Kuk Swamp, in the Wahgi Valley (Western Highlands Province), has evidence of 20, 000 years of human habitation. Gardening began 9000 years ago, which makes Papua New Guineans among the world’s first farmers.
In 1930, after gold rushes in Wau and Bulolo, Mick Leahy and Mick Dwyer came to the Highlands searching for gold, and walked into the previously ‘undiscovered’ Eastern Highlands.
In 1933 Leahy returned with his brother Dan and they stumbled upon the huge, fertile and heavily populated Wahgi Valley. After aerial reconnaissance, they walked in with a large, well-supplied patrol.
The film First Contact includes original footage of this patrol by Mick Leahy and is a priceless record of the first interaction between Highlanders and Europeans.
Missionaries followed the Leahy brothers, and government stations were built near present-day Mt Hagen and in the Simbu Valley, near present-day Kundiawa. The first patrol built an airstrip at Mt Hagen. However, gold was never found in great quantities.
Not until the 1950s were changes felt, and even then many areas remained largely unaffected until the 1960s and ’70s. The construction of the Highlands Hwy had a huge impact on the Highlanders lives, as did the introduction of cash crops, particularly coffee. The Highlanders had long been traders and skilful gardeners, and adapted to the cash economy with remarkable speed.
The dense population and cultural differences have caused some problems, however. Ritual warfare has always been an integral part of Highlands life and to this day payback feuds and land disputes can erupt into major conflicts – Highlanders are volatile and passionate people.