What is your first thought after hearing Melanesia? You might relate the name to the dark people inhabiting the island of New Guinea; however, it should be broader than that. Melanesia is derived from two Greek words – Melano which means “black” and Nesos signifying “island”. The early term was applied in 1832 by Jules Dumont d’Urville, a French explorer who made an expedition in the Pacific islands. Why it is called so as the naming has an idea to distinguish the areas of Polynesia and Micronesia.
In the Indonesian context, Melanesia refers to groups of islands comprised of provinces like Nusa Tenggara Timur, North Maluku, Maluku, West Papua, and Papua. Living up to its given name which means “dark islands”, the regions are dominated by the race whose physical conditions including tanned complexion, tremendous bone skeleton, big nose, and curly hair. In the term of science, the people are called Melanesian while the locals often associate it with Eastern Indonesian or “Orang Indonesia Timur.”
The History of Melanesia
According to an Indonesian researcher from the national archeology center named Truman Simanjuntak, the Melanesian regions had been invaded by people since 60,000 years ago. At the beginning, the inhabitants lived in caves, did food gathering, foraged for meals by hunting, creatively created things made of stone, as well as inventing fire. Aside from fulfilling their basic necessity, the old Melanesian community was fascinatingly famous for their artistic value – you will find their caves are dotted with an array of dazzling wall paintings, be it handprints or wild animal characters.
The ancient people of Melanesia also came with faith. Their ritual tradition can be identified by seeing their unique death funeral especially at the end of the Pleistocene period. Professor Truman also adds that the existence of Melanesian is influenced by four facts. The first one is that the race had known a technique how to make fireplace since 39,000 to 18,000 years ago. Additionally, the patency about the ornate design of palm prints on the cave walls in the island of Celebes indicates that the people were sophisticated in art and culture. And the same is true with the figures of deer pigs.
The second interesting side is the reason why the ancient people migrate to the areas of Melanesia is no other than the rise of sea level that occurred 12,000 years ago. Turman says that the global disasters had let millions of people run into diaspora phenomenon. Then, the acculturation process between Melanesian and Austronesian took place around 4,300 years ago creating an unusual social interaction in the archipelago. And the final point you might think it’s fabulous is the collaboration of both Melanesian and Mongoloid societies ubiquitously found across the nation.
Today’s Melanesian People and Culture
Although the Melanesian historical evidence is found in Central Indonesia, the dark societies dominate the Eastern part of the archipelago ranging from East Nusa Tenggara to West Papua. Each region in Indonesian Melanesia has diverse customs, traditions, and even languages. Speaking of the population based on the data collected by the Indonesian ministry of culture and education, the total residents living in the area reaches around 13 million people in 2016. Out of the whole population number in the Pacific region, Indonesia is home to the largest one. 80 percent of Melanesian people dwell in the country.
When dealing with the locals’ livelihood, most Melanesian people work as farmers and fishermen. As the lands in Indonesian Melanesia are loaded with plantation and dense jungle, the residents usually cultivate sago trees, sweet potatoes, corn, and palm plants as well. The cattle farm is another significant sector that productively supports the local economy. Instead of caring cows and buffaloes like the rest of Indonesian citizens, the public of Melanesia is fond of raising pigs and wild boars. Water also plays an important role bringing in big income in the dark region. Some catch some fishes both in the sea and marsh.
Unlike the residents living on the west side of Indonesia who rely on rice for the staple food, Melanesian people can’t be apart from papeda and corn. Do you know what papeda is? It is sago congee which has gluey texture, native to West Papua and Maluku. This basic meal is usually served with seafood and yellow gravy. The extreme dish made of sago worm is also recognized in Melanesia.
The main issue faced by the Melanesian nowadays in Indonesia is racism. Born and raised with different physical characteristics, the dark people often run into bad stereotype among Indonesian citizens who look more Asian. In addition to that, the right to get better life and facilities seems far behind. The land access, as well as lack of electricity, is such an endless matter that should be tackled down immediately by the government.
The concept of Melanesia reflecting West Papua and East Indonesia has been present for many decades. Arguably, the region inhabited by the dark people is indeed potential. The nature, culture, tradition, food are nothing yet captivating.