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Melanesian culture

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Melanesian culture, the beliefs and practices of the indigenous peoples of the ethnogeographic group of Pacific Islands known as Melanesia. From northwest to southeast, the islands form an arc that begins with New Guinea (the western half of which is called Papua and is part of Indonesia, and the eastern half of which comprises the independent country of Papua New Guinea) and continues through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), New Caledonia, Fiji, and numerous smaller islands. The Andesite Line, a geological feature of extreme volcanic and earthquake activity, separates Melanesia from Polynesia in the east and from Micronesia in the north, along the Equator; in the south, Melanesia is bounded by the Tropic of Capricorn and Australia. Melanesia’s name was derived from the Greek melas ‘black’ and nesoi ‘islands’ because of the dark skin of its inhabitants. In the early 21st century the population of Melanesia was approximately 10 million.

Although the prehistory of most of island Melanesia has not been fully documented, evidence suggests that the cultural, linguistic, and political fragmentation that prevailed at the time of European arrival, with a half-dozen languages and cultures often represented on a single island, was partly a product of transformation that had occurred during the previous 2,000 years. Hierarchical political systems and associated trade networks seem to have broken down during this period and appear to have been accompanied by the increasing separation of language or dialect groups. The causes of these transformations, perhaps including internecine warfare and the spread of diseases (malaria in particular), remain unclear. These changes were accelerated by European arrival, which further disrupted trade systems, intensified intercommunity warfare by supplying firearms, thinned populations by introducing diseases and indentured labour, and eroded traditional authority systems.

Europeans first exerted colonial influence in Melanesia in 1660, when the Dutch announced sovereignty over New Guinea in an effort to keep other countries from encroaching on the eastern end of the profitable Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Over the next several centuries Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, and Japan each established colonial claims to various parts of Melanesia. Colonial disruptions continued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Contemporary Melanesia

The colonial processes that caused the indigenous peoples of Melanesia to become part of the world economic system included the pressures of Christianization and Westernization. In some areas these forces have operated for more than a century. In other areas, however, particularly the interior highlands of New Guinea, Western penetration came as late as the 1930s or, in some places, the 1950s. By the early 21st century, even the most remote regions had become accessible, and they have been transformed. Squatter settlements on urban peripheries abound, and migration into towns is increasingly common, with both phenomena serving to link village and urban life.

Christianity has been a powerful force of change within the region since the late 1800s. In the colonial period, missions introduced Western education and caused local economic change. As a result, many of the leaders in Melanesia have come from mission schools and backgrounds, and some have been trained as Christian ministers or evangelists. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Melanesian postcolonial states were among the most Christian nations on earth.

Different Christian denominations, and even individual missionaries, have in varying degrees been sympathetic to and knowledgeable about local languages and cultures. Together, missionary work and the imposition of colonial rule eliminated a variety of cultural traditions, some of which were quite intricate and rich and others of which were violent and exploitative.

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Since the 1970s, multinational and transnational corporations have moved into Melanesia and have brought additional changes, especially in Papua New Guinea. Most of the international logging investment in Melanesia has centred on that country (which has more than 175,000 square miles [450,000 square km] of forested land). Logging also plays a dominant role in the Solomon Islands, where it accounts for a large proportion of merchandise exports.

Mining—mainly by multinational corporations—has also become significant for many Melanesian countries, notably Papua New Guinea. Local opposition to copper mining on the island of Bougainville (part of Papua New Guinea) was apparent when prospecting began in the 1960s. Although various ad hoc agreements were made, local landowners remained dissatisfied with royalty and compensation payments. In 1989 rebellion and physical violence brought that mine to a close. Another mine on Bougainville began production in 1982 and also ran into major disputes with landowners and provincial governments.

These forms of economic development have caused the formerly classless Melanesian societies to become class-stratified, with politicians, public servants, and entrepreneurs constituting an emerging elite. Moreover, at least in the English-speaking areas, the elites increasingly share a common (Westernized and consumerist) culture and common political and economic interests that cut across cultural, linguistic, and national boundaries.

