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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$119.00 per year
only $9.92 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Denham, T. P. et al. Origins of agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of New Guinea. Science 301, 189–193 (2003).
Bocquet-Appel, J. P. When the world’s population took off: the springboard of the Neolithic demographic transition. Science 333, 560–561 (2011).
Larson, G. et al. Current perspectives and the future of domestication studies. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 6139–6146 (2014).
Fuller, D. Q. et al. The contribution of rice agriculture and livestock pastoralism to prehistoric methane levels: an archaeological assessment. Holocene 21, 743–759 (2011).
Boivin, N. et al. Ecological consequences of human niche construction: examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 6388–6396 (2016).
Bar-Yosef, O. & Belfer-Cohen, A. The origins of sedentism and farming communities in the Levant. J. World Prehist. 3, 447–498 (1989).
Richerson, P. J., Boyd, R. & Bettinger, R. L. Was agriculture impossible during the Pleistocene but mandatory during the Holocene? A climate change hypothesis. Am. Antiquity 66, 387–411 (2001).
Summerhayes, G. R. et al. Human adaptation and plant use in Highland New Guinea 49,000 to 44,000 years ago. Science 330, 78–81 (2010).
Hunt, C. O., Gilbertson, D. D. & Rushworth, G. A 50,000-year record of late Pleistocene tropical vegetation and human impact in lowland Borneo. Quat. Sci. Rev. 37, 61–80 (2012).
Gosden, C. & Robertson, N. in Report of the Lapita Homeland Project (eds Allen, A. & Gosden, C.) 20–91 (Occasional Papers in Prehistory 20, Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National Univ., 1991).
Golson, J. in Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia (eds Allen, J. et al. ) 601–638 (Academic, 1977).
Harris, D. Early agriculture in New Guinea and the Torres Strait divide. Antiquity 69, 848–854 (1995).
Denham, T., Haberle, S. & Lentfer, C. New evidence and revised interpretations of early agriculture in Highland New Guinea. Antiquity 78, 839–857 (2004).
Haberle, S. G. & Lusty, A. C. Can climate influence cultural development? A view through time. Env. Hist. 6, 349–369 (2000).
Gaffney, D., Ford, A. & Summerhayes, G. Crossing the Pleistocene–Holocene transition in the New Guinea Highlands: evidence from the lithic assemblage of Kiowa rockshelter. J. Anthropol. Archaeol. 39, 223–246 (2015).
Gaffney, D., Ford, A. & Summerhayes, G. Sue Bulmer’s legacy in Highland New Guinea: a re-examination of the Bulmer Collection and future directions. Archaeol. Ocean 51, 23–32 (2016).
Denham, T. Revisiting the past: Sue Bulmer’s contribution to the archaeology of Papua New Guinea. Archaeol. Ocean 51, 5–10 (2016).
Grimes, S. T., Collinson, M. E., Hooker, J. J. & Mattey, D. P. Is small beautiful? A review of the advantages and limitations of using small mammal teeth and the direct laser fluorination analysis technique in the isotope reconstruction of past continental climate change. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 208, 103–119 (2008).
Jeffrey, A., Denys, C., Stoetzel, E. & Lee-Thorp, J. A. Influences on the stable oxygen and carbon isotopes in gerbillid rodent teeth in semi-arid and arid environments: implications for past climate and environmental reconstruction. Earth Planet Sci. Lett. 428, 84–96 (2015).
Lee-Thorp, J. A. & van der Merwe, N. J. Carbon isotope analysis of fossil bone apatite. S. Afr. J. Sci. 83, 712–715 (1987).
Cerling, T. E., Hart, J. A. & Hart, T. B. Isotope ecology in the Ituri forest. Oecologia 138, 5–12 (2004).
Levin, N. E., Simpson, S. W., Quade, J., Cerling, T. E. & Frost, S. R. Herbivore enamel carbon isotopic composition and the environmental context of Ardipithecus at Gona, Ethiopia. Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 446, 215–234 (2008).
