The forest resources, like the soil and minerals, are hardly well enough known to allow useful forecasts of their economic value and utility. The lowland forests are known to contain a variety of useful timber trees in certain areas, but mostly these species are scattered and unavailable or unprofitable to cut and remove. Markets are remote, operational costs are high, native labor is scarce, and there is still hardwood timber of suitable quality in more readily accessible parts of the world. Still there were several successful sawmills in operation near Lae and Finschhafen just before the Second World War. As valuable tropical hardwoods become scarcer in other parts of the world, and as roads are extended into the back country of New Guinea for one reason or another, it seems likely that increasing use of the lowland forests of the island will be made.
Fish abound in New Guinea waters, but most species are not favored in commercial markets overseas. Natives in the immediate vicinity of the coasts make use of the more desirable species, as well as various shellfish, the palolo worm, sea-slugs, turtles, and other marine fauna. Commercial fishing prospects remain largely unsurveyed, but the experience of Army fisheries units in the vicinity of Huon Gulf during the Second World War and aerial photographs of shoals of fish in Torres Strait--possibly tuna--suggest that there may be long-neglected possibilities in this field.
The natives of southeastern New Guinea and parts of the eastern interior are predominantly Papuan stock, speaking a variety of local dialects. Those of northeastern New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Admiralties are essentially Melanesian, speaking a variety of quite unrelated and often mutually unintelligible dialects. Those of western New Guinea appear to be blends of these and Malay elements in the lowlands and more or less undiluted Negritic elements in the interior mountain valleys.
No census has been taken of the native populations of New Guinea, but it seems probable that the total native population does not greatly exceed a million. Of these some 200,000 live in the interior valleys of eastern New Guinea between Wau and Mt. Hagen, where population densities range up to 100 persons per square mile in some localities and where there is already noted a marked pressure of population on the land for the supply of food, clothing, and shelter. The lowlands, in most instances, are sparsely populated except in the vicinity of the larger ports or where native village concentrations are favored by better soils or superior plant and animal resources. Lowland natives appear to be less energetic and less healthy than highland tribes of the eastern interior, but whether this is the direct or indirect result of climate, altitude, diet, more frequent contacts with the outside world and with each other, or some other "conditioning" influence cannot be accurately determined.
Native economy varies somewhat both in degree of specialization and in the nature of specializations. Coastal peoples naturally derive a substantial part of their food supply from the sea; riverine settlements depend in part on fresh-water fish. The Negritos of the western interior rely on pandanus fruit to a marked extent, and the lowland swamp-dwellers are heavy eaters of sago, a starchy food made from the pith of the sago palm. All the natives of the island, however, appear to place more emphasis on primitive agriculture (hoe culture with shifting cultivation or rotation of fields instead of crops) than on hunting, collecting, fishing, or other pursuits. The sweet potato is the main food staple of most parts of the island, although coconuts, sago, and pandanus are local substitutes where for one reason or another (mainly soil and soil-moisture conditions) sweet potatoes are difficult or impossible to grow.
Most of the natives live in small villages ranging up to about 50 families. Houses are either closely grouped around a central open space or else strung out along the inner edge of a beach, along a trail, or atop a ridge crest. The size of the villages is probably restricted by the amount of land available as tribal or village property, and by the relatively large amount of land needed in a shiftingcultivation type of economy.
The strassendorf or linear type of village along a beach is fairly easy to explain. Coconuts, fish, and shellfish thrive in the vicinity of these beaches, and there are strict geographical limits to which coastal settlements of this type can expand inland or toward the sea; hence the spread along the shore.
The preoccupation with ridge crests in most parts of the interior (except on the larger, richer valley floors) can probably be traced to better water drainage, defense advantages, and relief from the damp, chill night air that settles in the valleys of the interior and against which the ill-clothed, ill-housed natives have little protection. Some of the native huts in the highlands are rather well suited to the cool highland climate, being low, thick-walled, and well-thatched, but there are good reasons for believing this is due to cultural habit rather than climatic adaptation. This last also appears to be true of the varying shapes and interior fixtures of native dwellings in New Guinea. There seems to be no other explanation of the fact that in one highland area the houses are predominantly round and in another square; in one valley the population is grouped in villages, and in another (such as east of Chimbu) there are dispersed farmsteads; and in one village elevated, bamboo sleeping platforms are used inside the huts but in another the family sleeps on the ground. In general, however, the lowland houses are built on piles, as in most parts of Indonesia and the Philippines; in the highlands most houses are built on the ground (that is, without elevated wooden floors). Another generalization quite safe to make is about the highland houses: nearly all are poorly ventilated (one small door and no windows), smoky, illsmelling, and the favored haunt of rats, fleas, lice, and flies.