New Guinea

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New Guinea

New Guinea (gĭnˈē), island, c.342,000 sq mi (885,780 sq km), SW Pacific, N of Australia; the world's second largest island after Greenland. Politically it is divided into two sections: the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua in the west and the independent country of Papua New Guinea in the east. The island is c.1,500 mi (2,410 km) long and c.400 mi (640 km) wide at the center.

Largely tropical, New Guinea has vast, rugged mountain ranges such as the Owen Stanley and the Bismarck mts., and many parts of the interior remain quite isolated even today. Jaya Peak (16,503 ft/5,030 m) in Papua is the highest point. The lower courses of the large rivers (the Fly, Sepik, Mamberamo, and Purari) are generally swampy, with a few grassy plains. The inhabitants are Melanesians, Negritos, Papuans, and Malay Indonesians. The fauna consists largely of marsupials and monotremes, with venomous snakes among the reptiles. The island is known for its many unique species of butterflies and birds of paradise. The highly diverse plant life, much of unique to the island, includes mangrove and sandalwood forests. Near Tembagapura are the world's largest copper mines. In addition to copper, gold, silver, and manganese are mined and oil is extracted.

New Guinea is believed to have been settled by people migrating from Southeast Asia sometime before 40,000 years ago. The island's relatively close location to Australia makes New Guinea the likely source for the ancestors of the aborigines on the neighboring continent. A complex patchwork of tribes and peoples, speaking many languages, developed over time, and local agriculture apparently arose independently of outside influence, sometime between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago.

The island was sighted by the Portuguese explorer Antonio d'Abreu in 1511 and was named for its resemblance to the Guinea coast of W Africa. During the next two centuries, the island was visited by Europeans from many nations. In 1828 the Dutch formally annexed the western half of the island, and in 1885 the British proclaimed a protectorate over the southeastern coast and the adjacent islands under the name of British New Guinea; in the same year, the Germans took possession of the northeast. Australia obtained control of British New Guinea in 1905 and renamed it the Territory of Papua.

During World War I, Australian forces occupied the German-controlled region in the northeast, which was mandated to Australia by the League of Nations in 1920. Renamed the Territory of New Guinea, this area became a UN trust territory under Australian control after World War II. The island was the scene of bitter fighting between Japanese and Allied forces. In 1949 the territories of Papua and New Guinea were merged administratively, and in 1973 they were united into a self-governing country. Full independence was gained in 1975. Netherlands New Guinea was transferred to Indonesian administration in 1963 and became a province in 1969, but there has been ongoing resistance to Indonesian rule by many Papuans. Indonesian legislation in 2001 granted Papua limited local autonomy, but national control remains strong there, and the province was subsequently divided into two.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

New Guinea


an island in the Pacific Ocean and the second largest island in the world after Greenland. It lies 150 km north of Australia, from which it is separated by the Torres Strait. On the south it is bounded by the Arafura and Coral seas. Area, 829,000 sq km. Population, about 3.2 million (1971). The western part of the island, called Irian Jaya, is a province of Indonesia; since 1975 the southeastern part has been the state of Papua New Guinea.

Natural features. The coasts are highly indented, particularly in the west and east, forming the large bays of Sarera, Berau, and Huon. On the flat and sandy southern coast is the large Gulf of Papua. The high northern coast is steep in places and has no large protected bays.

TERRAIN. Most of New Guinea is mountainous. A high mountain chain consisting of a series of separate ranges rising to 3,000–4,000 m stretches from west to east across the central part of the country. The highest peak is Mount Djaja (5,029 m) in the Sudirman Mountains. Alpine relief forms are characteristic of the high mountains. At elevations above 4,000 m there are perennial snows and small glaciers covering 14.5 sq km. Along the northern coast stretch the middle-elevation Coastal Mountains (1,000–2,000 m), which descend abruptly to the sea on the Miklukho-Maklai Coast. There are many active volcanoes in the north. The southern part of the island is a vast low-lying plain, hilly in places, intersected by numerous rivers, and very swampy in the southwest. Landslides play an important role in the formation of terrain.

GEOLOGICAL STRUCTURE AND MINERAL RESOURCES. Australian Precambrian and Paleozoic platform structures are found in the south. The folded foundation is composed of Proterozoic metamorphic formations in the southwest and Upper Paleozoic strata breached by granitoids in the southeast. The platform mantle consists of Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic marine deposits. The main ophiolite belt of the Upper Cretaceous and Paleogene is in the Owen Stanley Range. North of the belt lies a Cenozoic geosynclinal zone, composed of Paleogene basalt, andesite, tuffs, and marine sediments. A pre-Miocene zone of ophiolites and a belt of recent geosynclinal strata extend along the northern coast. In the south, the Upper Cretaceous deposits contain oil and gas; the main ophiolite zone, chrome and nickel; and the Owen Stanley Range, copper-sulfide ore.

