/mel'euh nee"zheuh, -sheuh/, n.
one of the three principal divisions of Oceania, comprising the island groups in the S Pacific NE of Australia.

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Island group, South Pacific Ocean.

A subdivision of Oceania, it lies northeast of Australia and south of the Equator and includes New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, the Bismarck and Louisiade archipelagoes, the Solomon Islands, the Santa Cruz Islands, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Norfolk Island, and numerous others. Two distinct populations and cultures exist in the region. The Papuans, who have inhabited the area for 40,000 years, devised one of the earliest agricultural systems and developed the Papuan languages. Seafaring peoples with an Austronesian language and a Southeast Asian cultural tradition settled in the area about 3,500 years ago.

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      one of the traditional ethnogeographic groupings of the Pacific Islands, including (generally from west to east) the island of New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, and the Bismarck and Louisiade archipelagoes; the Solomon Islands and the Santa Cruz Islands; New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands; Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides); Fiji; Norfolk Island; and numerous smaller islands. The island group is separated from Polynesia in the east by the Andesite Line of extreme volcanic and earthquake activity and from Micronesia in the north (along the equator); it is bounded by the Tropic of Capricorn and Australia in the south. Melanesia's name was derived from the Greek melas, “black,” and nēsoi, “islands.”

      The third voyage of Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville resulted in an extensive revision of the charts of the South Sea Islands that first designated the division of island groups into the traditional regions of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Since his early 19th-century explorations, however, both linguistic and archaeological evidence have rendered the designation “Melanesian” at least imprecise, if not obsolete, for two distinct populations and cultures can be readily distinguished.

      Papuans, the earliest people in the region, occupied the Sahul continent (which later partially submerged to become the island of New Guinea) at least 40,000 years ago. By 30,000 years ago, the Bismarck Archipelago east of New Guinea had been occupied by speakers of Papuan languages. Perhaps partly through indirect contact with developments in Southeast Asia, Papuan peoples developed one of the earliest agricultural complexes—based on root crops and sugarcane cultivation—as much as 9,000 years ago. Modern descendents of these early populations speak languages categorized as Papuan.

      Not until about 4,000 years ago did another culture appear. About that time seafaring peoples with a Southeast Asian cultural tradition began to move into areas north of New Guinea; archaeological evidence—particularly the appearance of the distinctive pottery and associated tools and shell ornaments of the Lapita culture—points to their settlement and occupation of the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago by about 3,500 years ago. Their language was apparently of the Austronesian family, related to languages of the Philippines and the Indonesian archipelago, and their culture was based on root- and tree-crop cultivation and maritime technology.

      The speakers of Austronesian languages established coastal communities and associated trade systems in the southeastern Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. That these widely spread communities were politically associated is suggested by the wide distribution of trade goods, such as Lapita obsidian and shell ornaments. It is believed that Fiji was initially colonized by Lapita-making peoples and later was settled by dark-skinned, culturally Melanesian peoples after Fiji had been a springboard to the settlement of western Polynesia. Linguistically, the Austronesian peoples were clearly dominant; virtually all of the languages spoken by dark-skinned peoples in the Pacific east of the Bismarcks are classified as Oceanic Austronesian.

      The societies of precolonial New Guinea and island Melanesia (the zone east of New Guinea) were characteristically organized in kinship- and descent-based local groups, who were linked together by intermarriage. Such local groups, usually including from 20 to 100 members, were relatively autonomous political units. They characteristically held corporate title to lands (although domestic groups or individuals held rights over gardens and cultivated trees). Chains of descent determined land rights. Patrilineal descent systems prevail in most of lowland New Guinea, northern Vanuatu, and New Caledonia; matrilineal descent systems prevail in much of the Massim—what is now Milne Bay province in Papua New Guinea (taking in the D'Entrecasteaux Islands, the Louisiades, and nearby islands)—and the Bismarck Archipelago and in much of the Solomons and the Banks Islands.

      In many areas, local groups were dispersed through territories in scattered homesteads and hamlets. Often occupation of these settlements was of short duration, the period determined by cultivation cycles. Communities clustered more closely when there was danger of surprise attack; in interior areas they were usually established on ridges and peaks for defensive purposes.

      Settlement patterns varied widely. In parts of the Sepik plains of New Guinea, descent-based local groups gathered in huge villages (some with populations of more than 1,000 people). In the agricultural heartland of northern Kiriwina, in the Trobriands (Massim), villages of up to 200 people were centred on a central dance ground; villages at least that size inhabited small coral platforms in the lagoons of northern Malaita (Solomons). Generally speaking, larger villages settled over several generations were characteristic of coastal-strand environments, and smaller, shifting settlements were characteristic of interior areas.

      The polarization of the sexes was remarkable, and residential separation of the sexes was common. Men's houses or clubhouses, a focus of ritual or military solidarity or both, were common in many areas of New Guinea and island Melanesia, especially in the Sepik River basin of New Guinea and on the southern Papuan coast. Women and children occupied domestic dwellings.

