How Melanesian Populations and Culture Grew in Indonesia

Melanesians -
Melanesians -

Most of West Papuans are descendants of Melanesians, ethnic groups that mostly populate New Guinea (including Indonesia’s West Papua), Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Australia, and New Caledonia. From the physical standpoints, Melanesians look different than Austronesians; the latter make up major populations in Western and Central Indonesia. However, Melanesian populations have always been inseparable parts of Indonesia.

The traces of Melanesian populations in Indonesia have existed since more than three millennia ago. Archaeological and cultural proofs show that Indonesia’s past cannot be separated with Melanesian populations. Here is how the Melanesians created Indonesia’s cultural and racial diaspora in the country’s history.

The Ancient Proofs of Melanesians’ Existence in Indonesia

Several archaeological proofs found in Central Indonesia prove that Melanesians have come to this part of Indonesia since at least 40 thousand years ago. Truman Simanjuntak, a researcher from National Center of Archeology (Pusat Arkeologi Nasional) in Indonesia, said that the coming of Melanesians to Indonesia was affected by four factors:

  • The coming of Homo sapiens
Homo sapiens -
Homo sapiens –

Homo sapiens came to Indonesia around 60 thousand years ago, but the first traces of true Melanesian culture came 20 thousand years later. A cave in Maros, South Sulawesi, stores numerous handprints that form specific patterns. Another cave paintings from 35 thousand years ago show babi rusa, an endemic animal of Sulawesi.

These discoveries were proofs of Melanesians’ roots in Central and Eastern Indonesia, long after the first Homo Sapiens made the land their homes.

  • The end of Ice Age
Ice age -
Ice age –

Ice Age ended around 12 thousand years ago, which caused the rise of sea levels and changes in various lands. These situations caused many humans to move and live in different places, creating diaspora that affected the current populations.

  • Acculturation with other populations
Melanesians -
Melanesians –

The migrations of Austronesians from Mainland China and Taiwan started in between 10,000 and 4,000 BC. When the sea levels rose, many Austronesians came to various areas in Indonesia. They experienced population booms, and mixed with Melanesian populations that came before them.

Austronesians were also famous for their abilities to sail. This skill helped them spreading to wider areas, mixing with even more Melanesian populations. The “Austromelanesians”, which were the results of mating and marriages between Austronesian and Melanesian populations, continued to grow in numbers and live in Eastern Indonesia, including Papua.

  • Pre-independence and post-independence assimilation

When foreign forces from Portugal, Spain, and Netherland came to Indonesia, they started by trading, but ended up occupying many areas, slaving or killing people. This created a sense of unity among local populations, especially with Youth Pledge (Sumpah Pemuda) movement in 1928 and Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945.

After the declaration of independence, two military aggressions by the Dutch, and various other armed conflicts following the forming of the new republic, the Austromelanesian populations became inseparable parts of Indonesian diaspora.

Cultural Assimilations and Adaptations

The mix between Austronesian and Melanesian populations in Indonesia also apply to culture. There are various aspects of culture from both populations that contributed to each other’s lifestyle. Some of the results of cultural assimilations and adaptations between the two populations are:

  • “Menginang” tradition
Menginang -
Menginang –

Menginang, which is the act of chewing betel leaf and areca nut (without swallowing), is often associated with Asian culture. In Indonesia, menginang was started by the Austronesian populations in (mostly) Western and Central Indonesia. The Melanesian populations adopted this custom after getting exposed with the act.

Menginang is a unique tradition, because people treat it as a simple pleasure, like smoking. The combination between betel leaf and areca nut not only tastes refreshing, but can also be mildly addictive.

  • Weaving tradition
Weaving -
Weaving –

Weaving is a craft method that is uniquely Melanesian. In Indonesia, weaving is more popular in Eastern Indonesia, while the Western parts prefer wax-based batik drawing. The tradition of weaving was spread by the Melanesians to various areas in Indonesia, mostly in Nusa Tenggara.

  • Batik
Batik -
Batik –

Austromelanesian populations in West Papua have also adapted batik tradition, which was originally associated with Java, Bali, and Sumatra. “Batik Papua” is a term that now refers to batik with specific patterns, unique to this province. The colors are often bright, and the patterns range from leaves and flowers to Papuan warriors and Sentani Lake sharks.

  • Round axe and pottery
Pottery -
Pottery –

The Melanesians adopted several methods to craft physical tools from Austronesian populations. Round axes and potteries were originally Austronesian, but Melanesian people adopted them into their own culture.

  • Sport
Sport -
Sport –

Soccer and crickets are very popular sports among Melanesian populations. Many youths in Maluku and Papua engage in soccer, even in small islands and villages. West Papua soccer players (then Irian Jaya) has contributed to Indonesian soccer world since the 70’s. Players such as Adolof Kabo, Metu Duaramuri, Yonas Sawor, Ishak Fatari, and Boaz Solossa are among legendary names in Indonesian soccer.

Melanesian populations have become important parts of Indonesian diaspora since thousands of years ago. With these proofs, it is safe to say that Indonesia and West Papua have always been close, even when their names still did not exist.