CLIMATE. The northern half of New Guinea has an equatorial climate, and the southern half a subequatorial climate. Average monthly temperatures on the plains range from 25° to 28°C. In the mountains, with increasing elevation, the climate changes from mountain tropical to nival. There is rainfall throughout the year, with the greatest amount occurring during the northwest summer monsoon (more than 4,000 mm annually; in the mountains more than 6,500 mm). Typhoons are frequent. The southeastern and to some extent the southern parts of the island are affected by the Australian winter monsoon and receive less rainfall. Port Moresby, with an annual precipitation of 1,000 mm, is the “driest” place in New Guinea.

RIVERS. The island’s rivers are notable for their length; the Fly, Mamberamo, Digul, Sepik, and Ramu are more than 500 km long. The rivers rise in the mountains, and as they enter the coastal plains, their valleys widen and currents become slower. They are navigable in their lower course.

SOILS AND FLORA. Red-yellow lateritic soils are found in the lowlands. At elevations of about 1,000 m they are replaced by mountain lateritic, more podzolized soils. Yellow, red, and yellow-brown soils appear at elevations of 2,000–3,000 m. The highest summits have mountain-meadow soils. Destruction of forest vegetation, plowing (frequently along the slopes), strong winds, and typhoon rains have eroded the soil.

The flora of New Guinea is highly diversified. The plains and mountain slopes up to 500–1,000 m are covered with tropical evergreen rain forests with admixtures of palms, bamboos, arborescent ferns, and pandanuses. At elevations of 1,000 m to 2,000 m there-are mountain tropical rain forests containing various species of Araucaria and evergreen beech. High-mountain meadows and growths of pulvinate shrubs are found on the summits. In the south there are tropical swamp forests and sparse forests of eucalyptus and acacia interspersed with savannas. Of New Guinea’s more than 6,800 species of plants, 85 percent are endemic.

FAUNA. New Guinea falls within the Papuan subregion of the Australian zoogeographic region. Among the ancient animals that have survived on the island are the oviparous echidnas and various marsupials—tree kangaroos, cuscuses, bandicoots, and dasyures. There are numerous fruit bats. New Guinea is richer in bird fauna than in any other form of animal life. The island’s 500 species include cassowaries, bower birds, birds of paradise, and parrots. There are many reptiles, particularly geckos, and skinks. Crocodiles inhabit the rivers.

Population. New Guinea is inhabited by several hundred ethnic groups belonging to the Melanesian race, mainly its Papuan branch. The majority of the population speaks the Papuan languages, which are genetically heterogeneous and fall into several groups. In certain regions various Austronesian languages are widely used. Most of the people have converted to Christianity (various Protestant denominations and Catholicism). Some of the inhabitants, however, have retained their traditional beliefs.

Historical survey. New Guinea was discovered in the first half of the 16th century by Portuguese navigators. The Russian scholar and traveler N. N. Miklukho-Maklai explored the island in the 1870’s and 1880’s. In the first half of the 19th century western New Guinea was conquered by the Dutch. (For the subsequent history of this part of the island seeWEST IRIAN.) In 1884, Great Britain established its rule over the southeastern part of the island, and in the early 20th century the area became an Australian colony and was renamed Papua. Germany proclaimed northeastern New Guinea a protectorate. In 1920–21, German New Guinea was transferred to Australia as a League of Nations mandate and renamed the Territory of New Guinea. In 1946 it became a UN trust territory, and later it was administratively united with the Papua colony by Australia. In late 1973, Papua New Guinea was granted autonomy.

Economy. A relatively small part of the island has been developed agriculturally. Yams, taro, cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and bananas are raised, and the natives gather the fruit of the wild breadfruit, sago palm, and other plants. There are plantations of coconut palms, cacao and coffee trees, and rubber plants. Other economic activities include lumbering, oil drilling, fishing, and diving for pearls and trepang. The principal cities and ports are Sorong and Jayapoora in Irian Jaya and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.


Mukhin, G. I. Avstraliia i Okeaniia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1967.
Okeaniia: Spravochnik. Moscow, 1971.
Hastings, P. New Guinea. [Melbourne, 1969.]
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

New Guinea

1. an island in the W Pacific, north of Australia: divided politically into Papua (formerly Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia) in the west and Papua New Guinea in the east. There is a central chain of mountains and a lowland area of swamps in the south and along the Sepik River in the north. Area: 775 213 sq. km (299 310 sq. miles)
2. Trust Territory of. (until 1975) an administrative division of the former Territory of Papua and New Guinea, consisting of the NE part of the island of New Guinea together with the Bismarck Archipelago; now part of Papua New Guinea
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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