Among the new elite, cultural nationalist ideologies have tended to focus on traditional customs (kastom) and “the Melanesian way.” Cultural revivalism has become a prominent theme. Art festivals, cultural centres, and ideologies of kastom have cast in a more positive light the traditional cultural elements, such as ceremonial exchange, dance and music, and oral traditions, that had long been suppressed by the more conservative and evangelistic forms of Christianity. The emphasis on traditional culture as a source of identity finds expression in the perpetuation or revival of old systems of exchange. In Papua New Guinea, the kula exchange of shell armbands and necklaces continues in the Massim region (in southeastern Papua New Guinea), carried on by air travel and among politicians, professionals, and public servants, as well as by villagers in canoes. Members of the new elite still conspicuously pay bridewealth in shell valuables.

Traditional Melanesia

In the past, Melanesia was a meeting ground of two cultural traditions and populations: Papuans and Austronesians. The earliest, or Papuan, tradition is ancient. Papuans occupied the Sahul continent (now partly submerged) at least 40,000 years ago. As hunting and gathering peoples whose ways of life were adapted to the tropical rainforest, they occupied the equatorial zone of the continent, which became the vast island of New Guinea after sea levels rose at the end of the Pleistocene.

Modern descendants of these early populations speak languages that belong to a number of different families that together are categorized as Papuan languages. Papuan peoples domesticated root crops and sugarcane and may have kept domestic pigs as early as 9,000 years ago, contemporaneous with the dawn of agriculture in the Middle East. By 5,000 years ago agricultural production in parts of the New Guinea highlands had incorporated systems of water control and swine husbandry, both of which were intensified over subsequent millennia.

About 4,000 years ago, Austronesian peoples moved into the area, arriving by sea from Southeast Asia. By 3,500 years ago they had occupied parts of the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago. Their presence is marked by the appearance of the distinctive pottery, tools, and shell ornaments that define the Lapita culture. They spoke an Austronesian language related to languages of the Philippines and Indonesia and ancestral to many of the languages of coastal eastern New Guinea; much of the Bismarck Archipelago; the Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia; and those of central and eastern Micronesia and Polynesia.

Evidence of long-distance trade, particularly of shell ornaments and obsidian, suggests that the widely spread communities characterized by the Lapita tradition had become linked politically by 3,000–3,500 years ago. The settlement of eastern Micronesia by Austronesian speakers, perhaps from the Solomons, apparently took place during this period. Fiji was initially colonized by Lapita peoples and became a springboard to the settlement of western Polynesia. The Austronesian speakers, who had a maritime orientation and sophisticated seagoing technology, probably had a system of hereditary chiefs with political-religious authority. They also had elaborate cosmologies and complex religious systems that were similar to those recorded in western Polynesia.

The Bismarck Archipelago east of New Guinea was already occupied by speakers of Papuan languages when the Austronesians arrived. The populations that now occupy the archipelago and the arcs of islands extending to the southeast represent the mixing of Papuan and Austronesian peoples and cultures. The mixing may have taken place largely within the Bismarcks before the islands to the southeast were settled, although the exact processes involved and the relative contributions of these historical populations are debated. A great deal of economic interchange took place between the Austronesian peoples, whose economies were based on root- and tree-crop cultivation and on maritime technology, and the Papuans, who also had well-developed agricultural and technological systems. It is probable that an interchange of other cultural traditions, from social organization to religion, took place as well. However, some Austronesian-speaking communities—perhaps those that retained their maritime orientation—appear to have remained relatively isolated from intermarriage and cultural interchange.

Although the mix of Austronesian and Papuan cultural elements varies across Melanesia, in many ways the joint classification of both Austronesian peoples and Papuan peoples as Melanesians—in contrast to Micronesians and Polynesians—does a disservice to the ethnological, linguistic, and archaeological evidence. The Austronesians of northern Vanuatu and the southeastern Solomons speak languages very closely related to those of Polynesia and eastern Micronesia. Culturally, Austronesians are in many ways more closely related to these other Austronesian-speaking peoples than to the Papuans of interior New Guinea. Their religious systems are also similar to those in Polynesia and, for example, incorporate such concepts as mana (“potency”) and, in the Solomons, tapu (“sacred”; see taboo).

Settlement patterns

In many areas of Melanesia, local groups lived in scattered homesteads and hamlets rather than villages. Often these settlements were occupied for short periods until the groups moved on to follow cultivation cycles. In general, larger, more permanent settlements were characteristic of coastal environments, and smaller, shifting ones were characteristic of interior areas. Where communities were in danger of surprise attack, they tended to cluster more closely. In interior areas they were usually sited on ridges and peaks.

