Lilian Gibbs’ Traces on the Papua Peninsula – A warm sense welled up inside Charlie Heatubun when his feet succeeded to reach the top of the Arfak Mountains (formerly a part of Manokwari Regency) after walking all day from Mokwam Village.

In that wet January 2009, Charlie will begin two months of field research collecting specimens with a team from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Garden. For the palm expert, who is current a professor of botany at the State University of Papua, exploring places that had been investigated by great naturalists was an invaluable experience.

Since the Dutch East Indies era, the Papua region has been seen as an important area for biodiversity research, biogeography, and anthropology. Alfred Russel Wallace, who explored the Archipelago for eight years in the 1854-1862 range, spent 1858-1860 in Papua. In the Archipelago: A Travel Story, Human and Nature Studies (2009, p. 425), he notes his observations of the appearance of Malay elements in Papuan birds. It was the landmark of the wave of migration from the west to the east of Indonesia in the past. The dynamic change of the earth’s appearance—from land to ocean or vice versa—has removed the traces of the birds’ trajectories.

A decade later, in 1872, an Italian botanist, Odoardo Beccari, began an expedition to collect Papuan flora and fauna specimens in the Arfak Mountains. Beccari was less successful in collecting flora specimens, but obtained a large number of animal specimens, especially Papuan birds, having valuable contributions to ornithology. The footsteps of Wallace and Beccari were then followed by Lilian Suzette Gibbs. In 1913, Gibbs became the first woman to reach the Arfak Mountains. He also led expeditions to collect specimens of mountain flora—a field Gibbs specializes in since studying botany at the Royal College of Science in London.

Gibbs’ exploration of the Arfak Mountains is a continuation of the previous expedition on Mount Kinabalu in 1910. Thus, the results of the Arfak Mountains expedition will be useful for comparative studies of mountainous flora. Papua’s mountainous terrain, with its vast area, similar rainfall, and impressive elevation is the perfect location for a comparative study. Gibbs also provided himself with Beccari’s notes which stated that there were great similarities between plants in Kinabalu and Papua.

In his trips notes, A Contribution to The Phytogeography and Flora of the Arfak Mountains (1917), Gibbs mentions those who had helped him carry out the expedition. Among them was the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies A.W.F. Idenburg who had given her permission and instructions to officials in the area to ensure that Miss’s exploration of England run smoothly. When Gibbs arrived in Manokwari, an Assistant Resident Manokwari L.J.J.M. Tabbers ordered five Ambonese soldiers and ten prisoners alias “rante people” to escort and to help Gibbs carry supplies

From this field research, Gibbs concluded that Papua is the center of distribution of various plant species from Polynesia, Australia, and to a lesser extent, Malay. Plants in Papua are not only older in type, but also have striking differences from plants in other places. Meanwhile, the flora of the Arfak Mountains shows the possibility of the oldest plant species. He also conveyed this conclusion before The Newcastle Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in September 1916.

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