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AHC/PC: Could New Guinea believably be the most populous island on Earth?

SinghSong

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New Guinea (aka 'Papua', and historically as 'Irian'- which means "to rise" or "Rising Spirit", in the Biak language and several others) is the world's second-largest island, behind only Greenland; the largest island in the Southern Hemisphere, and the largest in the equatorial region by a considerable margin. Formerly part of the tectonic continent of Sahul, aka Greater Australia, before being separated when the area now known as the Torres Strait flooded after the end of the last glacial period (echoing the parallel contemporary partitions of the British Isles and Japanese archipelagos from their respective mainlands at roughly the same time), New Guinea can be differentiated from its far drier, flatter and less fertile southern counterpart, Australia, by its much higher rainfall and its active volcanic geology. The New Guinea Highlands dominates the geography of New Guinea, stretching over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) across the island, with many mountains over 4,000 m (13,100 ft). The western half of the island contains the highest mountains in Oceania, with its highest point, Puncak Jaya, reaching an elevation of 4,884 m (16,023 ft). The tree line today is around 4,000 m (13,100 ft) elevation (roughly the same as the ice-cap line back during the last Ice Age), and the tallest peaks still contain the vestiges of retreating equatorial glaciers.

Except in high elevations, most areas possess a warm humid climate throughout the year, with some seasonal variation associated with the northeast monsoon season. And another major habitat feature is the vast southern and northern lowlands. Stretching for hundreds of kilometres, these include lowland rainforests, extensive wetlands, savanna grasslands, and some of the largest expanses of mangrove forest in the world. The northern lowlands are drained principally by the Mamberamo River and its tributaries on the western side, and by the Sepik on the eastern side. The more extensive southern lowlands are drained by a larger number of rivers, principally the Digul in the west and the Fly in the east. The largest island offshore, Dolak, lies near the Digul estuary, separated by a strait so narrow and shallow it has been named a "creek", which frequently seasonally gets bridged by mudbanks. New Guinea contains many of the world's ecosystem types, including glacial, alpine tundra, savanna, montane and lowland rainforest, mangroves, wetlands, lake and river ecosystems, seagrasses, and some of the richest coral reefs on the planet. And New Guinea also has immense biodiversity, containing between 5 and 10 percent of the total species on the planet- about the same amount as those found in the United States, or the entirety of continental Australia. A high percentage of New Guinea's species are endemic, and thousands are still unknown to science; with New Guinea considered 'nearly a continent' in terms of its biological distinctiveness.

Human habitation on the island dates to as early as 50,000 BC, and first settlement possibly dating back to 60,000 years ago, with the island having also been one of the world's oldest and most established centers of agriculture- sugarcane, bananas, taro, breadfruit, coconuts and any number of other now-global crops were first cultivated and grown here. And IOTL, the island is populated by almost a thousand different tribal groups and a near-equivalent number of separate languages, which makes New Guinea the most linguistically diverse area in the world; with a current population estimated at around 15M now (having roughly doubled from around 7.5M at the turn of the century, experiencing a massive ongoing population boom right now IRL), and among the highest rates of food, agricultural land and water abundance per capita of any landmass in the world. Regarding renewable internal freshwater resources alone, the island of New Guinea possesses over 1/40th, 2.5% of all of the total available freshwater in the entire world- Papua New Guinea alone receives more freshwater on an annual basis than both Australia and New Zealand combined, and New Guinea as a whole receives just over half as much freshwater per annum as the entirety of China (including Taiwan) does; roughly on a par with the amount received by the entirety of India excluding the North East Region ('NER', connected to the rest of India via the narrow Siliguri Corridor).

So bearing all of these factors in mind, just how high a population do you feel that the island of New Guinea could conceivably sustain, in an alternate history scenario? For instance, in an New Guinea-wank alternate history series I've been tentatively working on for a couple of years now, in which the Papuans effectively 'do a Japan' extremely early on (with the Austronesian expansion, c.3,000-3,500ya, effectively kicking off the transition from their equivalent of the Jomon period- which the Papuans, for the most part, effectively never left IOTL- to the island's Yayoi period equivalent, at roughly the same time that the Japanese do both ITTL and IOTL, and the levels of societal development there more-or-less keeping pace with those on the Japanese archipelago from then onward), how plausible would it be, in your opinion, for my TL's New Guinea to have a population density comparable to those of OTL's Sri Lanka, Japan and the Philippines (which would translate to a total population, for the main island, of 260-270M)? Would it require any suspension of belief?
 