In parts of the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea, large villages—some with populations of more than 1,000 people—represented the aggregation of descent-based local groups. In the Trobriand Islands (in the Massim area of southeastern Papua New Guinea), villages of up to 200 people were arrayed around a central dance ground. Villages at least as large were packed together on coral platforms in the lagoons of northern Malaita, in the Solomon Islands.

Residential separation of men and women was common. Women and children typically occupied domestic dwellings, while men resided in clubhouses or cult houses, a focus of ritual and military solidarity common in many areas of Melanesia. The huge cult houses of the Sepik River basin and the southern Papuan coast are examples. In the mountainous interior of New Guinea, men’s longhouses were built as defenses against the threat of raiding and as centres of cult activities.

Gender relations

In some parts of Melanesia, male-female relationships were polarized. In New Guinea a zone of extreme polarization extended from the Papuan coast (Marind-anim and Asmat peoples) along the southern face of the Highlands (Anga speakers and Papuan plateau peoples) and the high central mountains (Mountain Ok peoples) down into the Sepik. Peoples throughout this zone were preoccupied with ideas about growth and the physical fluids and substances (semen, vaginal fluids, and menstrual blood) that they regarded as agents of reproduction and growth. All of these were seen as inherently powerful and therefore potentially dangerous.

Gender opposition was the basis for this area’s division of labour: as the major food producers for their communities, women ensured the group’s corporeal survival; men ensured the group’s metaphysical survival by engaging in activities meant to control the ineffable, as represented by body fluids and other “strong” substances. These activities emphasized membership in secret single-sex cults in which they practiced ritualized homosexuality, observed elaborate initiation rituals, and celebrated warfare.

Concerns related to reproductive fluids echoed throughout Melanesia in various forms, although relations between the sexes were often seen as complementary rather than conflicting. The central role of women in everyday domestic politics was widely valued and recognized, and in many areas ritual status or local group affiliation was based on maternal as well as paternal links. In addition, women were often accorded importance in ritual and as healers, elders, and ancestors. In the eastern Highlands, gendered cultural traditions included folklore relating to an ancient female power who fell into the hands of men, the physical separation of the sexes, and men’s initiations, cult rituals, use of sacred flutes, and ritualized nose- or penis-bleeding ceremonies (ostensibly in imitation of menstruation). In the Sepik basin, complexes of “pseudoprocreative” ritual accompanied male cult activities.

In the central and western Highlands, where populations were dense and sweet potato and pig production were intensive, men’s lives focused on the politics of extracting female labour, acquiring prestige and power through exchange, and mobilizing armed strength, all of which subordinated their supposed risk of pollution by the female body.

In the Massim area, the reproductive and productive powers of women were represented in social relations and in ideologies of descent and cosmic processes, and in some areas women played prominent parts in certain rituals. Matrilineages (in much of the Massim called susu [“breast” or “breast milk”]) provided symbols of cosmic reproduction as well as physical and social reproduction. While some polarization of the sexes is reported in accounts from the Solomons and Vanuatu, there the sexual segregation of and concerns with ritual pollution seem to have had more to do with the preservation of symbolic boundaries than with inherent dangers attributed to bodily essences.

Kinship and local groups

The societies of precolonial Melanesia characteristically organized themselves into local groups that were based on kinship and descent and linked together by intermarriage. In the usual absence of centralized political institutions, these local groups were relatively autonomous. In most areas they were relatively small, having between 20 and 100 members. In densely settled areas of the New Guinea Highlands and parts of the Sepik River area, however, kinship- and descent-based polities were considerably larger.

Under this system, domestic groups or individuals typically held rights over gardens and cultivated trees, while local kin groups held corporate title to the land itself. That is, land was inherited and held collectively by the descendants of those who initially cleared it. Use rights might then be extended to others. In coastal zones, corporate title might also obtain for reefs or fishing grounds. In many areas the relationship between people and land was conceptualized in terms of chains of descent from a group of founding ancestors, the links of which could be reckoned through the male line (patrilineal descent), the female line (matrilineal descent), or some combination thereof (cognatic descent). Patrilineal descent systems prevail in most of lowland New Guinea, northern Vanuatu, and New Caledonia, and matrilineal descent systems are used in much of the Massim, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands. Nevertheless, considerable variation is found within these areas.

