Research project: Residue analysis of mortars and pestles from Papua New Guinea


Start date:

Museum investigators

  • Robin Torrence

External investigators

  • Huw Barton, University of Leicester, UK
  • Pamela Swadling, Australian National University

Funded by

  • Australian Museum


This collaborative research project aims to reconstruct the functions of stone mortars and pestles from Papua New Guinea dating from between 8,000-3,000 years ago. We are testing a hypothesis that they were used in the preparation of foods (particularly taro) for ritual and ceremonial occasions. These elaborately carved and decorated artifacts are important because studies of the spatial distributions of their forms and decorations have identified ancient trading and social networks that stretch over large areas, including links between the highland and lowland areas of the Papua New Guinea mainland as well as between the mainland and island regions.

Microscopic studies of diagnostic plant fossils (e.g. starch granules, phytoliths and plant tissues) within residues remaining on the tools after they were used provide direct evidence for the materials processed. Since the mortars and pestles date to the time of the earliest cultivated plants in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, we expect to find their traces. We may also be able to monitor the spread of cultivation throughout the lowland and island regions.

Robin Torrence
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