There is evidence of human settlement as long ago as 35,000 years in what is now Papua New Guinea. This comes from an archaeological site at Matenkupkum, just south of Namatanai in New Ireland province. Other archaeological digs at several locations in New Ireland have discovered tools and food residue dating back 20,000 years.
In more modern times, Papua New Guinea (known popularly as 'PNG'), the eastern half of the island of New Guinea (which is the second largest island in the world), was divided between Germany ('German New Guinea') and Great Britain ('British Papua') in 1884. The Dutch had West Papua, now the Indonesian territory of Papua. The southeast part of the island, also known as Papua, was owned by the UK but administered by Australia, and thus a colony of a colony, until Australian independence in 1901, when it became an Australian colony. In 1914, the Australians did their part in the Allied war effort and took control of German New Guinea, and continued to administer it as a Trust Territory under the League of Nations and (later) the United Nations. However, it was not just disinterested colonialism. Gold had been discovered in several places and was rapidly exploited. Remnants of vast gold dredges can still be seen in the Bulolo and Wau area.
During the Pacific War, New Guinea was the site of fierce fighting on land (at Buin and on the Kokoda Track) and sea (at the Battle of the Coral Sea). It was the first place in the war where the Japanese advance was checked and then reversed. After the war, both New Guinea and Papua were administered from the government center of Port Moresby on the south coast, in Papua. In 1975, the country, now united as 'Papua New Guinea', achieved independence from Australia. Today Papua New Guinea continues to be the foremost country in Melanesia. The country struggles to fulfil the dreams of independence as economic stagnation, corruption, law and order problems, and a nine-year secessionist revolt on the island of Bougainville all conspire to make the country somewhat less than a tropical paradise.
The attempts by Bougainville to break away at the time of Independence led to a decision to offer the regions of the country a certain amount of political autonomy. Decentralization led to the establishment of nineteen provincial governments and the process of dividing up the country into unviable administrative units seems to be continuing, with a decision in 2009 to split both Southern Highlands and Western Highlands provinces into three new provinces.
In 2009, Papua New Guinea received 125,000 visitors, but only around 20% of these declared themselves as tourists. The country offers the traveller a true paradox. With little tourist infrastructure outside the main tourist areas, getting around can be tough. But Papua New Guineans themselves are wonderfully welcoming people who will go to great lengths to accommodate strangers. Tourism is well developed and growing in a handful of locations. Beyond these, the country is 120% adventure travel and not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.
For people who can make it out here, the experience is unforgettable. The incredible natural beauty is simply indescribable. Its unique flora and fauna includes enormous radiations of marsupials and birds, including the Raggiana bird-of-paradise (the national symbol) and several species of tree kangaroos. Untouched coral reefs compete with spectacular World War II wrecks for the attention of divers, and the hiking is out of this world.
With rugged terrain, inter-tribal mistrust, and diverse languages, intermarriage between the peoples has, until recently, been very limited. Physical and facial appearance varies significantly throughout the country; from those who look almost Polynesian in some coastal areas, through the short, stocky Highlanders, to the tall and statuesque people of the area around Rabaul in New Britain and the dark-skinned inhabitants of Bougainville, who could almost come from Africa.
The central highlands of Papua New Guinea were not mapped until the 1930s and not effectively brought under government control until the late 1960s. As a result, the people are as interesting as the geography, flora, and fauna. Papua New Guinea is a place that often markets itself as 'the Last Unknown' or a place where you can still find 'Stone Age People'. Of course, telling a Papua New Guinean that you consider them a stone age savage is incredibly rude. While you can, if you try hard enough, find old men who remember the first time they or anyone in their society saw metal, you'll also have trouble finding anyone who has not seen Titanic. Indeed, what makes Papua New Guinea so interesting today is not the fact that it is some sort of living museum, but its incredible dynamism. In the hundred-year shift from stone to steel to silicon, Papua New Guineans have turned the shortest learning curve in human history into one of the most colourful, and often idiosyncratic, experiments in modernity ever produced by human beings. Featuring ritual garb made of human hair and rolled up Instant Noodle wrappers, rap in Pidgin English, or tribal warriors named 'Rambo' for their valour in combat, Papua New Guinea's collision with global culture has been intense and fascinating. So don't worry about the fate of 'traditional culture': in the bar room brawl between Papua New Guinea and the global culture industry the biggest worry is keeping Papua New Guinea from pummelling global culture to a pulp.