Ricardolindo

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Portugal
New Guinea (aka 'Papua', and historically as 'Irian'- which means "to rise" or "Rising Spirit", in the Biak language and several others) is the world's second-largest island, behind only Greenland; the largest island in the Southern Hemisphere, and the largest in the equatorial region by a considerable margin. Formerly part of the tectonic continent of Sahul, aka Greater Australia, before being separated when the area now known as the Torres Strait flooded after the end of the last glacial period (echoing the parallel contemporary partitions of the British Isles and Japanese archipelagos from their respective mainlands at roughly the same time), New Guinea can be differentiated from its far drier, flatter and less fertile southern counterpart, Australia, by its much higher rainfall and its active volcanic geology. The New Guinea Highlands dominates the geography of New Guinea, stretching over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) across the island, with many mountains over 4,000 m (13,100 ft). The western half of the island contains the highest mountains in Oceania, with its highest point, Puncak Jaya, reaching an elevation of 4,884 m (16,023 ft). The tree line today is around 4,000 m (13,100 ft) elevation (roughly the same as the ice-cap line back during the last Ice Age), and the tallest peaks still contain the vestiges of retreating equatorial glaciers.

Except in high elevations, most areas possess a warm humid climate throughout the year, with some seasonal variation associated with the northeast monsoon season. And another major habitat feature is the vast southern and northern lowlands. Stretching for hundreds of kilometres, these include lowland rainforests, extensive wetlands, savanna grasslands, and some of the largest expanses of mangrove forest in the world. The northern lowlands are drained principally by the Mamberamo River and its tributaries on the western side, and by the Sepik on the eastern side. The more extensive southern lowlands are drained by a larger number of rivers, principally the Digul in the west and the Fly in the east. The largest island offshore, Dolak, lies near the Digul estuary, separated by a strait so narrow and shallow it has been named a "creek", which frequently seasonally gets bridged by mudbanks. New Guinea contains many of the world's ecosystem types, including glacial, alpine tundra, savanna, montane and lowland rainforest, mangroves, wetlands, lake and river ecosystems, seagrasses, and some of the richest coral reefs on the planet. And New Guinea also has immense biodiversity, containing between 5 and 10 percent of the total species on the planet- about the same amount as those found in the United States, or the entirety of continental Australia. A high percentage of New Guinea's species are endemic, and thousands are still unknown to science; with New Guinea considered 'nearly a continent' in terms of its biological distinctiveness.

Human habitation on the island dates to as early as 50,000 BC, and first settlement possibly dating back to 60,000 years ago, with the island having also been one of the world's oldest and most established centers of agriculture- sugarcane, bananas, taro, breadfruit, coconuts and any number of other now-global crops were first cultivated and grown here. And IOTL, the island is populated by almost a thousand different tribal groups and a near-equivalent number of separate languages, which makes New Guinea the most linguistically diverse area in the world; with a current population estimated at around 15M now (having roughly doubled from around 7.5M at the turn of the century, experiencing a massive ongoing population boom right now IRL), and among the highest rates of food, agricultural land and water abundance per capita of any landmass in the world. Regarding renewable internal freshwater resources alone, the island of New Guinea possesses over 1/40th, 2.5% of all of the total available freshwater in the entire world- Papua New Guinea alone receives more freshwater on an annual basis than both Australia and New Zealand combined, and New Guinea as a whole receives just over half as much freshwater per annum as the entirety of China (including Taiwan) does; roughly on a par with the amount received by the entirety of India excluding the North East Region ('NER', connected to the rest of India via the narrow Siliguri Corridor).

So bearing all of these factors in mind, just how high a population do you feel that the island of New Guinea could conceivably sustain, in an alternate history scenario? For instance, in an New Guinea-wank alternate history series I've been tentatively working on for a couple of years now, in which the Papuans effectively 'do a Japan' extremely early on (with the Austronesian expansion, c.3,000-3,500ya, effectively kicking off the transition from their equivalent of the Jomon period- which the Papuans, for the most part, effectively never left IOTL- to the island's Yayoi period equivalent, at roughly the same time that the Japanese do both ITTL and IOTL, and the levels of societal development there more-or-less keeping pace with those on the Japanese archipelago from then onward), how plausible would it be, in your opinion, for my TL's New Guinea to have a population density comparable to those of OTL's Sri Lanka, Japan and the Philippines (which would translate to a total population, for the main island, of 260-270M)? Would it require any suspension of belief?
A problem is the lack of communication between the coast and the Highlands because of the jungle and the mountains. Indeed, until the 30s, the coastal Papuans, themselves, thought the Highlands were uninhabited.
 

SinghSong

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A problem is the lack of communication between the coast and the Highlands because of the jungle and the mountains. Indeed, until the 30s, the coastal Papuans, themselves, thought the Highlands were uninhabited.
Can that problem be partially resolved via river navigation and transportation, the solution employed on similarly mountainous nearby islands like Java?
 

