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Persistent tropical foraging in the highlands of terminal Pleistocene/Holocene New Guinea


The terminal Pleistocene/Holocene boundary (approximately 12–8 thousand years ago) represented a major ecological threshold for humans, both as a significant climate transition and due to the emergence of agriculture around this time. In the highlands of New Guinea, climatic and environmental changes across this period have been highlighted as potential drivers of one of the earliest domestication processes in the world. We present a terminal Pleistocene/Holocene palaeoenvironmental record (12–0 thousand years ago ) of carbon and oxygen isotopes in small mammal tooth enamel from the site of Kiowa. The results show that tropical highland forest and open mosaics, and the human subsistence focused on these environments, remained stable throughout the period in which agriculture emerged at nearby Kuk Swamp. This suggests the persistence of tropical forest foraging among highland New Guinea groups and highlights that agriculture in the region was not adopted as a unilinear or dramatic, forced event but was locally and historically contingent.

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Figure 1: Location of Kiowa and Kuk Swamp in the Central Highlands of New Guinea.
Figure 2: Kiowa archaeological site.
Figure 3: Stable carbon and oxygen isotope data for all faunal samples analysed by stratigraphic level (n = 140).
Figure 4: Stable carbon and oxygen isotope data separated by taxonomic group (cuscus, ringtail possum, bat and macropod) and stratigraphic level (n = 140).


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This project was funded by grants from the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Boise Fund, University of Oxford (to P.R.). We also thank the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea for supporting this research. J. Menzies provided helpful insight into the zoology. Finally, a special thanks goes to Sue Bulmer and her family for providing us with access to the materials and field notes for the site of Kiowa. We dedicate this paper to Sue, who sadly passed away during the writing of this paper—her legacy in Pacific archaeology and at the site of Kiowa remains.

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P.R., D.G., J.L.-T. and G.S. designed and performed the research, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Patrick Roberts.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Text; Supplementary Figures 1–3; Supplementary Tables 1–16; Supplementary References (PDF 738 kb)

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Roberts, P., Gaffney, D., Lee-Thorp, J. et al. Persistent tropical foraging in the highlands of terminal Pleistocene/Holocene New Guinea. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0044 (2017).

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