Landscape of the Week: Kuk Early Agriculture World Heritage Site – Papua New Guinea

By Jady Smith, Program Director – Asia
Live & Learn Environmental Education, Melbourne, Australia

“For each village there is a different culture”

This saying reflects the strong sense of pride in the cultural diversity and local heritage of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The country is also recognized as having some of the richest biodiversity on earth. With this rich cultural and natural heritage it is not surprising that the island’s designated World Heritage Site is not only important ecologically, but also bears great agricultural significance.

The Kuk Early Agricultural World Heritage Site is Papua New Guinea’s first World Heritage Site, and as such there are added challenges around management, and increased pressure to establish a good process for future heritage sites in the country.

The Kuk Early Agricultural World Heritage Site is located in Wahgi Valley in the Western Highlands Province, about 12.5 km northeast of Mt. Hagen City, the provincial capital. Incidentally, Mt Hagen is a site of high cultural significance, as it annually hosts a ‘sing sing’, which brings together tribes from around the country to do traditional dances in traditional costumes. The Kuk site covers 116ha of swampland that has been systematically cultivated over the last 9,000 years.

In the 1960s drainage channels were dug into the swamp so that tea could be planted. In the process of digging, old wooden spades were found. With a combination of good luck, good timing, and curiosity, archaeologists and other interested researchers went to Kuk to study the old wooden spades as well as the newly dug drainage channels and found traces of ancient drainage channels.

Major archaeological research began in 1972, to find out more about the past agricultural practices in Kuk. Two main discoveries informed the researchers about past agricultural practices as they dug into the swamp – the drainage systems themselves and the materials (wooden spades, stone tools, crops remains, etc.) within the drainage systems.

Over time the study of the swamp has revealed the significance of the Kuk agricultural landscape, which dates back over 9,000 years. This makes it one of the earliest known landscapes in the world where agriculture was practiced and the earliest evidence for the domestication of plants in the Pacific region. Similar swamp landscapes through Asia tend to have been managed for sexually reproduced crops, especially rice. Whereas the Wallace line, which is in close proximity, delineates a change in biodiversity, Papua New Guinea delineates a change from Asian agricultural landscapes dominated by sexually reproduced crops to the Pacific agricultural landscapes dominated by asexual crops. In terms of global agricultural landscapes this is a fascinating delineation.

In terms of socio-ecological production landscapes, this site is of significant interest as it has been identified as one of the earliest known sites in the Pacific. It is also worthy of note because of its focus on asexual crops. More specifically, the Kuk site, which could be considered a managed swamp, should be listed as a cradle of asexual agriculture. It is a socio-ecological production landscape based on asexual plants dating back some 9,000 years. Evidence of crops grown at Kuk included taro, yam, sugarcane, and banana. Sugarcane and bananas continue to be of international agricultural significance, while taro and yam still have more localized significance.

In August 2011, Live & Learn Environmental Education was invited by the Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Environment and supported by the Papua New Guinea Department of Environment, to undertake a scoping study on stakeholder perceptions of the Kuk Agricultural World Heritage Site. This research and analysis will be used in developing the Kuk Management Plan and support future World Heritage Site management in PNG.

Through this research we have met with key stakeholders and collected some of the available research. The site is quite inspiring, particularly in terms of early asexual agriculture, but does not seem to be well known in agricultural circles, yet. Perhaps, discussion on this landscape will be the start of new consideration for “cradles of agriculture.”

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