Combining oral traditions and bayesian chronological modeling to understand village development in the Gulf of Papua (Papua New Guinea)

Chris Urwin, Quan Hua, Henry Arifeae

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


When European colonists arrived in the late 19th century, large villages dotted the coastline of the Gulf of Papua (southern Papua New Guinea). These central places sustained long-distance exchange and decade-spanning ceremonial cycles. Besides ethnohistoric records, little is known of the villages’ antiquity, spatiality, or development. Here we combine oral traditional and 14C chronological evidence to investigate the spatial history of two ancestral village sites in Orokolo Bay: Popo and Mirimua Mapoe. A Bayesian model composed of 35 14C assays from seven excavations, alongside the oral traditional accounts, demonstrates that people lived at Popo from 765–575 cal BP until 220–40 cal BP, at which time they moved southwards to Mirimua Mapoe. The village of Popo spanned ca. 34 ha and was composed of various estates, each occupied by a different tribe. Through time, the inhabitants of Popo transformed (e.g., expanded, contracted, and shifted) the village to manage social and ceremonial priorities, long-distance exchange opportunities and changing marine environments. Ours is a crucial case study of how oral traditional ways of understanding the past interrelate with the information generated by Bayesian 14C analyses. We conclude by reflecting on the limitations, strengths, and uncertainties inherent to these forms of chronological knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)647-667
Number of pages21
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jan 2021

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