Bird-shaped pestle

Contributed by British Museum

Stone pestle, sculpted in the shape of a bird and used for pounding food. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

This bird-shaped pestle was used by early farmers in Papua New Guinea, probably to grind the vegetable taro in a mortar. People in Papua New Guinea learnt how to grow crops 9000 years ago. Papua New Guinea was one of seven locations where farming independently developed after the last Ice Age. The pestle's long neck meant it was too delicate to be used regularly and its bird-shape suggests it may have been used for pounding food on special occasions.

When did humans start to farm?

Growing plants and raising animals is one of the most important developments in human history. It was a gradual change that took place over several thousand years about 10,000 years ago. Farming created an abundant food supply that for the first time could support larger populations. People began to settle in one place to grow crops rather than being constantly on the move searching for new food sources. This led to the creation of the first villages.

At about the time objects like this were used, Britain and Ireland were separated by rising sea levels

The mysteries of the bird pestle

This stone pestle was found over 100 years ago by gold miners in the banks of the Aikora River in Oro in Papua New Guinea.

At the time of its discovery other stone pestles and stone mortars, or bowls, were being unearthed across British New Guinea and German New Guinea. What was intriguing was that the local people did not know when they were made or who had made them. Their history was a mystery.

Archaeology is now helping to reveal their story as some have been found among deposits of archaeological material. The dates of these deposits tell us that these artefacts were made and used between about 8,000 and 3,000 years ago.

The stone pestles and mortars are always found in areas where taro, an edible starchy tuber (or plant stem), can be grown. This tells us that the objects might have been used to pound cooked taro and local nut products into a rich edible paste. This dish is still prepared for feasts in a few predominately coastal areas of Papua New Guinea.

Unlike this pestle, the majority of pestles and mortars are undecorated. Most stone bird pestles have been found in Papua New Guinea. The largest cluster of finds comes from the shores of a former inland sea, which was in-filled about 4,000 years ago.

Curiously most of the birds sculpted on the handle tops of the pestles found in this cluster have their wings folded rather than raised like this stone bird pestle.

Birds sculpted with raised wings like this one have been discovered in other areas of the island instead, usually where only small numbers of other stone mortars and pestles have been found.

Many have been found on major pathways from the coast to highland valleys. Why this should be the case is not fully understood. It may be related to the trading of bird of paradise plumes between the highlands and the coast.

Pamela Swadling, Archaeologist, Australian National University

Ritual, religion, calories and stomachs

New Guinea has one of the oldest histories of food production in the world. Soon after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived here around 40,000 years ago as part of their expansion out of Africa, they began exploiting plants like yams and taro.

Studies of fossil pollen show that they burnt forest to encourage the growth of these plants. Archaeologists have proposed the term ‘vegeculture’ for what these hunters and gatherers were doing.

By 10,000 BC people were draining land to make special gardens, and growing taro, as early as the earliest signs of farming in America, the Near East, and China. But what this enigmatic and slightly sinister object – part bird, part phallus - does is to remind us how producing food was as much about ritual and religion for most early farmers as it was about producing calories and filling stomachs.

It is one of a number of strangely ornate pestles known from New Guinea, collected like this one by European visitors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of them are probably prehistoric, but some were still being used at the time they were collected.

They were used for grinding up plants and seeds, but in recorded times this was often associated with making magical potions used in rain-making. Birds are still hugely important omens for people in New Guinea, their flight paths checked anxiously for whether they bring good luck or misfortune.

We might think that we compartmentalise food and faith, supermarket and church or mosque, but for us, too, just like the New Guinea farmers who used this pestle, coming together at the dinner table underpins all our social interactions and life ceremonies.

Professor Graeme Barker, Archaeologist, University of Cambridge

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 14:52 on 8 March 2010, niko wrote:

    first of all I want to say that these programmes are fantastic.
    Then ill try not to be gorss, but according to its shape this object looks to me more like a "sexual toy" rather than a pestle. Could this be right? Why not?
    Thanks a lot

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  • 2. At 21:29 on 12 March 2010, Ray Dee wrote:

    Think I partly agree with the `sexual' aspect - as the object is too awkward and indeed fragile for actual domestic use. Whereas you'll find similar and clearly sexual fetish carved objects around the world, including Ancient (and also relatively modern) Greece and Old Egypt.

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  • 3. At 03:18 on 13 March 2010, sudhamike wrote:


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  • 4. At 00:24 on 14 March 2010, partlyR4listener wrote:

    niko and Ray Dee are probably right about the sexual aspect of this pestle. A full stomach and sex go very well together - take her out for a meal, they advise. And if one like this was given to a woman by her mother it might have come with the advice, "Think of your new husband even when he is away."

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  • 5. At 17:27 on 23 March 2010, L Bolton wrote:

    This object is most certainly a pestle, although, as is mentioned in the programme itself, it was probably used in ritual/ceremonial contexts rather than for the everyday. Scientific analysis of similar pestles from PNG has found traces of plant materials on them, indicating that they were used to pound cooked taro before eating. There is an explicit sexual allusion in the form of the object, as is not uncommon in the art of the region, but the sexual reference often alludes to wider concerns with productivity and especially with the ever-present concern that enough children are born to the community. L. Bolton Curator, British Museum.

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  • 6. At 14:56 on 6 April 2010, reubster73 wrote:

    Just wondering if there is specific evidence that this was used for food, as opposed to, say, a shaman using it for grinding ingredients for potions.

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  • 7. At 09:09 on 28 April 2010, fourthought wrote:

    This has been a wonderful series and we look forward to the next objects.Please could we have the "omnibus" edition at the end of each week, instead of bunching them at the end.

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  • 8. At 19:35 on 1 January 2011, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    I'm afraid to say I find the explanation most unconvincing. Why every puzzling object found has to be ritualised is beyond me. It looks much more like a broken tool to me - held at the lumpy end. Possibly to give leverage to some purpose. Someone should try imagining what this tool might look like when the bent bits are straightened out and the missing tool head might be????? As it is it looks like jusat another piece of scrap ready for the melting pot.

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  • 9. At 18:22 on 3 January 2011, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    O.k.! So it?s stone and not metal. But it certainly looks like a bit of scrap metal. With truth so often being stranger than fiction what are the chances that an original object which was once upon a time metal scrap has in this instance been copied in stone by a culture less sophisticated than its creator? And then used for another function? You know what it really reminds me of? A broken piece from one of those ancient Egyptian Staffs or Sceptres such as one sees in the hands of a god like Ptah and which itself looks very metallurgically tool like.

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  • 10. At 23:41 on 20 January 2011, Cam Greig wrote:

    From many angles this item looks phallic. The long neck, the form of the head, the stunted wings (testes)? Could there be a religious belief relating birds and fertility?

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About this object

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Aikora River, Papua New Guinea


About 4-8,000 years-old


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