History of PNG

Papua New Guinea History

Human remains have been found in Papua New Guinea that date back to about 50,000 years ago. These ancient inhabitants of Papua New Guinea probably had their origins in Southeast Asia, themselves originating in Africa 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. New Guinea (as it used to be known), one of the first landmasses after Africa and Eurasia to be populated by modern humans, had its first migration at about the same time as Australia.

Agriculture was independently developed in the New Guinea highlands around 7,000 BC, making it one of the few areas of original plant domestication in the world. A major migration of Austronesia speaking peoples came to coastal regions roughly 2,500 years ago, along with the introduction of pottery, pigs, and certain fishing techniques. Some 300 years ago, the sweet potato entered New Guinea with its far higher crop yields transforming traditional agriculture.  It largely supplanted the previous staple, taro, and gave rise to a significant increase in population in the highlands.

In the past, headhunting and cannibalism occurred in many parts of what is now named Papua New Guinea. By the early 1950s, through administration and mission pressures, open cannibalism had almost entirely ceased. Europeans to sight Papua New Guinea first were probably Portuguese and Spanish navigators sailing in the South Pacific in the early 16th century. The principal island of Papua New Guinea was discovered around 1526-27 by Don Jorge de Meneses. Although European navigators visited and explored the Papua New Guinea islands for the next 170 years, little was known of the Papua New Guinea inhabitants until the late 19th century.

Early Settlement – New Guinea

The northern half of the country came into German hands in 1884 as German New Guinea. 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. That mandate was administered by the Australian Government until the Japanese invasion in December 1941 brought about its suspension. 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 to become the country of Papua New Guinea.


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 the Japanese invaded the northern parts of the islands in 1941 and began to advance on Port Moresby and civil administration was 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, and Papua New Guinea was born.

Colonisation of Papua New Guinea

During World War I, Papua New Guinea was occupied by Australia, which had begun administering British New Guinea, the southern part, as the re-named Papua in 1904. After World War I, Australia was given a mandate to administer the former German New Guinea by the League of Nations.

Papua, by contrast, was deemed to be an External Territory of the Australian Commonwealth, though as a matter of law it remained a British possession, an issue which had significance for the country’s post-Independence legal system after 1975. This difference in legal status meant that Papua and New Guinea had entirely separate administrations, both controlled by Australia.

The New Guinea campaign (1942-1945) was one of the major military campaigns of World War II. Approximately 216,000 Japanese, Australian andAmerican soldiers, sailors and airmen died during the New Guinea Campaign. The two territories were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea after World War II, which later was simply referred to as “Papua New Guinea”. The Administration of Papua became open to United Nations oversight.