Societies of the central and western Highlands of New Guinea have been described as segmentary patrilineal descent systems. The segmentary structures, or phratries—essentially groups of clans that share a mythical ancestor—characteristically use brother-brother and father-son links to represent what were once in fact relatively unstable political alliances. Phratries were important when intergroup warfare was common because they provided a structure through which to conjoin otherwise distantly related groups during a period when the sheer size of local polities was a key to survival. While some groups have continued to emphasize the chains of descent connecting the living to their ancestors, most seem unconcerned with such connections. They use father-son links as the main mechanism of group recruitment but are open to the attachment of refugees and individuals connected through women.

Ties of intermarriage were important in creating and maintaining connections between descent- or kinship-based local groups. Marriages negotiated with enemies made at least temporary allies of them. Where marriage entailed a transfer of rights to a woman’s children and labour from her natal family to that of her husband, it was validated by bridewealth in the form of pigs or other valuables or services. This custom, in which a groom’s family compensates a bride’s family for the loss of her labour and as surety of fair treatment for the bride and any children of the marriage, has remained resilient in much of Melanesia despite Christianity and capitalist economic relationships.

Polygyny, a form of marriage in which two or more wives share a husband, was relatively widespread, at least for prominent leaders. It also tended to perpetuate the social hierarchies within a community, as polygynous families had more productive and reproductive labour with which to accumulate surplus pigs and root crops than did those of their monogamous counterparts. In some areas, as in the Trobriand Islands, polygynous marriages of high-ranking leaders were instruments of political alliance and of tributary relationships between descent-based local groups. For example, in the Trobriands, because a matrilineal subclan was obligated to cultivate yams and ceremonially present them to the husbands of its absent female members, a leader with many wives became a centre of yam distribution. Where polygyny was not practiced, leaders could draw labour from their followers by financing the bridewealth payments of subsidiary families.

Kinship ties created through marriage alliances crosscut and were complementary to divisions based on unilineal descent. In the patrilineally organized societies of lowland New Guinea and island Melanesia, a person’s connection to the mother’s group and ancestors was often recognized in acts of kinship support, in ritual, and in the parts played by the groups in marriages, mortuary ceremonies, and other exchanges. In the matrilineally organized societies of island Melanesia, ties to the father’s relatives were similarly expressed. The complementary parts played by maternal and paternal subclans in Trobriand mortuary rites were particularly complex. Throughout Melanesia, obligations toward kin constituted the ultimate moral imperative. Systems of exchange grew out of kinship obligation. Rights deriving from birth commonly had to be validated by gifts or the fulfillment of obligations.

Warfare and feuding

The cultural orientations of many Melanesian peoples were shaped by a warrior ethic—an ethos of bravery, violence, vengeance, and honour—and by religious imperatives that promoted aggression. Large-scale armed confrontations between warriors were common in parts of New Guinea and some parts of island Melanesia. Evidence from the New Guinea Highlands and other parts of the island suggests that warfare, or in some areas clandestine raiding, had a high cost in human life: among the Mae Enga of the western Highlands, as many as 15 percent of male deaths occurred in war, and periodic resumptions of armed combat took a substantial number of lives. Victorious groups often displaced their enemies. Homicidal raiding was widespread and was associated with headhunting in such regions as the southern New Guinea coast (Asmat and Marind-anim) and the western Solomons (Roviana and Vella Lavella) and with cannibalism in others (southern Massim and New Caledonia).

In some areas, such as Malaita in the Solomons and much of Vanuatu, large-scale combat was rare, but feuds across kin groups were endemic. Death was often attributed to sorcery, accusations of which typically triggered vengeance murders; so too, in some areas, did ritual insults or accusations of seduction, adultery, or theft. Vengeance killings usually continued to be perpetrated by each side of a feud until the murders balanced out or blood money was paid.

Political leadership

In both Papuan- and Austronesian-speaking Melanesia, leaders of local groups characteristically emerged on the basis of success in the prestige economy, warfare, or some combination thereof. This type of achieved (as opposed to inherited) leadership, based on status gained through entrepreneurial success and accompanying influence and obligations, has been referred to by the stereotypical term Big Man.

