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Radiocarbon Dates Reveal That New Guinea Art Is Older Than Thought

October 13, 2005
University of Arizona
Preliminary results from the first large-scale dating project on New Guinean art challenge assumptions that the objects have been around only a few generations.

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

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

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

Two years ago, John Friede asked UA scientists to date some of themasterpieces at the university's National Science Foundation - ArizonaAccelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) facility in Tucson. Hodgins visitedthe Friedes's Long Island Sound home three times last year to sample145 objects now among the Jolika Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hodgins, an assistant research scientist at the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, isalso a UA assistant professor of anthropology who earned his doctorateat the University of Oxford in 1999. He contacted Chris Gosden, curatorat the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England, and an anthropologist whospecializes in the archaeology and anthropology of New Guinea and itssurrounding islands.

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

Clearly, art and artifacts like those found in the Jolika Collectionhave influenced European art and culture, Hodgins said. Even the casualobserver can see the resemblance in trends in early 20th century Frenchand German painting and sculpture, he said, so that much New Guineanart seems simultaneously exotic and familiar to those from Westerncultures.

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


The NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, established at UA in 1981, is a shared facility between the departments of physics and geosciences.

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University of Arizona. "Radiocarbon Dates Reveal That New Guinea Art Is Older Than Thought." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 October 2005. <>.
University of Arizona. (2005, October 13). Radiocarbon Dates Reveal That New Guinea Art Is Older Than Thought. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 23, 2017 from
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