SenatorChickpea

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It could be ameliorated, to a degree, but it's hard to overstate just how dense the terrain is. There's not much in the way of natural river arteries- a few run north and south from the highlands, but the mountains are so hard to cross that even if you get into the valleys on one side it's very difficult to make it to the next coast. Nor are there any easy routes east-west.

One obvious question is where are they getting the metal to fuel this development? New Guinea has plenty to mine, but almost none that's practical to access by a pre-industrial society.

I think that what's working against you is that there's so much of everything, and that means it's hard to work out a model of settlement- there's rainforest, but not enough on flat land to use agricultural methods from the Amazon or Congo. There's rivers, but not as navigable as the ones in western Indonesia. Highlands that don't have the ease of access to the next valley that allows an Inca-analogue to dominate from the heights.

I can imagine a higher population, but in the hundreds of million? The vastly more developed islands of Sumatra, Java (and even Borneo!) never came anywhere close- and I feel that in a 'developed New Guinea' scenario you want to be using societies like Majapahit as your model not Japan.

It's a fascinating scenario- and a Melanesian society that achieves that level of development is going to have powerful consequences for thousands of kilometres. But my instinct that you're still going to see an urban civilisation that is, on aggregate, poorer and smaller than the empires of western Indonesia. That will remain true in the modern day, too, unless it somehow avoids European colonisation- though I still think a population in the hundreds of million is right out.

Still, the possible impact across the Torres Strait and in places like the Empire of Tonga boggles the mind....
 

SinghSong

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It could be ameliorated, to a degree, but it's hard to overstate just how dense the terrain is. There's not much in the way of natural river arteries- a few run north and south from the highlands, but the mountains are so hard to cross that even if you get into the valleys on one side it's very difficult to make it to the next coast. Nor are there any easy routes east-west.
Remember though, New Guinea's a big place. And some places have markedly less dense, and less mountainous, terrain than others:


Comparing the two islands with one another, does the Trans-Fly Savannah, along with the adjoining pristine Southern New Guinea Rainforests and Swamp Forests, seem like it'd be so much more mountainous or hard to cross than the neolithic-era Kanto or Kansai Plains, over on Honshu?

One obvious question is where are they getting the metal to fuel this development? New Guinea has plenty to mine, but almost none that's practical to access by a pre-industrial society.
Are you sure? I was under the impression that there were a number of metals which were relatively abundant and easy to mine there- with the majority of the oldest, most profit-making gold, silver and copper mines there being open-pit mines, and thus relatively simple to extract even for pre-industrial societies (perhaps even more so- since the primary issue today, that of mass transportation and the relative lack of infrastructure to do so, would be far less of an issue for small-scale pre-industrial metal extraction, production and trading). And New Guinea's also supposed to have some of the world's largest and most abundant reserves of nickel (making up somewhat for the near-total absence of tin) and cobalt too, along with decent quantities of iron. Also worth mentioning- the primary tree domesticated and utilized by the PNG Highlanders for permaculture, Casuarina oligodon, a tall, sturdy native ironwood tree with root nodules that fix nitrogen, has also recently been identified as the most productive and efficient source of high-quality organic charcoal yet known. So their blacksmiths and metalworkers'd have that going for them too...

I think that what's working against you is that there's so much of everything, and that means it's hard to work out a model of settlement- there's rainforest, but not enough on flat land to use agricultural methods from the Amazon or Congo. There's rivers, but not as navigable as the ones in western Indonesia. Highlands that don't have the ease of access to the next valley that allows an Inca-analogue to dominate from the heights.

I can imagine a higher population, but in the hundreds of million? The vastly more developed islands of Sumatra, Java (and even Borneo!) never came anywhere close- and I feel that in a 'developed New Guinea' scenario you want to be using societies like Majapahit as your model not Japan.
I mean, looking at it in terms of population density, even if TTL's New Guinea were only as developed and densely populated as OTL's contemporary Sumatra, given its far greater size and land area, that'd still give it a population of 97M, which'd still be enough to lift it up into 3rd place today (far above Great Britain, a few million short of Honshu). You'd think that its extra size could count for something...

It's a fascinating scenario- and a Melanesian society that achieves that level of development is going to have powerful consequences for thousands of kilometres. But my instinct that you're still going to see an urban civilisation that is, on aggregate, poorer and smaller than the empires of western Indonesia. That will remain true in the modern day, too, unless it somehow avoids European colonisation- though I still think a population in the hundreds of million is right out.

Still, the possible impact across the Torres Strait and in places like the Empire of Tonga boggles the mind....
Is it necessarily a given that it (/they- given the far vaster size and diversity of its population and cultures IOTL, not so sure if the island'll ever be unified under a single urbanized civilization in my TL) would be "on aggregate, poorer and smaller than the empires of western Indonesia", though? I wasn't just thinking about places like the Empire of Tonga- the Maluku/'Spice Islands' are directly adjacent, after all, just a short distance off the mainland. And the primary source of the Majapahit's rise to power and dominance was as the established primary supplier of food and grains to the Sultanates of Spice Islands, along with the trade which flowed along the Maritime Silk Road.