Farquhar, G. D., Ehleringer, J. R. & Hubick, K. T. Carbon isotope discrimination and photosynthesis. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. Plant Mol. Biol. 40, 503–537 (1989).
Van der Merwe, N. J. & Medina, E. The canopy effect, carbon isotope ratios and foodwebs in Amazonia. J. Archaeol. Sci. 18, 249–259 (1991).
Cerling, T. E. & Harris, J. M. Carbon isotope fractionation between diet and bioapatite in ungulate mammals and implications for ecological and paleoecological studies. Oecologia 120, 247–363 (1999).
O’Grady, P. et al. Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in body water and hair: modeling isotope dynamics in nonhuman primates. Am. J. Primatol. 74, 651–660 (2012).
Zazzo, A. et al. Isotopic composition of sheep wool records seasonality of climate and diet. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 29, 1357–1369 (2015).
Gonfiantini, R., Roche, M.-A., Olivry, J.-C., Fontes, J.-C. & Zuppi, G. M. The altitude effect on the isotopic composition of tropical rains. Chem. Geol. 181, 147–167 (2001).
Jolly, D. & Haxeltine, A. Effect of low glacial atmospheric CO2 on tropical African montane vegetation. Science 276, 786–788 (1997).
Mayle, F. E., Beerling, D. J., Gosling, W. D. & Bush, M. B. Responses of Amazonian ecosystems to climatic and atmospheric carbon dioxide changes since the Last Glacial Maximum. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 359, 499–514 (2004).
Francey, R. J. et al. A 1000-year high precision record of δ13C in atmospheric CO2 . Tellus B 51, 170–193 (1999).
Lee-Thorp, J. A., van der Merwe, N. J. & Brain, C. K. Isotopic evidence for dietary differences between two extinct baboon species from Swartkrans (South Africa). J. Hum. Evol. 18, 183–190 (1989).
Leichliter, J. N. et al. Small mammal insectivore stable carbon isotope compositions as habitat proxies in a South African savanna ecosystem. J. Archaeol. Sci. 8, 335–345 (2016).
D’Angela, D. & Longinelli, A. Oxygen isotopes in living mammal’s bone phosphate: further results. Chem. Geol. 86, 75–82 (1990).
Gehler, A., Tìtken, T. & Pack, A. Oxygen and carbon isotope variations in a modern rodent community—implications for palaeoenvironmental reconstructions. PLoS ONE 7, e49531 (2012).
Fleming, T. H., Nuñez, R. A. & Sternberg, L. S. L. Seasonal changes in the diets of migrant and non-migrant nectarivorous bats as revealed by carbon stable isotope analysis. Oecologia 94, 72–75 (1993).
Segers, J. L. & Broders, H. G. Carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) stable isotope signatures in bat fur indicate swarming sites have catchment areas for bats from different summering areas. PLoS ONE 10, e0125755 (2015).
Premathilake, R. & Risberg, J. Late Quaternary history of the Horton Plains, central Sri Lanka. Quat. Sci. Rev. 22, 1525–1541 (2003).
Roberts, P., et al. Direct evidence for human reliance on rainforest resources in late Pleistocene Sri Lanka. Science 347, 1246–1249 (2015).
Sun, X., Li, X., Luo, Y. & Chen, X. The vegetation and climate at the last glaciation on the emerged continental shelf of the South China Sea. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 160, 301–316 (2000).
Hope, G. & Haberle, S. in Papuan Pasts: Studies in the Cultural, Linguistic and Biological History of the Papuan Speaking Peoples (eds Pawley, A. et al. ) 541–554 (Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National Univ., 2005).
Haberle, S. G. Late Quaternary vegetation change in the Tari Basin, Papua New Guinea. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 137, 1–24 (1998).
Haberle, S. G. The emergence of an agricultural landscape in the highlands of New Guinea. Archaeol. Ocean 38, 149–158 (2003).
