The Economic Botany Collection at Kew houses a diverse range of artefacts from the mountainous island of New Guinea, dating from 1847 to the present. This period of time has seen dramatic social change in New Guinea, due to control by foreign colonial powers. Today, the western part of the island, Irian Jaya, is part of the Republic of Indonesia. The eastern part, along with many smaller neighbouring islands, is the independent country of Papua New Guinea.
The island of New Guinea has been continuously inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and is one of the earliest centres of crop cultivation. The area has long been known for its diversity of languages, reflecting the differing ethnic origins in the island's prehistory, and also the harsh geography of the land. Villages only a few kilometres apart may be separated by high mountains or dense jungles. Metal tools were not developed in New Guinea; people traditionally used stone, pottery, plant, bone and shell materials to make their implements. The wheel was also unknown before contact with foreign cultures.
Described by the 20th century poet Karl Shapiro as ‘the last great unknown', New Guinea remained a source of mystery and fascination for Westerners long after other remote parts of the world had given up their secrets. It was not until 1526 that the first European set foot on the island. However, coastal communities had been involved in sea trade with Asian and Polynesian nations for hundreds of years before this date.
The Dutch were the first European power to formally control any part of New Guinea, claiming the western part of the land in 1828 although they did not establish any permanent administrative posts until much later. This part of the island was incorporated as a province of Indonesia in 1963. The eastern part of New Guinea came under European control in 1884 with the British declaring a protectorate over the southern portion (British New Guinea) and the Germans claiming the northern part as German New Guinea. In 1906 administration of British New Guinea was handed over to newly independent Australia, and the German territory also came under Australian control during the First World War. The Australian administered land was renamed Papua New Guinea after the Second World War, and achieved independence in 1975. Tok Pisin, derived mainly from the English language, now provides a common tongue for even the remoter parts of this country.
Although the Economic Botany Collection contains a small selection of New Guinea artefacts compared to anthropological museums, there are many interesting items which have been collected over the years. European colonial expansion was largely driven by the desire to find natural resources with commercial value such as spices and timber, and there was therefore a great deal of interest in the native flora of the areas visited.
The collection contains seeds, leaves and wood samples from many different species of plant which were thought to be potentially useful. There are also many artefacts such as clothing and tools made from plant material.