Research project: Impact of natural disasters on cultural change with special reference to West New Britain, Papua New Guinea


Start date:
Layers of volcanic ash

Layers of volcanic ash
Photographer: Robin Torrence © Australian Museum

Museum investigators

External investigators

  • Vince Neall , Massey University, New Zealand
  • William Boyd, Southern Cross University
  • Carol Lentfer , University of Queensland
  • Cameron Petrie , Cambridge University, UK
  • Chris McKee , Geophysical Observatory, Papua New Guinea

Funded by

  • ARC Major grants, Pacific Biological Foundation, New Britain Palm Oil, Ltd., AINSE, Australian Museum


An interdisciplinary team has been studying the impacts of volcanic disasters on human history in the Willaumez Peninsula region of West New Britain in Papua New Guinea for over 10 years. More than 20 major volcanic disasters have had marked and sustained effects on the local environment since the first arrival of humans, around 40,000 years ago. The impacts of these severe events on the physical landscape have been traced through field and geochemical studies. The nature and distribution of the different tephras exploded from several volcanic centres have been recorded. The subsequent changes in drainage patterns and relative sea levels have been reconstructed. Analyses of corals, pollens, diatoms, phytoliths and starch granules are also revealing the extent and nature of the destruction and subsequent changes to the biota incurred by the volcanic eruptions.

To understand if and how these volcanic disasters affected large scale trends in human history, a large number of archaeological excavations have been conducted in the two study areas of Garua Island and the isthmus region of the Willaumez Peninsula. In addition to establishing the chronology and spatial patterns of human settlement across the region for the first time, the research has yielded relatively secure dates that reveal a pattern of abandonment and re-colonisation following all the major volcanic disasters. The loss of a distinctive stone tool type and the introduction of pottery are correlated with one particular eruption dated at about 3,300 years ago. Current research focuses on detailed analyses of the excavated data to trace further volcanic impacts on patterns of land use, trading patterns, and subsistence.

Dr Robin Torrence , Senior Principal Research Scientist
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