A Short History of Papua New Guinea
New Guinea, the second largest island in the world*, is situated approximately 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Australia. The Independent State of Papua New Guinea (aka Papua New Guinea or PNG) comprises the eastern half of the island. (The western half is the Indonesian state of Irian Jaya.) PNG has an area of 178,703 square miles (462,860 square kilometers) about the size of California with a population of 6.3 million people (2007).
Archeological evidence suggests the island was inhabited approximately 50,000 years ago by Asian settlers. The first recorded contact with Europeans didn't come until Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses "discovered" it in 1527. De Meneses dubbed the island Ilhas do Papuas "The Island of the Fuzzy Hairs." Later, Spanish explorer Inigo Ortiz de Retes named it New Guinea, because he thought the people similar to those of Guinea in Africa.
New Guinea was visited by Europeans only sporadically until 1824, when the Dutch claimed the western half of the island, seeking to expand its Dutch East India Company. Germany took possession of its northeast quarter in 1884, with the British laying claim to the southeast quadrant that same year.
In 1906, British New Guinea became Papua, and its administration was taken
over by newly-independent Australia. When World War I broke out, Australian
troops invaded the German territory to the north, expelling the Germans from the
island. The League of Nations officially ceded Papua to Australia in 1920. The
Japanese occupied the north coast of New Guinea during World War II, but it
reverted to Australian control at the end of the war. Australia allowed the
territory self-government in 1973, with full independence following on 16
PNG is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth. Although English is its official language, it is the primary language of only about 1-2% of the population. The area has more than 850 indigenous languages (12% of the world's total). There are thousands of small tribal groups throughout the country, most comprised of only a few hundred individuals in isolated villages. 85% of the inhabitants live in traditional subsistence agricultural societies. 96% of the population identify themselves as Christian (representing a wide range of denominations), but religious practice is often mixed with traditional tribal rituals.
Although PNG is rich in natural resources, it's been unable to capitalize on them. A rugged mountain range bisects the country, running west to east across its entire length. Most of the territory is covered with tropical rainforest, with very large, swampy wetlands interspersed as well. These features have made transportation and infrastructure development difficult. Port Moresby, its capital and largest city, isn't linked by road to any other major town. Many remote villages can only be reached by foot or light aircraft. These factors have also led to its being one of the world's least explored areas.
Tourist visits to PNG are currently discouraged by most agencies. Low-scale tribal warfare has been ongoing for thousands of years. The advent of modern weaponry has increased local violence dramatically. As more people have migrated to the urban areas, lawlessness has followed. The Lonely Planet website warns, "Papua New Guinea is troubled by a high level of serious crime, particularly in the urban centres of Port Moresby, Lae and Mt Hagen. Travelers should use common sense to avoid any trouble - don't travel at night and respect any local advice regarding safety. All travel to the Highlands region, except on essential business, should be reconsidered because of high levels of crime and inter-tribal violence."
This article was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the
September 2009 paperback release.
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