Radiocarbon dates reveal that New Guinea art is older than thought

10/12/05

When the de Young Museum reopens in a new, earthquake-resistant building in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park next Saturday, Oct. 15, it will debut what curators consider the largest and most important private collection of New Guinea art in the world.

Gregory W. L. Hodgins and A. J. Timothy Jull of The University of Arizona will attend the gala event. The scientists have radiocarbon dated some of the collection that New York-based entrepreneur John Friede and his wife, Marcia, are giving to the de Young Museum as the Jolika Collection.

The Friedes amassed an unparalleled collection of almost 3,000 objects from the South Pacific island of New Guinea during the past 40 years. Many of the pieces were originally collected during European anthropological expeditions into New Guinea in the early 20th century.

Two years ago, John Friede asked UA scientists to date some of the masterpieces at the university's National Science Foundation - Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) facility in Tucson. Hodgins visited the Friedes's Long Island Sound home three times last year to sample 145 objects now among the Jolika Collection.

Results of this first large-scale dating project on New Guinean art and artifacts are preliminary, Hodgins and Jull say. But their findings so far have stunned museum curators and anthropologists. Their findings challenge previous assumptions that such objects are inherently ephemeral, perhaps surviving only a few generations.

Of the objects dated, 78 contain wood that pre-dates the 18th century and 33 contain wood older than 1670 A.D. "A small percentage of this collection are pieces that are very old -- 600, 700, 800 years and older," Hodgins said. The oldest mask in the collection dated at between 660 A.D. and 860 A.D. "These measured ages imply that a few of the objects were in use for more like 50 to 100 generations."

Humans first occupied New Guinea 35,000 years ago, according to the earliest archaeological records. People sparsely populated the landscape for most of that time, living as hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. But with the introduction of the sweet potato 400 years ago, according to archaeological and ethnographic evidence, the population exploded dramatically and diversified to the point where New Guinea has the highest cultural and linguistic diversity in the world.

"The significance of objects now in the de Young Museum is that they offer a glimpse at the time before this agricultural revolution began," Hodgins said.

"The ages for this art totally change the bias that says Stone Age peoples living in isolated communities do not develop art with that kind of complexity," Jull, director of the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, said.

"It is a tribute to John Friede's vision that he thought seriously about dating his collection," Hodgins said. "It's not customary to radiocarbon date these materials. In fact, when I initially talked to John, I told him that I didn't think it was a particularly good application of this method, because he assumed that most of the pieces were probably less than 500 years old. New Guinea is a tropical environment, where wood decays rapidly. Also, radiocarbon dating doesn't work very well over the last 500 years because of a combination of natural and man-made phenomena. But this is certainly going to make museums from all over the world think about dating their collections."

Hodgins, an assistant research scientist at the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, is also a UA assistant professor of anthropology who earned his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 1999. He contacted Chris Gosden, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England, and an anthropologist who specializes in the archaeology and anthropology of New Guinea and its surrounding islands.

"Chris agreed that the dates, if correct, are absolutely extraordinary and will have a significant impact on the New Guinean people as well as the region's anthropology and archaeology."

Clearly, art and artifacts like those found in the Jolika Collection have influenced European art and culture, Hodgins said. Even the casual observer can see the resemblance in trends in early 20th century French and German painting and sculpture, he said, so that much New Guinean art seems simultaneously exotic and familiar to those from Western cultures.

Scientists at the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab need only milligrams of material - wood shavings, in this case - for radiocarbon dating. They burn the sample and use a huge machine called an accelerator mass spectrometer to measure how much radioactive carbon, or carbon 14, is present in the carbon dioxide given off by combustion. The researchers convert the carbon 14 measurement to calendar dates by comparing the amount of radiocarbon in the sample to radiocarbon contained in tree rings of known calendar years.

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