Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Prehistoric Stone Sculpture from New Guinea

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

The earliest known works of Oceanic sculpture are a series of ancient stone figures unearthed in various locations on the island of New Guinea, primarily in the mountainous highlands of the interior. To date, no examples have been excavated from a secure archaeological context. Although organic material trapped within a crack in one example has recently been dated to 1500 B.C., firm dating and chronology for the figures are otherwise lacking.


The earliest known works of Oceanic sculpture are a series of ancient stone figures unearthed in various locations on the island of New Guinea, primarily in the mountainous highlands of the interior.


Related

Cited Works of Art or Images (1)

  • The Ambu m Stone

Index Terms (8)

Share

The stone sculptures fall into three basic categories: mortars, pestles, and freestanding figures. The tops of many pestles are adorned with images of human heads, birds, or bird's heads. The mortars display similar anthropomorphic and avian imagery as well as geometric motifs. Freestanding figures include depictions of humans, birds, and phalluses, as well as long-nosed animals that some scholars identify as echidnas (spiny mammals resembling hedgehogs). While the original significance and function of these stone images remain unknown, they possibly represent totemic species or ancestors and were likely used in ritual contexts. When found by contemporary New Guinea peoples, these early stone sculptures are often thought to be of supernatural origin and are reused in a variety of religious contexts, from fertility rituals to hunting magic and sorcery.

Eric Kjellgren
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jennifer Wagelie
Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York

Zoomorphic Figure, Prehistoric period
Ambumb Valley, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea
Graywacke; 7 7/8 x 3 x 5 1/2 in. (20 x 7.5 x 14 cm)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Map of New Guinea showing the highlands region where the majority of the ancient stone figures have been found.