The term “Melanesia” often refers to the sub-Oceania geographical regions, including the islands in South Pacific, New Guinea, and Indonesia’s West Papua. Living in these regions are Melanesians, who have the characteristics of dark skin and curly hair, therefore: the term “Melanesia” also refers to race.
In Indonesia, Melanesians and their descendants live not only in West Papua but also other provinces, most notably Maluku, North Maluku, and East Nusa Tenggara. This explains how people in eastern part of Indonesia have a different appearance from those in the western part of the country, who are mostly descendants of Austronesia or Mongoloid.
According to the Vice Governor of North Maluku, Mr. HM Natsir Thaib, as cited in Liputan6.com (13/06/2016), there are about 11 million Melanesian descendants in Indonesia. How the number becomes this high does not come as surprising considering that Melanesians have a very long history in the Indonesian archipelago.
Date Back to 60,000-30,000 Years Ago
The presence of Melanesians in Indonesia dates back to 60,000-30,000 years ago. At the time, Indonesia’s regions were inhibited by the early modern men who migrated from Southeast Asia’s land to as far as the Solomon Islands. These early men started to live in caves, a lifestyle which was not shown in the earlier colonization. Besides choosing to have a ‘settlement’, they also practiced hunting and potion-making. In the process, they could start a fire and make stone tools.
These early modern men, known as Homo sapiens, were the ancestors of today’s Melanesian. They lived in many Indonesian regions, including Java. According to NationalGeographic.co.id (29/10/2015), an ancient carving of Sulawesi’s hog deer was discovered in Song Terus Cave in Central Java. The carving proved the influence of early Melanesians in Java. It happened during Ice Age when the archipelago had not been naturally divided into as many islands as modern-day Indonesia.
Interaction with Austronesians
After the end of Ice Age around 12,000 years ago, there was sea level rise. Some areas in Southeast Asia were drowned under the water; the region became islands; there was human diaspora. Early Melanesians lived in the archipelago on their own until 4,300 years ago when Austronesians started to immigrate.
A researcher, Truman Simanjuntak, described Austronesians as “aggressive, excellent sailors, and occupied the archipelago…” (NationalGeographic.co.id, 29/10/2015). There are proofs which marked that around 3,500 years ago, the Austronesians had spread to the whole Indonesian archipelago. The earlier inhabitants interact with these ‘new’ occupants and their descendants become today’s Austro-Melanesians or simply called Melanesians.
In the span of 3,500 years, the settlements of Austro-Melanesians shifted to the eastern part of the archipelago. This explains why Melanesians in Indonesia are now often addressed as the people of eastern Indonesia. On the other hand, the western part of the country, such as Sumatera, Java, Borneo, and Bali, are inhibited by Austro-Mongoloid descendants.
Between the two big populations, the Austro-Melanesians in the east and Austro-Mongoloids in the west, there were interactions in the form of marriage, trade, and cooperation. Throughout the years, the two populations lived side by side. Before becoming part of Indonesia, the populations had become parts of the same kingdoms of early Indonesia, such as during Sriwijaya and Majapahit.
The Earliest Inhabitants of Indonesia
Through the history of Melanesian’s ancestors, it is then known that both Papua provinces are the part of Indonesia. In fact, their ancestors were the earliest modern men to set foot in now Indonesia’s archipelago. They are even earlier by thousand years than the Austro-Mongoloid whose descendants inhabit the western part of Indonesia.
From the history, it can also be seen that Melanesian ancestors lived in the western part of the archipelago before migrating to the east and acculturating with the Austronesians. The long history showed that not only Melanesian descendants are the native of Indonesia, but also that their ancestors were the ones who had participated in building the nation to become what it is today.
Modern-Day Melanesians in Indonesia
In modern-day Indonesia, Melanesians are not as widely known as the term “people of eastern Indonesia”. However, the trend seems to shift recently since the awareness of Melanesian societies in the country increases. The first Melanesian Culture Festival was held in 2015, an event which marked the collective awareness of the Melanesian people in the country.
Moreover, Melanesians from five provinces of Indonesia, namely Papua, West Papua, Maluku, North Maluku, and East Nusa Tenggara participated in the High-Level Conference on Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). They joined the conference because Indonesia had become an associate member of the MSG in 2015. The group itself aims to promote the economic development of the Melanesian countries.
Regarding Melanesians in Indonesia, there is also the Regulation of the Minister of Home Affairs Number 39 of 2016 about Organizing Fraternity Forum of Melanesian Societies in Indonesia. Through the regulation, festival, and participation in MSG, it is expected that the Melanesians and their culture will be more appreciated as an integral part of Indonesia’s national culture.