Melanesians are the dominant inhabitants of Melanesia. Most speak one of the many Papuan languages, though a few groups such as Moluccans, the Motu and Fijianspredominantly speak Austronesian languages. Melanesians occupy islands from Eastern Indonesia to as far east as the islands of Vanuatu and Fiji.
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Human settlement in Melanesia dates as far back as 70,000 thousand years ago when the first inhabitants reached what are now the Torres Strait Islands. They are thought to have migrated from the Indonesian archipelago. Human habitation in New Guinea, the largest island of Melanesia, began around 40,000 years ago, with migrants who came down from the Southeast Asian peninsula. It was these settlers who brought one of the earliest forms of agriculture. A subsequent wave of migration, this time from Taiwan, brought seafaring skills, allowing Melanesia’s inhabitants to navigate the vast waters of the region. While the Maluku Islands (now part of Indonesia), the Bismarck Archipelago (islands to the east of New Guinea controlled by Papua New Guinea), and the Solomon Islands have been inhabited for the past 32,000 years, the islands of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Vanuatu were settled later, between 1500 and 1000 BCE.
The first Europeans began arriving in the 17th century, with colonization beginning in the late 18th century. By the late 1800s, all of Melanesia was controlled by European powers. The peoples of the region began pushing for independence from their European colonizers after World War II. The Maluku Islands and the western part of New Guinea eventually became part of the new, independent state of Indonesia. Fiji gained independence in 1970, Papua New Guinea in 1975, the Solomon Islands in 1978, and Vanuatu in 1980. The people of the Torres Strait Islands became full Australian citizens in 1967, while New Caledonia remains under French rule, though it has gained greater autonomy over the years. There are many New Caledonians who desire outright independence, though in a referendum that took place in 2020, the territory’s residents narrowly rejected a break with France.
Sea Life And Diet
History records that the widely-spread communities in the region of Melanesia had trade relations with each other and were even politically integrated as far back as 3,000 to 3,500 years ago. Trade activity involving shell ornaments and obsidian was particularly prevalent. The ancient Austronesian people that first settled in Melanesia had sophisticated technology that allowed them to be capable seafarers.
Indeed, the Melanesians’ ability to navigate the vast waters of their region explains their affinity for fish and other seafood in their traditional diet. To this day, fishing remains at the center of economic life in much of the region. The traditional Melanesian diet also consists of root crops, leaves, coconuts, and fruit. The effects of globalization, however, have caused Melanesians to change the way they eat. Their diets now include more red meat and processed foods.
As in the contemporary world, social standing in traditional Melanesian society depended on how much wealth a person, family, or group could amass. Hence, polygynous marriages (two or more wives sharing a husband) were common since they could produce more labor, and therefore, could accumulate more wealth. In fact, polygynous marriages of people with high status served as a tool for creating political alliances. Traditional societies in New Guinea were organized on a patrilineal basis, whereas societies on the smaller Melanesian islands were generally matrilineal. But the principle that a person’s first loyalty should be to their family was universal throughout the region.
Political leadership in traditional Melanesian society generally went to those with entrepreneurial success and those who had gained prestige through war. At the time of European contact, however, many Melanesians were ruled by hereditary chiefs, while some achieved leadership through a combination of heredity and ability. In general, local Melanesian leaders were people who had a monopoly over trade, or who achieved dominance on the battlefield
Today’s Melanesia is markedly different from the one that existed before the arrival of Westerners. For example, virtually the entire region is now accessible by modern transportation networks. Urbanization in the region abounds, and with it, the growth of shantytowns on the outskirts of cities, which are a common sight in developing countries, as more Melanesians leave their traditional rural communities to find work and educational opportunities in urban centers.
Christianity is now the prevailing religion in Melanesia. In fact, Melanesians are among the most devout Christians on Earth. Christianity has been able to spread and maintain a hold on the local population in part because the people charged with spreading the faith had knowledge of local languages and customs.
The economics of Melanesia have also changed through Western influence. For better or worse, the region is now part of the global economy. Multinational corporations and mass industry have made their way into the region. Logging and mining, for example, are important industries in Melanesia. As in many other countries around the world, economic interests have clashed with the interests of local communities who want to maintain their way of life and their environment.