Archaeological excavation of the Manim site (Highlands of Papua New Guinea)

Activities at Manim rock shelter (Photo: S. Plutniak).

Two years after the first 2017 survey in the Wurup valley by the Papuan Past Project, we finally started excavating an important Papua New Guinean archaeological site, the Manim rockshelter. This research in the highlands complements our investigations in the lowland region of the Sepik, on the history of settlement and interaction between these two regions.

A team composed of five researchers (Matthew Leavesley, François-Xavier Ricaut, Hubert Forestier, Sébastien Plutniak, and Jean-Pierre de Saint Aubert) and two students from the University of Papua New Guinea (Chloe Apo and Jeiven Andu) worked from the 24th of June to the 6th of July 2019. During the first week, they were accompanied by two filmmakers (Guy Beauché and Christophe Joly).

The gardens in Manim valley (photo: H. Forestier).

Excavating the Manim rockshelter

Around 50 years ago, a Danish archaeologist named Ole Christensen identified 88 sites in the Wurup valley and excavated some of them, including Manim. He was interested in the early developments of horticulture which have been widely documented in the nearby famous UNESCO world heritage Kuk site which has evidence for one of the earliest records of horticulture (around 9 thousand years ago). Unfortunately, Ole Christensen died prematurely before completing his research in the Wurup valley.

The rock-shelter is named after the Manim creek, which flows twenty meters below, around 1770m above sea level. The site is located in the middle of gardens where the local community grow a large variety of fruits (e.g. banana, passion fruit) and vegetables (e.g. sweet potato, peanut, taro, tapioca, beans, corns, avocado). Today, the rock-shelter is relatively small, covering about 4sq/m. However, its morphology suggests that it was larger in the past before being filled by sediments.

Excavation at Manim rock shelter: view from the test pit (Photo: F.-X. Ricaut).

For the 2019 campaign, the team had two main scientific objectives, namely getting a better understanding of (1) the first Late-Pleistocene settlement of the site and (2) the transition between hunter-gathering and horticulture. Different approaches are integrated to reach these aims: using current dating methods to improve the dating made by Christensen in the 1970s, and documenting technological changes (by stone tool analyses), and environmental changes (by pollen and DNA analyses from the sediment) during the Human occupation of the site.

Sieving of the archaeological material at Manim creek (Photo: S. Plutniak)

Living among the Manim people

During the excavation we lived in a house owned by a young couple on the side of the village, a ten minute walk from the rock-shelter. Archaeological excavations are not a complete novelty for the Manim community as some still remember their participation in Christensen’s excavation in the 70s. Similarly, every day four or five villagers were hired to work with us on the excavation. Contrary to the fieldwork conditions we encountered in the Sepik, the Wurup valley has an easier access to a food supply, cooler weather, and the convenient proximity of Mount Hagen town.

M. Leavesley explaining our research to the Manim community (Photo: S. Plutniak).

Perspectives

After the excavation, part of the team (Hubert Forestier and Jean-Pierre de Saint Aubert) stayed four days at the Archaeological Laboratory of the University of Papua New Guinea to analyse the hundreds of stone remains. In 2020, the team plan to come back to Manim site, with the objectives to excavate beyond the deeper layer reach by Christensen, to focus on the sedimentology and geoarchaeology of the site, and to investigate the genetic history of the Manim community.

Leaving Manim site after the work (Photo: S. Plutniak).

Credits

Redaction: Plutniak & Ricaut.
English correction: R. Coles.
Publishing and photo editing: Plutniak.