If one or more New Guinea-based kingdoms can usurp that role (perhaps even seizing control over the Maluku Islands themselves, or even vice-versa), then who's to say that by the 10th to 13th centuries, when the Song Dynasty of China starts building its own trading fleets and sending trading expeditions to the region they referred to as 'Nan hai', whilst they only ventured as far south-east as the Sulu Sea and the Java Sea IOTL, they won't venture further ITTL, and permanently link New Guinea into TTL's Maritime Silk Road? And as the crux point, with the clear potential to control any further trade access to the remainder of Melanesia, Austronesia, and mainland Australia from there, why couldn't a Majapahit analogue (if we were to use that as our model rather than Japan) be a lot bigger, wealthier and more successful?
 

SenatorChickpea

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Comparing the two islands with one another, does the Trans-Fly Savannah, along with the adjoining pristine Southern New Guinea Rainforests and Swamp Forests, seem like it'd be so much more mountainous or hard to cross than the neolithic-era Kanto or Kansai Plains, over on Honshu?
New Guinea is much, much harder to cross with twenty first century technology than any other island across the greater Indonesian chain. It's really hard to overstate just how tough country it is- I haven't lived there myself, but I know people who've worked construction up there and the problems with trying to get roads and material into the hills is extreme.

Are you sure? I was under the impression that there were a number of metals which were relatively abundant and easy to mine there..
There's a lot of materiel, no question about that. But my understanding was that it's fairly hard to access- my knowledge is pretty limited, based on my reading of account of British, Australian (and a few translated German) accounts of trying to get mines and plantations running. They're pretty universally consistent on the fact that it was damn hard to get to the metal even with early twentieth century equipment, and again and again the same problem comes up- the lack of any infrastructure to get there.

That matters because even if we handwave away the problem of getting stuff to the coasts because we assume that this hypothetical urban civilisation is primarily located inland, and will have different infrastructure needs than an extractive imperial regime, that still raises the question of how you get a metal-using settled civilisation that has the capacity to set up the mines in the first place.

I mean, looking at it in terms of population density, even if TTL's New Guinea were only as developed and densely populated as OTL's contemporary Sumatra, given its far greater size and land area, that'd still give it a population of 97M, which'd still be enough to lift it up into 3rd place today (far above Great Britain, a few million short of Honshu). You'd think that its extra size could count for something...
Not really. It's a really hard place to start an agricultural revolution.


And as the crux point, with the clear potential to control any further trade access to the remainder of Melanesia, Austronesia, and mainland Australia from there, why couldn't a Majapahit analogue (if we were to use that as our model rather than Japan) be a lot bigger, wealthier and more successful?
They can get rich from linking into the far end of the spice trade, and depending on if there's a further commercial and agricultural revolution happening through the South-West Pacific that trade could be lucrative. Competing in the Malukus will definitely help.

But, even with some sort of transformation in the Pacific I just don't see them overtaking Majapahit- the western polities had the massive advantage of a strategic location vis a vis the Indian Ocean trade, which was worth far, far more than the trade with Australia. Now, overtime the eastern trade networks could become much more lucrative than they were in our timeline- pearling off the northern coast of Oz, Cowrie, possibly greenstone if the Maori are reconnected...

But I just don't see how that compensates for Java and Sumatra's better agrarian land and easier access to the riches of China, India and South-East Asia.
 

Coiler

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I think having twice the population of present OTL Java is a little er... fanciful, but I love the idea of a far more populated and developed New Guinea. I'm wondering how linguistically homogenous it would become.
 

Jared

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Hey, you know who you want in this thread?

@Jared.
You rang?

My initial thoughts are similar to yours: the geography of New Guinea seriously, seriously needs to be considered for any higher population. Another tidbit floating at the back of my mind (can't recall a source) is that sago cultivation was more productive - either per worker or per acre, not sure - than the other crops available in lowland New Guinea, which was another disincentive to switch any areas of sago production to other forms of agriculture.

So any expanded population probably needs both new crops and a source of metals from elsewhere for metal tools for more efficient land clearing and farming. As noted upthread, the ores in New Guinea aren't really suitable for large-scale extraction with preindustrial technology. We're probably looking at a lowland polity which expands overseas or by sea to other parts of New Guinea, not travel through the interior. Depends what they're cultivating whether it would be suitable for expansion to northern Australia.

Even at the high end of any possible population boom, we're looking at much less than the population of Java, not more.
 
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