In the history of human expansion, the Austronesian people’s journey to explore the world took place around 5,000 years ago in a vast region. Who might have thought they also left some heritage in West Papua during their long journey? Discover the details in the following paragraphs.
The Multi-Skilled Austronesian Peoples
The Austronesian peoples, also known as Austronesian-speaking peoples, are a massive group of peoples mainly in Taiwan and in Maritime Southeast Asia, coastal New Guinea, Micronesia, Island Melanesia, Madagascar, and Polynesia who speak Austronesian languages. The group includes some ethnic minorities indigenous to Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Comoros, Hainan, and the Torres Strait Islands. These people are collectively known as well as Austronesia.
Today, according to the scientific consensus, these peoples are originally from prehistoric Taiwan. They did a massive migration through the sea—also known as the Austronesian expansion—in more or less 3000-1500 BCE.
Austronesians who had migrated to Melanesia preferred to keep migrating through the sea, and adapting to the environment, i.e., islands and coasts. It was more advantageous because they wouldn’t have to face any obstacles. They were used to dealing with many obstacles and understood the environment of an island and its coastal areas. They would be able to move faster because there was no need to change the maritime culture.
Their mastery of shipping technology in making boats, astronomical knowledge, wind direction, and the skills in organizing long voyages allowed them to spread across a vast area. By limiting the coastal area as a stopover without entering the interior, they could move faster even to farther Pacific region, let alone the prehistoric West Papua.
How Austronesian Speaking Cultures Came Across West Papua
Papua land (including West Papua) has become a crossing route of Austronesian speaking groups approximately 3,500 years ago. With its geographical position, Papua absorbed Melanesian culture from the Pacific and also got some influence from the Austronesians. Remnants of the interaction that mark the presence of Austronesian-Melanesian culture in Papua and related prehistoric traditions can still be found today.
Austronesian immigrants who came to the Pacific settled along the coast. Inhabiting coastal areas seemed to be more interesting than inhabiting inland areas, which requires more labor. Besides, the inland areas had probably been inhabited by the native people there, who might not have been able to accept those Austronesian immigrants.
Based to a leading Australian archaeologist, Professor Matthew Spriggs, in his research, there are several types of artifacts considered to indicate the interaction of Austronesian-speaking cultures and Melanesian people around 3,500 years ago. The artifacts include pottery, polished stone chisels, shell hooks, square pickaxes, conus shell artifacts, ore crushers, square-planned houses, and open villages.
In addition, other cultural elements were allegedly introduced by Austronesian speakers to the Melanesian community inhabiting some areas of West Papua. That includes raising pigs, chickens, and dogs and the tradition of chewing areca nuts. Rock art also shows that this cultural product is more influenced by Austronesian culture in Melanesia. The art distribution that includes scratching and painting turned out to show similar patterns to the distribution of languages in Melanesia and Eastern Indonesia.
What Other Heritage There Are and Where Exactly We Can Find Them
From the Jayapura Archaeological Center (Balai Arkeologi Jayapura) survey, some archaeological remains in Fakfak Regency, West Papua, show traces of Austronesian culture, including rock art on cliff walls and cave walls. Pottery fragments were discovered at Sabiberau Caves in Andamata Village, Sosoraweru Caves in Forir Village, Ondarewa Caves, and Tig-Tig Caves in Goras Village. It is estimated that pottery began to be known in Papua after contact with Austronesian speakers.
On the cliff walls such as Ndamirweru, Aintura, and Fotamramo cliffs, still part of Kokas District, Forir Village, FakFak Regency, West Papua, we can see some interesting paintings by the prehistoric Austronesians. The painting motifs are in the form of handprints, dots, turtles, starfish, fish, humans, masks, and geometric shapes. Most of them were painted in red and yellow coloring.
Moreover, there are also ceramic fragments found in the Old Forir Village (Kampung Lama Forir), based on some observations in the form of bowls and plates. The bowls are from the Ching and Ming dynasties, while the plate fragments are ceramics from Europe. Evaluating the ceramic ornaments, the European ceramics were embellished with a floral ornament, while the Chinese ceramics from the Ming Dynasty were ornamented with geometric shapes. The color of the ornaments on both types of ceramics is blue.
Furthermore, based on the excavation results of the Jayapura Archaeological Center team in Sosoraweru Cave, West Papua, it was concluded that in the past, this cave was used by humans as a place for storing and producing whiting/betel lime from the burning of clamshells in burn clays. Betel lime is a complement when chewing areca nuts, a tradition of Austronesian culture.