Kuk Swamp: Early Agriculture in Papua New Guinea

Ancient Water Control and Raised Field Farming in Oceania

Aerial Photograph of Kuk Swamp, New Guinea
This 2002 aerial photograph of the site of Kuk Swamp in the New Guinea highlands, was taken by NASA. NASA

Kuk Swamp is the collective name of several archaeological sites in the upper Wahgi Valley in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Its importance for understanding the development of agriculture in the region cannot be overstated.

Identified sites at Kuk Swamp include the Manton site, where the first ancient ditch system was identified in 1966; the Kindeng site; and the Kuk site, where the most extensive excavations have been concentrated.

Scholarly research refers to the locations as the Kuk Swamp or simply Kuk, where there is a complex amount of evidence for the presence of early agriculture in Oceania and Southeast Asia.

Evidence for Agricultural Development

Kuk Swamp, as its name implies, is located on the margin of a permanent wetland, at an altitude of 1,560 meters (5,118 ft) above mean sea level. The earliest occupations at Kuk Swamp are dated to ~10,220-9910 cal BP (calendar years ago), at which time the Kuk residents practiced a level of horticulture.

Unequivocal evidence for the planting and tending of crops in mounds including banana, taro, and yam is dated to 6590–6440 cal BP, and water control supporting agricultural fields was instituted between 4350–3980 cal BP. Yam, banana, and taro were all fully domesticated by the early mid-Holocene, but the people at Kuk Swamp always supplemented their diet by hunting, fishing, and gathering.

Most important to note are the ditches built at Kuk Swamp beginning at least as long ago as 6,000 years, which represent a long series of wetland reclamation and abandonment processes, where Kuk's residents struggled to control water and develop a reliable agricultural method.

Chronology

The oldest human occupations associated with agriculture at Kuk Swamp's edges are pits, stake- and post-holes from buildings and fences made with wooden posts, and man-made channels associated with natural levees near an ancient waterway (paleochannel).

Charcoal from the channel and from a feature on the nearby surface has been radiocarbon-dated to 10,200–9,910 cal BP. Scholars interpret this as horticulture, the beginning elements of agriculture, including evidence of planting, digging, and tethering of plants in a cultivated plot.

During Phase 2 at Kuk Swamp (6950–6440 cal BP), the residents built circular mounds, and more wooden post buildings, as well as the additional evidence strongly supporting the specific creation of mounds for planting crops—for, in other words, raised field agriculture.

By Phase 3 (~4350–2800 cal BP), the residents had constructed a network of drainage channels, some rectilinear and others curved, to drain water from the productive soil of the swamplands and facilitate farming.

Living at Kuk Swamp

Identification of the crops being cultivated at Kuk Swamp was accomplished by examining plant residues (starches, pollen, and phytoliths) which were left on the surfaces of stone tools used to process those plants, as well as generally in the soils from the site.

Stone cutting tools (flaked scrapers) and grinding stones (mortars and pestles) recovered from Kuk Swamp were examined by researchers, and starch grains and opal phytoliths of taro (Colocasia esculenta), yams (Dioscorea spp), and banana (Musa spp) were identified.

Other phytoliths of grasses, palms, and possibly ginger were also identified.

Innovating Subsistence

Evidence suggests that the earliest form of farming conducted at Kuk Swamp was swidden (also known as slash and burn) agriculture, but over time, the farmers experimented with and moved into more intensive forms of cultivation, eventually including raised fields and drainage canals. It is possible that the crops were initiated by vegetative propagation, which is characteristic of highland New Guinea.

Kiowa is a site similarly aged to Kuk Swamp, located about 100 km west north-west of Kuk. Kiowa is 30 meters lower in elevation but located away from the swamp and within the tropical forest. Interestingly, there is no evidence at Kiowa for either animal or plant domestication—the users of the site remained focused on hunting and gathering.

That suggests to archaeologist Ian Lilley that agriculture can develop patchily as a process, one of the numerous human strategies that are developed over the long term, rather than necessarily driven by specific population pressure, socio-political changes, or environmental change.

The archaeological deposits at Kuk Swamp were discovered in 1966. Excavations began that year led by Jack Golson, who discovered the extensive drainage systems. Additional excavations at Kuk Swamp have been led by Golson and other members of the Australian National University.

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