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The Independent State of Papua New Guinea is situated primarily on the eastern half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world. The country includes a cluster of islands off of its northeast coast, including the islands of Bougainville, Manus, New Britain, New Ireland, the Trobriands, and several other smaller islands and islets. The western half of the island is under Indonesian control.

The first people to arrive in Papua New Guinea were descendants of people who migrated from Africa, and they were among the first waves of human migration, as early as 50,000 years ago. There is evidence of agriculture in the highlands from around 7000 BC. The earliest inhabitants of the island were joined by a migration of people who came from Southeast Asia around 500 BC, which is evidenced by the introduction of pottery and domesticated pigs.

The first European to come to the island was a Portuguese ship that came ashore on the western part of the island, now under Indonesian control. A few years later, Ortiz Retes, a Spanish explorer, named the island New Guinea, thinking that the islanders resembled those on the Guinea coast of Africa. These early Europeans probably introduced the sweet potato to the island, which quickly became a staple. The list of Europeans who came to the island also includes Bougainville, Dampier, Schouten and, of course, Cook, who charted the coastline and major rivers of New Guinea. However, it wasn't until 1939 that the interior of New Guinea was charted, and there are areas where no white man has ever stood even today and tribes who have had no contact with white men.

Although ships made contact with parts of the island along the shore from time to time, not much was know of New Guinea until the 1800s. In 1828, the Dutch annexed the western half of the island, and England took control of the part not claimed by the Netherlands, which is the part now known as Papua New Guinea. Then Germany stepped in and took over the northeast part of the island.

When World War I began, the Germans surrendered to the Australians and, at the end of the War, the League of Nations gave England control of the former German colony, placing all of what is now Papua New Guinea under the British-Australian flag, although it was administered by Australia. The southern part was called Papua, and the northern part was called New Guinea.

Then World War II began. Japanese troops landed on New Britain Island, then moved south to the main island. They were halted in their attempt to capture the island by Australian and American troops and were pushed back to New Britain Island, where they remained until the end of the war.

The nation achieved its independence from Australia in 1975 but maintains close relations with Australia, which is its largest donor of aid. That same year, a revolt on Bougainville Island resulted in a modification of Papua New Guinea's constitution to give Bougainville and the other eighteen districts a degree of self-governance. Another uprising on Bougainville went on from 1988 to 1997, claiming 20,000 lives. As the chief mining area, Bougainville had generated 40% of the country's budget, and the people of Bougainville believed that they were bearing the environmental costs, poisoning its land, water, and air, without gaining an equitable share of the profits. The resolution for the second revolt was to make Bougainville an autonomous district.

Native Papuans have never been one united people. They are made up of hundreds of tribes, and the people of one valley often speak a different language than those in another. Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country. English is the language of government, but it is not widely spoken. Relationships between tribes are also not always harmonious. Conflicts are also common among the nation's native people and more recent immigrants. Several Chinese have lived and worked in Papua New Guinea, and established majority Chinese communities on the island. In recent years, anti-Chinese rioting has taken place between ethnic Chinese and Papuan workers, and there has also been resentment against Chinese business owners, although the Chinese have long been merchants on the island. Before Papua New Guinea achieved independence, there were far more foreigners there than there are now. Now, foreign workers are employed on a short-term basis and rarely put down roots.

Most citizens of Papua New Guinea identify as Christians, although it is common to combine Christianity with traditional religious practices. Traditional religions are animist in nature and are probably more prevalent than census statistics indicate. Among non-Christians, the Bahai faith is strong, and the number of Muslims in the country is growing.

A significant portion of the population of Papua New Guinea is illiterate, particularly among its female population.


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