New Guinea, a large island in the western Pacific Ocean lying immediately south of the Equator. New Guinea is separated from northern Australia by the Torres Strait and the Arafura and Coral seas. With an area of about 312,000 square miles (808,000 km 2 ), it is the second largest island in the world. (Greenland is the largest.) New Guinea is about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) long and up to 450 miles (720 km) wide. The eastern half is part of Papua New Guinea; the western half is part of Indonesia. The Indonesian name for the island is Irian.
New Guinea is crossed by a central belt of mountains extending the entire length of the island. In the west are the Maoke Mountains, where the island's highest peak rises 16,500 feet (5,029 m) above sea level. In eastern New Guinea are the Central, Bismarck, and Owen Stanley ranges, with peaks up to about 14,800 feet (4,510 m) high. Numerous rivers flow down from the mountains. The longest are the Fly, Digul, Mamberamo, and Sepik rivers. These are valuable transportation routes, as there are few roads to the interior.
Lying close to the Equator, New Guinea has a tropical climate with high temperatures and heavy rainfall. Except in the cooler mountain areas, temperatures rarely go lower than 70° F. (21° C.). Rainfall occurs throughout the year.
The hot, moist climate produces a dense forest cover on most of the island. Except in the higher mountains, where alpine forests exist, tropical rain forests predominate. There are extensive grasslands, particularly along the coasts and the river valleys. These include considerable areas of marshy land. Animal life includes marsupials (pouched animals) such as wallabies, and the world's only egg-laying mammals—the duckbill platypus and echidna. Reptiles include crocodiles, various lizards, and a wide variety of snakes. There are many species of birds, similar in appearance to those of the tropic regions of the Americas. The bird of paradise is found only on New Guinea and in neighboring areas.
New Guinea has a variety of minerals, including petroleum, gold, silver, nickel, copper, manganese, and low-grade coal. However, their full extent is unknown, and there is little mining. Petroleum is taken from the western part of the island, and gold and silver from the eastern part.
Agriculture is by far the most important economic activity. Crops grown for local consumption include sweet potatoes, rice, peanuts, cassava, bananas, and sago palm. Export crops, grown mainly on large plantations, are coconuts, cacao, coffee, and rubber. Livestock, chiefly cattle and pigs, supply the local market.
The few manufacturing industries process farm and forest products. These are mainly in the larger settlements such as Port Moresby and Yayapura. There are few roads and no railways. Transportation inland depends on rivers and on air service.
The population of New Guinea is about 7,351,299. Most of the people are Melanesians. There are tiny minorities of Europeans, Chinese, and East Indians. Hundreds of differing languages and dialects are spoken on the island. Many isolated tribal groups of the interior, having little contact with the outside world, still have a Stone Age culture. Cannibalism and headhunting were practiced by some of the tribes well into the 20th century.
New Guinea has few schools, and the island's rate of illiteracy is one of the highest in the world. The University of Papua New Guinea, established in 1967, is at Port Moresby. There are also a few teacher-training schools.
Papua New Guinea is an independent country occupying the eastern half of the island. In addition to its territory on New Guinea, it includes the Bismarck Archipelago and several of the Solomon Islands. Until independence was granted in 1975, it consisted of the Trust Territory of New Guinea and the Territory of Papua. The portion of the trust territory on New Guinea was called Northeast New Guinea. Papua was entirely on the island, immediately to the south of Northeast New Guinea. Both territories were administered by Australia.
The total area of Papua New Guinea is approximately 178,000 square miles (461,000 km 2 ); the portion on the island of New Guinea has an area of about 155,000 square miles (401,400 km 2 ). About 90 per cent of the country's roughly 5,130,365 people live on the island. Port Moresby is the capital.
Irian Jaya occupies the western half of New Guinea and is a part of Indonesia. The chief city and administrative center is Yayapura. Irian Jaya's area is almost 160,000 square miles (414,400 km 2 ); its population in the 2000 census was 2,220,934.