Dr Ben Shaw


Research activity per year

Personal profile


Ben Shaw is an archaeologist and the Lecturer in Evolution of Cultural Diversity within the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Ben’s research is geographically focused on Papua New Guinea where he has undertaken extensive fieldwork over the past 12 years across many island, coastal and highland regions. He has also worked in Australia, New Zealand, and French Polynesia. Ben’s research spans the full length of human history from colonisation through to historic contexts. His major interest is the interplay between past climates, environments, and human behaviours. Specifically, using multidisciplinary approaches to understand how cultural and technological adaptations contributed to the emergence of complex human diversity in the Asia-Pacific region, and globally.

Ben is a New Zealand trained archaeologist and biological anthropologist, having studied at the University of Otago. After working as a consultant in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, he completed a PhD in archaeology at the ANU (2011-2014) for which he developed an archaeological sequence for Rossel Island in eastern Papua New Guinea where a linguistically and genetically unique population live. This was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship (2015-2016) and a DECRA fellowship (2017-2020), both at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. In 2020, he was elected as an International Fellow of the Explorers Club.

Ben is currently working in the Massim Island Region of eastern Papua New Guinea. Here he has established a Late Pleistocene antiquity for human colonisation, defined the timing for the arrival of cultural groups associated with the spread of Austronesian languages (Lapita), and modelled the antiquity of historically known cultural practices. In the Highlands as part of a collaborative transdisciplinary research initiative he has identified sociocultural changes linked to agricultural developments. Prior to this, Ben developed and tested an isotopic approach for identifying migration in the Pacific Islands using human and animal dental remains from archaeological contexts. He is part of an international team recently awarded a Marsden grant (2020-2022) to investigate the Holocene dispersal of people along the northern New Guinea coast. You can view videos of Ben’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea here.

Current student projects

2020-ongoing, Simon Coxe (Monash) PhD candidate, secondary supervisor

Thesis title: The archaeology of burial practices and personhood in the Torres Strait (Australia) and the Massim Region (Papua New Guinea).

Research interests

My research is centred on modelling human adaptations to ecosystems which vary over time (Late Pleistocene to Historic contexts) and space in the Australasian and Pacific Island regions, with a focus on the highland, lowland and island landscapes of New Guinea. Fieldwork is aimed at locating and excavating archaeological sites which expand existing records through a detailed geomorphological landscape approach. I have an interest in inter-disciplinary engagement of regional and global research questions which require modelling of diverse datasets and meta-analytic assessment to address complex problems with modern human adaptive behaviours.

Available student projects

A WIDE range of potential Honours, Masters and PhD level projects are available on archaeology in Papua New Guinea.

Students can work on recently excavated material culture assemblages from the Massim Islands, Simbai-Kaironk Highland Valleys, and potentially the Sepik-Ramu region, dating from the Last Ice Age up until European Contact within the past few hundred years. Material includes pottery, lithics, obsidian, shell and shell tools/ornaments, sediments and historic materials.

Literature based, theoretical-orientated and meta-analytical projects are also available. These projects can have scope to combine archaeological, linguistic, anthropological, and historic sources of information across the Asia-Pacific region and globally.

Established projects are avaiable, and independent research proposals are very welcome.

Get in touch with Ben at any stage to discuss a project.

Past student projects

2018 - Emily Hull (UNSW), Honours.

Thesis title: Life on the Edge: Investigating obsidian exchange in the Louisiade Archipelago, Papua New Guinea.

2017 - Alexandra Caples (Oxford), M.St (Archaeology)

Thesis title: Simbai and Kaironk valley clay sources in the Papua New Guinea Highlands: petrographic and chemical analyses for pottery sourcing studies



BA Hons (Otago) , MSc (Otago), PhD (ANU)

Researcher's projects

2020-ongoing: Crossing the Divide from Asia to the Pacific (NZ Marsden Project, 19-UOO-084), multi-year excavation and analytical program in the Sepik-Ramu lowland basins, Madang and Sepik Provinces.

2017-2020: Colonisation, adaptation and the development of complex societies in the Massim Islands of Papua New Guinea (ARC DECRA Project, DE170100291), multi-year excavation and analytical program in the Louisiade Archipleago, Milne Bay Province.

2015-2016: Pathways to the Interior (ARC Discovery Project, DP150102753), multi-year excavation and analytical program in the Simbai-Karionk-Jimi Valleys, Madang and Jiwaka Provinces.

2011-2014: Archaeology of Rossel Island, Massim Islands, Papua New Guinea. Multi-year excavation and analytical program undertaken for my PhD. (Australian National University)

2009-2010: Caution Bay Salvage Archaeology Project, Papua New Guinea. Excavation of numerous archaeological sites as part of New Guinea's largest natural gas plant development. (Monash University).

2007-2009: Investigating the use of strontium isotopes in skeletal and dental tissues as a tool for tracing migration/mobility in past human and animal populations in a Pacific Island context (Otago University).

Expertise Areas

  • Biological (Physical) Anthropology
  • Pacific Cultural Studies
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeology
  • Archaeological Science
  • Archaeology of New Guinea and Pacific Islands (excl. New Zealand)
  • Archaeology of New Zealand (excl. Maori)
  • Maori Archaeology
  • Pacific History (excl. New Zealand and Maori)


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