed on the processes of early colonisation.

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