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Situated in the Southern Hemisphere and Oceania, New Guinea is the world's second largest island, after Greenland. The eastern portion of the island makes up the largest land mass of Papua New Guinea, while the western portion is a province of Indonesia, known as Western New Guinea, West Papua, or just as Papua.

Before the island was split geopolitically, the entire island was at times referred to as Papua. Portuguese and Spanish explorers referred to the island as Papua when they first made reference to it, but the name New Guinea was later used by Westerners. The first recorded use of New Guinea to refer to the island was by YƱigo Ortiz de Retez, a Spanish explorer, who thought that the physical characteristics of the island's indigenous people were similar to that of the natives of the Guinea region of Africa. The Dutch first called it Schouten Island, for one of the first Dutch explorers who came. Later, when the Dutch colonized the island as part of the Netherlands East Indies, they named it Nieuw Guinea, referring to the smaller islands off the north coast of Papua as the Schouten Islands. Indonesians referred to the island as Irian, a name that was used until 2001 when it again became Papua.

New Guinea is north of Australia, and south of the equator. It is considered part of Melanesia. Its nearest neighbors are Australia, particularly Queensland and Northern Territory, to the south. The Solomon Islands are to the east, the Federated States of Micronesia to the northeast, Palau to the north, and Indonesia to the west. Western New Guinea makes up the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, while the eastern part of the island is Papua New Guinea, an independent country.

The New Guinea Highlands stretches east-west across the island, with the western half of the island containing the tallest mountains in Oceania, which ensures an ample supply of rain from the atmosphere. Its tallest peaks include permanent glaciers. Other mountain ranges can be found north and west of the highest central range. The tallest peaks on the island are Puncak Jaya, Puncak Mandala, and Puncak Trikora, each in Papua, as well as Mount Wilhelm and Mount Giluwe, both of which are in Papua New Guinea.

The southern and northern lowlands stretch for hundreds of miles, and include rainforests, wetlands, savanna, and large stretches of mangrove forest. In the southern lowlands are Lorentz National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The islands major rivers are the Digul, Fly, Mamberamo, and Sepik.

New Guinea has a much higher rainfall than Australia, which is flatter, drier, and less fertile, but the island's animals are similar to that of Australia, including marsupials like wallabies and possums. Other than bats, there are no native placental mammals; pigs, rats, and dogs were introduced to the island by humans.

Human beings first arrived on the island as long ago as 40,000 years, in one of the earliest migrations out of Africa. There is evidence of agriculture in the island's highlands at least 10,000 years ago. The early inhabitants of the island were not one people. Populated by several different tribal groups, there are about a thousand different languages spoken on the island today, most of them Papuan in origin.

Large areas of New Guinea have never been explored by anthropologists or scientists. In West Papua, there are more than forty tribal groups which have not had contact with Westerners.

In more recent history, New Guinea was a Dutch East Indies colony. Germany annexed the north coast of the eastern part of the island prior to World War I, and it became known as German New Guinea. Britain then claimed the southeastern part of the island. At the conclusion of the War, the German part of the island was put under the control of Australia and named the Territory of Papua. During World War II, Dutch New Guinea and the Australian territories were invaded by the Japanese, and during the course of the war, the islands became key battlefields. Papuans gave assistance to the Allies, even fighting alongside Australian troops.

After the War, the Australian section was known as the Territory of Papua New Guinea until 1949 when it became the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. When the rest of the Dutch East Indies became independent in 1949, West New Guinea remained in the control of the Dutch. In the 1950s, the Dutch government began preparing Dutch New Guinea to become independent, allowing elections in 1959. The newly elected Council took office in 1961, and the Dutch handed the territory to the United Nations until 1963, when Indonesia took over. Then, in a controversial move, West New Guinea became provinces of Indonesia. The eastern half of New Guinea declared independence from Australia in 1975, taking the name Papua New Guinea. The island is politically divided into halves across a north-south line.

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Papua New Guinea

Western New Guinea

 

 

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