Rare Bird-Shaped Pestle Pommel, Central Highlands, Papua New Guinea,
ca. 4000 - 1000 B.C.
Stone (hornblende schist)
height 7 1/2in (19cm)
Found buried in Enga Province
Private Collection, East Coast
In the Central Highlands comparable winged bird pestles are known from the eastern part of Enga, the Western Highlands, Simbu and the Schrader Range area of Madang Province. These finds mark the extent of a prehistoric trade network that extended into the Central Highlands from the former Sepik-Ramu inland sea. Finds from coastal areas, including the former shoreline and islands of the Sepik-Ramu inland sea, the Madang coast, West New Britain, and Oro and Western provinces indicate that the ritual and bird imagery that gave rise to these artifacts had a wide coastal distribution.
No stone pestles have been recovered from datable archaeological contexts in Papua New Guinea, but mortar finds date between about 8000 and 3000 BP. The trade from the shores of the former Sepik-Ramu inland sea into the highlands would have ceased when the sea disappeared about 4000 BP.
The distribution of mortars and pestles within Papua New Guinea is limited to areas suitable for gardening and it is likely they were used in gardening magic and associated rituals in which starchy puddings were consumed. Many of the finds from the highlands, like this example, consist of the pommel since the stem had broken in prehistoric times.
Concerned about the authenticity of this pestle, the current owner arranged for a petrographic study. Samples cut from the base of the shaft show that when it was no longer used as a pestle the artifact was exposed to natural weathering for a long time. The surface is heavily weathered whereas the core of the shaft is not. During weathering feldspars have transformed into clay and iron oxides have reprecipitated to produce a superficial brown colour on the surface of the artifact.
In the Central Highlands until about 1970, stone pestles and mortars found when gardening or exposed by erosion were incorporated as magic stones into local cults. When not in use these 'ritually powerful' artifacts were often cached in the ground or kept in men's houses.
Dr. Pamela Swadling
School of Culture, History and Language
College of Asia and the Pacific
Australian National University
Swadling, P. and R. Hide 2005. Changing landscape and social interaction: Looking at agricultural history from a Sepik-Ramu perspective.
Pawley, A., R. Attenborough, J. Golson and R. Hide (eds.). 2005. Papuan Pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples. Australian National University: Pacific Linguistics, pp. 289-327.
Swadling, P and Polly Wiessner and Akii Tumu 2008. Prehistoric stone artifacts from Enga and the implications of links between the highlands, lowlands and islands for early agriculture in Papua New Guinea. Journal de la Société des Océanistes 126-127: 271-292.
Torrence, R. and P. Swadling 2008. Social networks and the spread of Lapita. Antiquity 82: 600-616.