Archeological evidence indicates that humans arrived on New Guinea at
least 60,000 years ago, probably by sea from Southeast Asia during an Ice
Age period when the sea was lower and distances between islands shorter.
Although the first arrivals were hunters and gatherers, early evidence
shows that people managed the forest environment to provide food. There
also are indications of gardening having been practiced at the same time
that agriculture was developing in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Early garden
crops--many of which are indigenous--included sugarcane, Pacific bananas,
yams, and taros, while sago and pandanus were two commonly exploited native
forest crops. Today's staples--sweet potatoes and pigs--are later arrivals,
but shellfish and fish have long been mainstays of coastal dwellers' diets.
When Europeans first arrived, inhabitants of New Guinea and nearby islands--while
still relying on bone, wood, and stone tools--had a productive agricultural
system. They traded along the coast, where products mainly were pottery,
shell ornaments, and foodstuffs, and in the interior, where forest products
were exchanged for shells and other sea products.
The first Europeans to sight New Guinea were probably the Portuguese
and Spanish navigators sailing in the South Pacific in the early part of
the 16th century. In 1526-27, Don Jorge de Meneses accidentally came upon
the principal island and is credited with naming it "Papua," a Malay word
for the frizzled quality of Melanesian hair. The term "New Guinea" was
applied to the island in 1545 by a Spaniard, Ynigo Ortis de Retez, because
of a fancied resemblance between the islands' inhabitants and those found
on the African Guinea coast. Although European navigators visited the islands
and explored their coastlines for the next 170 years, little was known
of the inhabitants until the late 19th century.
With Europe's growing need for coconut oil, Godeffroy's of Hamburg,
the largest trading firm in the Pacific, began trading for copra in the
New Guinea Islands. In 1884, Germany formally took possession of the northeast
quarter of the island and put its administration in the hands of a chartered
company. In 1899, the German imperial government assumed direct control
of the territory, thereafter known as German New Guinea. In 1914, Australian
troops occupied German New Guinea, and it remained under Australian military
control until 1921. The British Government, on behalf of the Commonwealth
of Australia, assumed a mandate from the League of Nations for governing
the Territory of New Guinea in 1920. It was administered under this mandate
until the Japanese invasion in December 1941 brought about the suspension
of Australian civil administration. Following the surrender of the Japanese
in 1945, civil administration of Papua as well as New Guinea was restored,
and under the Papua New Guinea Provisional Administration Act, 1945-46,
Papua and New Guinea were combined in an administrative union.
On November 6, 1884, a British protectorate was proclaimed over the
southern coast of New Guinea (the area called Papua) and its adjacent islands.
The protectorate, called British New Guinea, was annexed outright on September
4, 1888. The possession was placed under the authority of the Commonwealth
of Australia in 1902. Following the passage of the Papua Act of 1905, British
New Guinea became the Territory of Papua, and formal Australian administration
began in 1906. Papua was administered under the Papua Act until it was
invaded by the Japanese in 1941, and civil administration suspended. During
the war, Papua was governed by a military administration from Port Moresby,
where Gen. Douglas MacArthur occasionally made his headquarters. As noted,
it was later joined in an administrative union with New Guinea during 1945-46
following the surrender of Japan.
The Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949 formally approved the placing of
New Guinea under the international trusteeship system and confirmed the
administrative union of New Guinea and Papua under the title of "The Territory
of Papua and New Guinea." The act provided for a Legislative Council (established
in 1951), a judicial organization, a public service, and a system of local
government. A House of Assembly replaced the Legislative Council in 1963,
and the first House of Assembly opened on June 8, 1964. In 1972, the name
of the territory was changed to Papua New Guinea.
Elections in 1972 resulted in the formation of a ministry headed by
Chief Minister Michael Somare, who pledged to lead the country to self-government
and then to independence. Papua New Guinea became self-governing in December
1973 and achieved independence on September 16, 1975. The 1977 national
elections confirmed Michael Somare as Prime Minister at the head of a coalition
led by the Pangu Party. However, his government lost a vote of confidence
in 1980 and was replaced by a new cabinet headed by Sir Julius Chan as
Prime Minister. The 1982 elections increased Pangu's plurality, and parliament
again chose Somare as Prime Minister. In November 1985, the Somare government
lost a vote of no confidence, and the parliamentary majority elected Paias
Wingti, at the head of a five-party coalition, as Prime Minister. A coalition,
headed by Wingti, was victorious in very close elections in July 1987.
In July 1988, a no-confidence vote toppled Wingti and brought to power
Rabbie Namaliu, who a few weeks earlier had replaced Somare as leader of
the Pangu Party.
Such reversals of fortune and a revolving-door succession of Prime Ministers
continue to characterize Papua New Guinea's national politics. A plethora
of political parties, coalition governments, shifting party loyalties and
motions of no confidence in the leadership all lend an air of instability
to political proceedings.
The last national election was held in June 2002. The election was characterized
by a 75 percent turnover in sitting members of Parliament. A number of
veteran politicians lost their seats and a number of independents were
elected. The government was formed by a coalition of several parties. Sir
Michael Somare, the leader of the Melanesian Alliance (and the nation’s
first Prime Minister in 1975), was elected Prime Minister.
By mid-2002 Papua New Guinea’s economy was in crisis. Unbudgeted pre-election
spending blew out the projected government deficit to about 8% of GDP,
though a new government has set a target of 3.4% for the year. Serious
problems of corruption, a lack of law and order, land tenure, political
interference in businesses, and a lack of will to adapt meaningful structural
reforms have compounded poor fiscal results and caused the PNG economy
to shrink substantially in recent years. GDP has declined (in current U.S.
dollars) from $4.9 billion in 1997 to $3 billion in 2001. Mining output
and oil production have led the slide, and with no exploration or capital
spending occurring in these sectors the related export earnings are expected
to continue to fall, eroding foreign currency reserves and the balance
of trade. Papua New Guinea’s currency, the Kina, has been eroding in value
and the pressure on it continues, with capital flight and frustrated development
partners (and subsequently reduced aid flows) exacerbating a declining
situation. If the government continues to delay necessary reforms, more
damage and loss to the economy will occur.
On Bougainville Island, a rebellion had been underway from early 1989
until a truce came into effect in October 1997 and a permanent cease-fire
was signed in April 1998. A peace agreement between the Government and
ex-combatants was signed in August 2001. Under the eyes of a regional peace-monitoring
force and a UN observer mission, the government and provincial leaders
have established an interim administration and are working toward complete
surrender of weapons, the election of a provincial government and an eventual
referendum on independence.