Lihir Pre-History and regional links

Papua New Guinea and Australia were originally linked up by land up until about 6,000 years ago. As the last Ice Age ended and ocean levels rose, the waters of Pacific and Indian Oceans poured through the Torres Straights and cut off the Australian continent from the world’s second largest island. Human remains have been found in PNG which have been dated to about 50,000 years ago.


Lapita Pottery Example

It is most likely that Lihir was settled during this second wave of colonisation with, or subsequent to, Lapita around 3,200 years ago. This is because the Lapita Cultural Complex includes agricultural technology including gardening and domesticated pigs, dogs and chickens. On an island the size of Lihir it is likely that only agriculture could have provided adequate nutrition to support a viable long-term population. 

In more recent times (500 years), pottery was also traded/exchanged in the region. Archaeologists have noted the movement of pottery north from Malasang village in Buka. There were a series of trade/exchange partners linking Buka to Nissan, to Anir to Namatanai & Tanga to Lihir & New Ireland and Tabar. Given the presence of Buka ware (style) pottery on Anir it is highly likely that it was brought to Lihir as well. This suggests a southern trade/exchange connection for Lihirians. On the basis of the obsidian and pottery evidence it is highly likely that Lihirians traded/exchanged with neighbours to the north, south and west to New Ireland. 

New Irelanders in Canoe by as seen by Isaac Gilseman in 1643

These trade and exchange partnership linked Lihirians to other New Irelanders through complex relationships of mutual obligation. Many of these exchanges occurred within the context of large-scale mortuary feasting, or funeral rituals. Lihirians maintained the closest trade/exchange relationships with New Irelanders from the Namatanai district on mainland New Ireland, the islands of Tanga to the South East, and the islands of Tabar to the North West.

Obsidian Fish Hook

Archaeological studies have identified aspects of trade/exchange throughout New Ireland as early as 20,000 years ago. The most useful dataset for determining the antiquity of this phenomenon is obsidian. Prior to 3,200 years ago the majority of obsidian brought into New Ireland came from the West New Britain sources at Talasea and inland at Mopir. After 3,200 years ago the dominant source is Manus. If Lihir was colonised at or after 3,200 years ago it might be expected that much of the obsidian found throughout the group is derived from Manus. This suggests that the dominant trade/exchange connections for obsidian in Lihir come from the north. However, obsidian is not the only material known to have been transported throughout the region in the past.

Modern History: 1600s

The first recorded sighting of the Lihir Islands was in 1616 by Dutch explorers Jacob Le Maire and William Cornelisz Schouten. The islands were first named Gerrit de Nijs Eylandt by another Dutchman Abel Janzoon Tasman in 1643 when he navigated through New Guinea onboard the Heemskerck. 

An artist onboard named Isaac Gilseman sketched the first image of the Lihir, as well as the famous image of northern New Ireland men in canoe.

Lihir as seen by Isaac Gilseman in 1643

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