Using GIS for data integration in interdisciplinary research in Papua New Guinea, East Sepik

As an interdisciplinary project, the Papuan Past Project involves a collaboration of specialists from genetics, archaeology, rock art, and ethnology, as well as data-sets at different scales of analysis (from the level of New Guinea Island, to the level of the local distribution of archaeological sites). Consequently, it is necessary to use a method that collectively organizes the research and integrates the heterogeneous data. Continue reading “Using GIS for data integration in interdisciplinary research in Papua New Guinea, East Sepik”

Genetic Research


One of many community meetings held during our fieldwork. The explicit purpose of the meetings was to provide communities with an explanation of our project, provide an opportunity for them to ask questions and ask permission for the various aspects of our project to proceed (Auwim village, Arafundi river valley, East Sepik) (F.-X. Ricaut 2017).

Recent human genetic studies have enlightened the complexity of the genetic landscape present in New Guinean populations. From a direct genetic inheritance from the Out-of-Africa dispersal ~ 80 to 60 000 years ago, to the gene flows from Austronesian groups during the Late Holocene, and even to the high percentage (5%) of genetic introgression from an extinct Homo species named Denisova, the biological diversity of New Guineans is unique. It is a result of the various human migrations to the island but also within its territory, composed by a variety of different ecosystems. These processes created high genetic differentiations between New Guinean groups, a pattern that superficially mirrors the one drawn from the linguistic diversity, one of the highest in the world, with more than 900 languages. Despite these results, major questions remain unresolved regarding New Guinean genetic and phenotypic history.

Since 2016, thanks to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of Papua New Guinea, we have developed an international and interdisciplinary research project aiming to reconstruct the demographic and adaptive history of New Guinean populations. A particular focus is put on the pattern of admixture between Denisova and Homo sapiens, and on the interaction between the New Guinean and Non-New Guinean populations, in order to characterize the role of culture and environment in structuring the current human biological landscape of the island.

Papua New Guinean demographic and adaptive history

Discussion around the questionnaire and the procedures for informed consent, before DNA sampling (Jiwaka province (highlands), H. Forestier 2017).

Following ethical regulation from Papua New Guinea and local communities involvement, the project collects human biological samples and phenotypic data (>40 anthropometric and physiological data) from Papua New Guinean participants to capture the cultural/linguistic/environmental diversity of the New Guinean populations.
The sampling strategy is based on (1) a grid sampling approach to have sampling “spot”/village (5 to 10 individuals per spot) covering the 22 provinces of PNG taking into account population density data, and (2) larger sampling from key region of PNG in term of population history (river corridors, Waghy valley, specific location in the lowland regions). Complex computational modeling will use the high quality and quantity of biological and anthropological data generated within the project to investigate the population migration, demographic events and adaptive history of the populations from Papua New Guinea.

DNA and phenotypic sampling at the Archaeology Laboratory (University of Papua New Guinea) (F.-X. Ricaut 2016).

Project Presentation

Painted plaster topographic map of Papua New Guinea, displayed on the wall of the UPNG Archaeological Laboratory (V. Celiberti 2017)

The Papuan Past project explores the modalities of human population settlement and adaptation – biological, cultural and technical evolution – over the last 50 thousand years in Papua New Guinea. The project combines archaeological and genomic approaches to reach this objective, and is run in close collaboration with the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). The project focuses on two regions in Papua New Guinea: The Sepik flood plain and the highlands, which represent different cultural and physical environments.

Map of the New Guinea Island with the location of the two fieldwork areas: the Sepik floodplain (yellow dot) and the Highlands (red dot). Click to enlarge.
  • In the flood plain of the Sepik region (East-Sepik province) and specifically in the karstic region of the upper Karawari river. The collection of limestone caves range across 80 km in this transitional biotope between the highlands and the floodplain.
  • In the highlands region (Chimbu, Jiwaka, and the Western Highlands provinces), notably the region around Mount Wilhelm (highest mountain of PNG at 4500m), and the Wahgi valley and adjacent valleys (Wurup valley) where the earliest traces of plant exploitation and cultivation in Papua New Guinea are located (Kuk swamp, 10k years BP).
The Wurup valley, 9km from Mount Hagen (Western Highlands province): a north-south valley reaching the Wahgi valley at its northern mouth (H. Forestier 2017)

The objective of the project is to study the origin and evolution of human settlement and adaptation in these regions over a long period: from the late Pleistocene to the present-day. This will be achieved by investigating human populations through their archaeological remains, markers of cultural/technical changes, and biological markers. What are the relationships between these different elements of human population history? Can modifications be identified and are these associated to environmental, demographic or cultural pressures?

