Nature Unleashed Papau New Guinea
For Immediate Release
Contact: Nancy O'Shea
(312) 665-7100 (For Media Use Only)
Papua New Guinea: Living in the Ring of Fire
In The Field Museum's upcoming exhibition, Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters, rare artifacts and photographs from the museum's A.B. Lewis Collection connect visitors to the geologically violent region of the South Pacific. Supplemented with objects and images gathered in the 1990s by John Terrell, The Field Museum's current Regenstein Curator of Anthropology, the collection illustrates the resilience of the people and cultures of the deceivingly tranquil island of Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea lies in a part of the world known as the Pacific Ring of Fire where the plates of the Earth's surface meet from seemingly all directions, creating a complex network of fault systems. The jagged highland mountains, lowland swamps, lagoons, and plains that characterize the landscape of Papua New Guinea have been shaped by countless earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, droughts, landslides, and floods.
The forces generated at faults that affect Papua New Guinea place unforgiving demands on human survival. People living on the island today rely on survival methods developed thousands of years ago by their ancestors. These survival methods have been handed down through generations in oral histories and learned techniques of sustainable plant cultivation. The influence of natural disasters on Papua New Guineans is revealed not only in these survival methods that transcend generational boundaries but also in unique combinations of modern and traditional methods used to prepare for and respond to disasters.
Expeditions Expand Collection of Artifacts
From 1909 to 1913, Albert Buell Lewis, then Assistant Curator of African and Melanesian Ethnology at The Field Museum, collected thousands of objects while on an ethnology expedition to the South Pacific. While Lewis created one of the largest field collections that provided the best description of the culture and the people living on Papua New Guinea at the time, many items of the collection were not thoroughly documented.
Later curators of anthropology at The Field Museum recognized the need and the value of filling out the descriptions for the collection. The Field Museum's later expeditions to the Sepik coast along the northern edge of the island in the 1990s have provided valuable information about the items of the Lewis collection and have added new items to the museum's collections. These items have led to intriguing findings about the people of Papua New Guinea and have generated curiosity about the ways in which these people have managed to survive in such a hostile environment.
Favorable environmental conditions for food production may be few and far between on Papua New Guinea. Temperature fluctuations in the Pacific Ocean that cause profound changes in climate are generated by a weather phenomenon called El Ninõ-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Every year, ENSO affects Papua New Guinea, causing severe droughts in some areas and excessive rainfall in others. These weather patterns influence cultivation and food production. In addition, volcanic activity, earthquakes, and tsunamis require that societies on Papua New Guinea have short-term and long-term methods of gathering or producing food. For example, people living on the Sepik coast depend not only on the immediate availability of shellfish and fish found in lagoons but also on the long-term cultivation of plants for food.
Field Museum researchers have discovered that nut trees, such as almond, coconut, and candlenut, have been purposely planted and tended by generations of families on Papua New Guinea. These trees are not grown on farms. Rather, they are grown within the rainforests and lowland swamps of the island. This type of tree cultivation does not conform to any anthropological or archaeological concept of agriculture. The trees are wild species, not domesticated species, and many were planted decades ago, with current generations of people continuing to plant trees for future generations. Museum researchers have realized that this unique form of sustainable agroforestry is especially important to coastal societies on Papua New Guinea.
Natural disasters in one form or another occur on Papua New Guinea on an annual basis, although some disasters have been significantly more devastating than others. Historical documentation of disasters on the island is lacking, primarily because for many years people maintained only oral histories of such events. In 1937, volcanic eruptions of Vulcan and Matupi, located on New Britain, Papua New Guinea, encouraged volcanologists to establish the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory to monitor volcanoes on the island. The study of earthquakes on and around Papua New Guinea is also relatively recent. Based on historical accounts and modern data collection, at least ten earthquakes greater than magnitude 7.5 occurred on Papua New Guinea between 1900 and 2002.
The most destructive natural disaster on Papua New Guinea occurred in 1998. A landslide in the sea floor triggered a tsunami that devastated the Sissano Lagoon and Aitape district of the Sepik coast. Houses and people were swept to the back of the lagoon and others were carried nearly 1,600 feet inland. More than 2,000 people died and more than 10,000 people were left stranded.
Before the tsunami struck, people on the Sepik coast felt the ground shake. Many people began to evacuate their homes. While some took to their boats in the lagoon or fled inland to swamps and forests, others climbed trees. Although many plants such as sago palms were uprooted, certain trees, such as ironwood, breadfruit, and mango, demonstrated remarkable resilience. Resilience, whether typified as resistance to drought, flood, or other environmental conditions, may have played an important role in the selection of trees by early generations of people on Papua New Guinea for cultivation as long-term sources of food or building material for homes.
Cultivating a Deep History With Papua New Guinea
Following the 1998 tsunami, researchers at the Field Museum collected more then $80,000 in donations to help the recovery of people living along the Sepik coast. This heightened awareness and sensitivity for the welfare of the people of Papua New Guinea has helped researchers at The Field Museum strengthen their relationships with people on the island. New discoveries about the value of friendships, sustainable agroforestry, and the importance of natural disasters in the lives of people on Papua New Guinea have provided valuable insight into the development of societies on the island.
The Field Museum's connections with the people of Papua New Guinea continue to inspire anthropological studies that step outside the realm of traditional methodologies. Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters illustrates the independence and strength of the people of Papua New Guinea, and emphasizes how the unique practices that they have relied on for thousands of years have allowed future generations to survive.