Originally came from the Greek word: Melano (Black) and Nesos (Islands), Melanesia was identified around 200 years ago by European explorers. In 1756, Charles de Brosses made a theory about black race people living in the Pacific area. Then in 1825, Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent and Jules Dumont d’Urville identified them as Melanesians. Melanesian refers to the native inhabitants of Melanesia region, and widely characterized by dark skin color and curly hair.
Many have mistaken Melanesia and thought of it as a country or race. But anthropologists choose to use the term ‘culture area’ to define Melanesia. A culture area refers to a geographical region where people share multiple similar traits such as rules and myths, and many more. As for Melanesia region, it includes Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Melanesians also migrated locally to some smaller neighboring islands such as East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku Island, or to Australia.
Though the concept of Melanesia was determined around the 18th century, researchers reveal that Melanesian existed about 50,000 to 30,000 years ago. According to Jonathan Friedlaender from Temple University, the first man who got to Australia and New Guinea and the islands nearby were some of the very early humans to get out of Africa. “This is about 40,000 years ago when Neanderthals still occupied Europe,” said Jonathan.
Then, the arrival of the Mongoloid race around 4,300 years ago led to acculturation process. There was an interaction between the Mongoloid race and Melanesian. The interaction appeared as a cultural harmonization, as well as biological through intermarriage. On the development, the Mongoloids inhabited the western part of Indonesia, while the Melanesians gradually settled in eastern Indonesia. That’s why the term “Melanesia” may be unfamiliar for some Indonesian people in Sumatra, Java, Borneo, or Bali.
The fact is, Indonesia has always been a large home for Melanesians. There are 11 million Melanesian throughout the nation; they are living in Papua, West Papua, Maluku Island (Moluccas), South Moluccas, and East Nusa Tenggara. Melanesians in Indonesia have significant roles and contribution in the history of the colonial era. Numbers of national heroes and heroines are Melanesian, including Johannes Latuharhary, Martha Christina Tiahahu, Thomas Matulessy or Pattimura, Frans Seda, Johannes Leimena, Frans Kaisiepo, and many more.
Let’s get to know Melanesians in Indonesia, especially in Papua, by learning about some of their cultures:
Myths and Musical Tradition
Melanesians share historical information through stories. One of the stories told in the Sepik River region of Papua is about a crocodile who split in two: his upper jaw became the heavens, and his lower jaw is the earth. Another origin myth is about a pair of brothers (humans) that sprang from the mud and responsible for populating the Earth.
Talk about musical traditions, there are numbers of them within Melanesia. A drum is the most common musical instruments for Melanesian. It usually has hourglass-shaped, single-headed, medium size and hand-held. Another important part of ritual life is dance. Both men and women dance; however, in many societies there are separate men’s and women’s dances.
Language and Religion
There are thousands of languages and even more dialects spoken throughout Melanesia. Some of these languages have as few as fifty speakers, while others have a few hundred thousand. Many of these languages have never been documented or described.
Fiji has three official languages: English, Bau Fijian, and Hindustani. As for in New Caledonia, the official language is French. There are more than 70 languages in the Solomon Islands, while in Vanuatu there are 3 official languages—English, France, and Baslama—along with over one hundred local languages. The island of New Guinea even has more than 700 languages in addition to three official languages.
Regarding religion, most Melanesian people belong to a Christian church. However, some pre-Christian traditional indigenous practices are still applied by many groups. Some of them still believe in a variety of spirits—which inhabit in the forests, caves, swamps, or mountains. Even when Melanesians saw the first Europeans in the highlands of Papua, they thought of it as the ghosts of their dead ancestors.
Relationship and Marriage
In some parts of Melanesia, male-female relationships were contradictory. Women are responsible for physical needs, while Men ensured the metaphysical survival of the society. Women are the food producers and caregivers to children. While men would traditionally spend most of their time in a large house to planned matters of ceremonial importance.
Marriage itself is a negotiation process between families. There are amounts of brideprice to be paid by the prospective-groom. A negative impact of the practice of brideprice in Melanesian society occurs in several cases where domestic violence is viewed as legitimate spousal discipline; as reported by Bradley C. and Kesno J. in their article Family and sexual violence in PNG: An integrated long-term strategy.
Education and Employment
Schools are part of urban life for Melanesians and have reached some remote areas. However, the education primarily focuses on traditional ways of life and society values; not the formal European-style education.
Consisting of 12 million people, Melanesia practices various ways of making a living. In Vanuatu, the economy is based on a small-scale agriculture; along with fishing, financial services, and tourism. Farming and fishing are also the main economic activity in the Solomon Island. New Caledonia received substantial financial support from France, in addition to the tourism sector. Fiji has a more developed economy, due to forest, mineral, and fish resources. While Papua New Guinea is richly endowed with natural resources but the rate of exploitation is somewhat high.