Digging for truths from the past

University of Southern Queensland (USQ) researchers have been given rare access to a remote region of Papua New Guinea, conducting a world first archaeological investigation that could give a clearer picture of the first human migration into Australia – and the art left behind.

Archaeologists Professors Lara Lamb and Bryce Barker are currently piecing together discoveries made following an expedition to the Great Papuan Plateau late last year.

“The plateau is incredibly difficult to get to and is in the middle of really dense, remote tropical forests between the Highlands and the Gulf lowlands of PNG,” Professor Lamb said.

“It is wild and rugged and largely undeveloped, which makes it an exciting place for an archaeologist to gain access to; we feel very privileged.”

Funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, Professor Lamb said the project was embarking on several ‘firsts’.

Professor Lara Lamb collecting soil DNA samples
Professor Lara Lamb collecting soil DNA samples

“We’re undertaking the first archaeological investigation into the timing of people moving across the Plateau and ultimately into Australia, which could lead us to new information about the earliest people of Sahul,” she said.

“Sahul is the name given to Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea when they were joined because of low sea levels during the Pleistocene ice ages.”

The research team is searching for information as part of its overarching aim to document, for the first time, the archaeological signature of the Great Papuan Plateau.

Dig site
Dig site

Professor Lamb said the team is also investigating a body of rock art that has never been documented.

“This is work that can obviously only be done in collaboration with the landowners who have been very willing to contribute their own knowledge about the art and their ancestors to our scientific investigations,” she said.

“Any region you explore scientifically for the first time can only offer great benefits as you’re generating brand new knowledge. When you are also working closely with the specialised knowledge of source communities, you end up being able to tell a richer and comprehensive story about the region.”

The project is due to run until 2023 and researchers hope to return to the excavation site once COVID-19 travel restrictions ease.



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