This project has strengthened scientific cooperation between France and Papua New Guinea. The collaborative network involves three different Papua New Guinean scientific partners (University of Papua New Guinea, National Museum and Art Gallery, Institute of Medical Research) and six international partners.

The field research team is international and composed of four archaeologists, one anthropologist, two biological anthropologists, and several scientific specialists participating punctually. During the fieldwork, which will take place every year in spring, five to fifteen local participants and students will complete this team.

The Sepik floodplain and in the distance to the north the Yimas Lakes and the upper Arafundi region at the bottom of the highlands (F.-X. Ricaut 2017)

Présentation du projet

Le projet Papuan Past porte sur l’étude des modalités de peuplement et d’adaptation des populations – évolution biologiques, culturelles, et techniques – au cours des cinquante derniers millénaires en Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée. Les approches archéologiques et génomiques sont associées pour atteindre cet objectif. Ce projet est mené en collaboration étroite avec l’Université de Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée).

Carte topographique (plâtre peint) de Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée, explosée dans les locaux de laboratoire d’archéologie de l’UPNG (V. Celiberti 2017).

Les missions se déroulent dans deux régions de la Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée : la plaine fluviale du Sepik et les Hautes-Terres d’altitude. Ces régions présentent des environnements physiques et culturels différents.

Carte de  la Nouvelle-Guinée et localisation des deux zones d’investigation : la plaine alluviale du Sépik (point jaune) et les Hautes-terres (point rouge). Cliquer pour agrandir.
  •  La plaine fluviale de la région Sepik (province d’Est-Sepik) se situe dans la région karstique de la partie supérieure du fleuve Karawari, également nommée « Sepik moyen ». Une série d’abris et de grottes karstiques s’étirent sur plus de 80 km dans cette zone de transition entre les Hautes-terres et la plaine fluviale.
  • La région des Hautes-Terres (province de Chimbu, de Jiwaka, et des Haute-Terres Occidentales), dans la vallée de la Waghi et les vallées adjacentes (vallée de Wurup), est la région où les plus anciennes traces d’agriculture-horticulture (datées d’environ dix mille ans) ont été retrouvées. À cette région s’ajoute celle du Mont Wilhelm, qui culmine à 4500 mètres d’altitude.
La vallée Wurup, à 9 km de Mount Hagen (Province des Hautes-terres occidentales) : orientée nord-sud, cette vallée rejoint au nord la vallée Wahgi (H. Forestier 2017)

L’enjeu du projet est d’étudier l’origine et l’évolution du peuplement et de l’adaptation humaine dans cette région sur le temps long, de la fin du Pléistocène à l’époque actuelle.

Nous cherchons à cerner ces populations à  partir d’ensembles de restes archéologiques, de marqueurs de changements culturels/techniques, et de marqueurs biologiques. Quels peuvent être les rapports entre ces différents éléments sur l’histoire des groupes humains dans cette région ? Peut-on identifier des changements et les associer à des effets de pressions, tels qu’environnementaux, démographiques, ou culturels ?

Ce projet a conduit à un renforcement du partenariat scientifique entre la France et la Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée, tant sur le terrain que pour les analyses post-fouille. La collaboration implique désormais trois partenaires scientifiques de Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée (Université de Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée, Muséum National de Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée, Institut de Recherche Médicale de Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée) et six partenaires internationaux.

L’équipe de recherche de terrain, internationale, est composée de quatre archéologues, un anthropologue, deux anthropo-biologistes, et de divers spécialistes intervenant ponctuellement. Lors des campagnes de terrain – qui se déroulent chaque année au printemps – cinq à quinze personnes recrutées localement complètent cette équipe.

La plaine du Sepik avec, au loin au nord, les lacs Yimas et la région de la haute Arafundi au pied des Hautes-terres (F.-X. Ricaut 2017)