      Leadership of local groups, both in Papuan-speaking New Guinea and Austronesian-speaking island Melanesia, often has been referred to as that of the “Big Man,” because it is based largely on status achieved through entrepreneurial success and the influence and obligations attendant to it. In the early stage of European penetration of island Melanesia, many societies were led by hereditary chiefs. This form of government was also characteristic of parts of Austronesian-speaking coastal New Guinea (e.g., Mekeo, Motu), parts of the Solomons (e.g., Rugara, Buka, Shortlands, Small Malaita), parts of Vanuatu (Aneityum), and most of New Caledonia. In some other areas, leadership was based on rank but also involved a complex interplay of hereditary right and demonstrated ability.

      Swidden horticulture (a practice of shifting cultivation whereby rain-forest gardens are cleared, planted, harvested, and then left fallow for periods of up to a generation) forms the basis of the ancient root-crop cultivation systems of Papuan and Austronesian cultural traditions. Forests were cleared with ground stone tools (and, in some coral-island areas, shell tools) and sometimes by means of fire. Using digging sticks for cultivation, the islanders planted primarily taro and yams (Dioscorea), with supplementary crops of plantains, sago, pandanus, leafy greens such as Hibiscus manihot, and sugarcane.

      In addition to the cultivation of roots and trees, the islanders raised domestic pigs, fished, and hunted marsupials and birds. Sometimes they also gathered insects and grubs. Gathering of wild-vegetable foods, including tubers, greens, nuts (notably the canarium almond), and fruits augmented diets or provided emergency rations.

      Both Papuan-speaking and Austronesian-speaking zones of Melanesia developed notable exchange systems; these were typified by prestige feasts in which surpluses of pigs and root crops were used and ceremonial valuables (such as objects made of shell, dolphin teeth, dog teeth, and other material objects) were exchanged. In some areas at least, competitive exchanges replaced warfare (and in some instances they seem to have grown out of homicide compensations).

      Another notable feature of the islands around the eastern end of New Guinea is the elaborate regional trading system. In the Massim, the trade of pottery from the Amphletts, canoe timber and greenstone blades from Murua (Woodlark), carved platters and canoe prow boards, and other specialized products was complemented by yams and pigs from resource-rich areas to smaller, ecologically less favoured, islands.

      Religions of Papuan-speaking New Guinea are diverse. Among such montane peoples as the Telefol, Bimin Kuskusmin, and Baktamin, highly complex male initiatory cults progressively reveal cosmic secrets to initiates. In New Guinea as in island Melanesia, fear of sorcery is widespread; and, among such peoples as the Fore of the highlands, accusations of sorcery are a major cause of hostility between groups and of blood feuding.

      In Austronesian-speaking Melanesia ancestral ghosts and other spirit beings are participants in daily social life. These invisible beings provide sure support for mere human effort in the uncertain projects of war, gardening, and the pursuit of prestige. The presence and effects of invisible ghosts and spirits were manifested in dreams, revealed in divination, and inferred from human success or failure, prosperity or disaster, health or death. Island Melanesian societies had no full-time religious intermediaries. Some forms of everyday magic—for gardening, fishing, attracting valuables or lovers—were widely known; other forms, for powers of fighting or theft, were closely guarded.

      Christianity has gradually replaced the forms of religion that were prevalent in precolonial Melanesia. One fascinating phenomenon of the early colonial period was the emergence of cargo cults (q.v.) in coastal New Guinea and island Melanesia. These movements, which in some respects resemble Christian millennial movements, promoted belief in a new age to be precipitated by the arrival of “cargo” (meaning European material goods) sent by supernatural sources.

      Like religion, the art of Melanesia is highly varied. The body itself is the focus for much of the art of highland New Guinea, with face and body painting, wigs and headdresses, and elaborate costumes. In lowland New Guinea, ebullient art traditions like those of the Sepik region and those of the Massim are world-renowned. The Christianization of much of Melanesia led to the early abandonment of many forms of music and dance, and much of its variety and significance is a matter of conjecture. Music ranges from dirges at wakes and love songs to highly complex forms such as the polyphonic panpipe music, with as many as eight contrapuntal voices, played by orchestras on Malaita in the Solomons. Storytelling in the form of epic narrative, myth, folktales, and oratory, redolent with metaphor and allusion, is also characteristic of the region.

      Most of the indigenous peoples of the Melanesian region are now subjected to pressures of Christianization and westernization. In some areas such forces have been at work for more than a century. In some interior areas, however, particularly in the rugged and virtually impenetrable mountains of New Guinea, contact with Western culture was not made until the 1930s or even later. Today even the most remote regions of Melanesia have become accessible, and they have been transformed. One significant change is the transformation of Melanesia's once classless societies into class-stratified groups.

      The countries of modern Melanesia show increasing polarization between metropolitan centres and village hinterlands. The rapid growth of squatter settlements around urban centres and increasing movement into towns have begun to link village and urban life. The more remote villages are poor and have little access to the educational, medical, and economic services of the state. As might be expected, it is in the areas of least contact with the Western world that traditional culture tends to be the most resilient.

      Capitalist enterprise, such as cash cropping of coffee and other high-value crops, is evident even in the hinterlands. Roads and airfields now connect once-isolated areas to regional networks.

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Universalium. 2010.

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