Haberle, S. G., Hope, G. S. & van der Kaars, S. Biomass burning in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea: natural and human induced fire events in the fossil record. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 171, 259–268 (2001).
Haberle, S. G., Lentfer, C., O’Donnell, S. & Denham, T. The palaeoenvironments of Kuk Swamp from the beginnings of agriculture in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Quat. Int. 249, 129–139 (2012).
Binford, L. R. in New Perspectives in Archaeology (eds Binford, S. R. & Binford, L. R. ) 313–342 (Aldine, 1968).
Hayden, B. in Transitions to Agriculture in Prehistory (eds Gebauer, A. B. & Price, T. D. ) 11–18 (Prehistory, 1992).
Summerhayes, G. R., Field, J. H., Shaw, B. & Gaffney, D. The archaeology of forest exploitation and change in the tropics during the Pleistocene: the case of Northern Sahul (Pleistocene New Guinea). Quat. Int. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2016.04.023 (2016).
Pavlides, C. in A Pacific Odyssey: Archaeology and Anthropology in the Western Pacific. Papers in Honour of Jim Specht (eds Attenbrow, V. J. & Fullager, R. ) 97–108 (Australian Museum, 2004).
Leavesley, M. in Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands (ed. Lilley, I. ) 189–204 (Blackwell, 2006).
Fairbairn, A. S., Hope, G. S. & Summerhayes, G. R. Pleistocene occupation of New Guinea’s highland and subalpine environments. World Archaeol. 38, 371–386 (2006).
Mercader, J. (ed.) Under the Canopy: The Archaeology of Tropical Rainforests (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002).
Roberts, P. & Petraglia, M. D. Pleistocene rainforests: barriers or attractive environments for early human foragers? World Archaeol. 47, 718–739 (2015).
Denham, T. P. in The Routledge Handbook of Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands (eds Oxenham, M. & Buckley, H. ) 409–425 (Routledge, 2016).
Bellwood, P. First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies (Wiley, 2004).
Denham, T. P. Early agriculture and plant domestication in New Guinea and Island Southeast Asia. Curr. Anthropol. 52, S379–S395 (2011).
Denham, T. P., Iriarte, I. & Vrydaghs, L. Rethinking Agriculture: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives (Left Coast, 2007).
Bulmer, S. Prehistoric stone implements from the New Guinea Highlands. Oceania 34, 246–268 (1964).
Bulmer, S. Radiocarbon dates from New Guinea. J. Polynesian Soc. 73, 327–328 (1964).
Sutton, A., Mountain, M.-J., Aplin, K., Bulmer, S. & Denham, T. P. Archaeozoological records for the highlands of New Guinea: a review of current evidence. Aust. Archaeol. 69, 41–58 (2009).
Bulmer, R. The strategies of hunting in New Guinea. Oceania 38, 302–318 (1968).
Dwyer, P. D. An annotated list of mammals from Mt. Elimbari, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. Sci. New Guinea 10, 28–38 (1983).
Dwyer, P. D. The price of protein: five hundred hours of hunting in the New Guinea Highlands. Oceania 44, 278–293 (1974).
Flannery, T. F. Mammals of New Guinea (Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).
Leavesley, M. G. Trees to the Sky: Prehistoric Hunting in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea PhD thesis, Australian National Univ. (2004).
Sillitoe, P. Managing Mammals in New Guinea: Preying the Game in the Highlands (Routledge, 2003).
Clout, M. N. Determination of age in the brushtail possum using sections from decalcified molar teeth. New Zeal. J. Zool. 9, 405–408 (1982).
Lee-Thorp, J. A. et al. Isotopic evidence for an early shift to C4 resources by Pliocene hominins in Chad. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 20369–20372 (2012).
Sponheimer, M. et al. Hominins, sedges, and termites: new carbon isotope data from the Sterkfontein valley and Kruger National Park. J. Hum. Evol. 48, 301–312 (2005).
R Core Team R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2013).
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.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-016-0044
This article is cited by
Nature Plants (2017)
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2017)