Race, a word we often hear but not many people know what it means. ‘Race’ comes from Latin word, radix, which means ‘origin’ or ‘root’. Broadly defined, a race is one of the grouping or categorization systems of people based on their general physical and biological characteristics. It is said biological because the traits are inherited from parents to their next generations. The physical characteristics include the skin, eye, and hair color, the shape of the nose, the body, the head, and others. These characteristics differentiate people from one area to another.
There are three major divisions of human race, which can be further divided into 30 subgroups, they are Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negroid. Indonesia, as the fourth-largest country in the world in term of population size, consists of mostly Mongolian and Negroid. While the western part of Indonesia is originally Mongolian descendants, the eastern part of it consists of Melanesian people which is part of the Negroid race. Melanesia term is derived from Greek’s word, melas, which means ‘black’ and nesoi, which means ‘islands’, referring to the dark skin of the inhabitants. In Indonesia, Melanesian people are mostly coming from East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku, North Maluku, West Papua, and Papua province.
Geographically, the ethnic group Melanesia is spread from northwest to southeast of Pacific Islands, begins with New Guinea (half of it belongs to Indonesia, which consists of Papua and West Papua, and the other part is an independent country of Papua New Guinea) and continues through Fiji, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and other small islands. Based on United Nations statistic, there are around 10 million of Melanesian people inhabiting the above islands which is equivalent to 0.14% of the world population totally.
If we go back to where the history begins, Melanesians evolve from being traditional to a more contemporary way of living. Let’s take a look further.
Papuans, as the earliest culture existed in the area, occupied the Sahul continents (the Australian and Papua continental plates) at least 40,000 years ago, before the later culture group, Austronesians, came. These people adopted a hunting and gathering way of life as they were living in a tropical rainforest, while the people who lived in the mountain practiced slash-and-burn farming method. Papuans have domesticated root crops and pigs around 9,000 years ago, at the same time of the dawn of agriculture in Middle East area. By 5,000 years ago, Papuan people have started to incorporate water control system and swine husbandry into their agriculture practice.
About 4.000 years ago, Austronesians people from Southeast Asia moved into the area. Their presence can be seen from the distinctive pottery and shell ornaments they made as well as the tools they used, which define the Lapita culture. Austronesian people spoke Austronesian language that related to the languages which were being spoken by people in Indonesia and Philippines. This language is the ancestor of the language in the coastal eastern New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomons islands, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, as well as central and eastern Polynesia and Micronesia. In Indonesia, Austronesian language is used by people in Flores, Sumba, and some other islands of eastern Indonesia while Papuan languages are used by the people in Timor, Halmahera, and the Alor archipelago.
Austronesian people depended on maritime and root- and tree-crop cultivation for a living. They made an economic interchange with Papuans who already had a well-developed agricultural system. The interchange was also suggested to include cultural traditions and religion. The mix of both Austronesian and Papuan culture is varied across Melanesia. However, Austronesians are more closely related to people who spoke Austronesian in another part of Melanesian region than the Papuans in interior New Guinea.
By 2,000 years ago, due to the increasing of separation of language and dialect groups, the internecine warfare and probably the spread of diseases, the Melanesian region experienced some transformations. The transformations included the hierarchical political systems and also the associated trade networks which were broken down. It was also accelerated by the arrival of European people to the region in which later disrupted the trade and the traditional authority systems within the community.
The colonialization pushed Melanesian people to be involved in the world economic system. This practice allowed many regions to be more accessible and cause a change in the local economy. The Christianization and Westernization movement which had started later eliminated many cultural traditions in Melanesian regions, including in West Papua.
Portuguese arrived in the Moluccas in 1512, which marked the beginning of colonialization of the western in Indonesia. They came not only for Indonesian spices, but also looked for a permanent resident. Thus, as soon as West Papua became widely known by the Europeans, more people from Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, and Netherland to reside there. Since then, Melanesian people in West Papua experienced a drastic change in economy, tradition, religion, as well as politics until it officially joined the Republic of Indonesia in 1963.