There is a serious problem with the Big Man stereotype because, in many parts of island Melanesia, societies were led by hereditary chiefs, at least at the time of first European contact. This was true for parts of Austronesian-speaking coastal New Guinea, parts of the Solomons, parts of Vanuatu, and most of New Caledonia. In other areas leadership was based on conceptions of rank but with succession to leadership based on a complex relation between hereditary right and demonstrated ability. In much of precolonial island Melanesia, particularly in the coastal areas, hereditary rank and demonstrated achievement typically operated together to confer leadership, with each reinforcing the other. The power of these local leaders often derived from monopolies over trade or prestige exchange systems or from regional domination based on war, both of which were disrupted by Europeans.

Production and technology

The ancient root-crop cultivation systems of Papuan and Austronesian peoples depended on swidden or slash-and-burn horticulture, a practice of shifting cultivation whereby rainforest gardens are cleared, planted, harvested, and then left fallow for periods of up to a generation. Fire and ground stone tools—and, in some coral-island areas, shell tools—were used to clear forests. Wooden digging sticks were used for cultivation.

The primary plant domesticates were yams (Dioscorea species) and taro (Colocasia esculenta), with other domesticates such as plantains (Musa paradisiaca), sago (Metroxylon species), pandanus (Pandanus species), leafy greens (such as Hibiscus manihot), and sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum). In swampy areas of New Guinea, sago production continues to support dense populations. Sweet potatoes, an American domesticate that reached New Guinea through the Moluccas around the 16th century, allowed an intensification of production and dense settlement of higher altitudes, where species of Pueraria (a genus of root vegetables) and taro had been cultivated earlier. Over centuries, the expansion of intensified cultivation in the great highland valleys of New Guinea transformed the island’s montane forest hunting territories into tracts of Imperata grass, further accelerating the residents’ reliance on pig husbandry and intensified production, particularly of sweet potatoes.

In island Melanesia, yams and taro have traditionally been the major staple crops. The two have quite different methods of production as well as symbolic meanings, and a community’s focus on one or the other tends to structure social life. For example, yams are planted and harvested seasonally. The plants’ edible tubers, if unblemished and dry, keep for several months. Hence, communities that focus on yam production tend to have an annual cycle and to emphasize communal labour and common enterprise.

Taro corms, on the other hand, rot quickly after harvest, and taro has no seasonal cycle. Taro shoots are replanted after the corms have been cut off, so that both harvest and planting are continuous throughout the year. This promotes forms of cultivation that emphasize individual families and other flexible local groups. The traditional importance of this crop was especially apparent in areas where people expended considerable amounts of labour to maximize its production. In New Guinea and parts of island Melanesia, for instance, people increased taro production by investing time and energy in creating various combinations of water control, soil mounding, composting, and terracing. Taro’s importance in parts of Vanuatu and New Caledonia was similarly evident in these regions’ terraced and irrigated fields. Likewise, the mounded and composted gardens of parts of highland New Guinea, associated with water control, allowed for the intensification of production and the continuous use of land.

The production of root and tree crops was augmented by the raising of domestic pigs, fishing, the hunting of marsupials and birds, and sometimes the gathering of insects and grubs. Wild vegetable foods, including tubers, greens, nuts (notably the canarium almond), and fruits, were used to augment diets or to provide emergency rations.

A range of cultigens used for purposes other than food complemented Melanesia’s food crops. The areca nut and accompanying betel pepper, for example, continue to be widely chewed as a mild stimulant and were a crucial medium of sociality in large zones of Melanesia. Kava, a drink derived from the roots of a pepper plant (Piper methysticum), served a similar purpose in parts of Vanuatu and in Fiji. Plants such as ginger and ti (Cordyline fruticosa) were used in ritual, magic, and medicine.

Although swidden horticulture typified the region, many peoples of montane New Guinea relied heavily on hunting and gathering and had low-intensity food-production systems. Competition for hunting territories was a major factor in warfare and raiding, particularly among the peoples of the ecologically marginal zones of the southern regions of the Highlands.

In island Melanesia, coastal zones offered rich environments for the exploitation of fish, shellfish, and sea turtles. Coastal zones were rich in sources of shell used for valuables and ornaments, in salt and lime, and in marine food products, which coastal groups traded with peoples of the interior. In some areas, the trade of root crops for marine products was institutionalized. In northern Malaita, in the Solomons, coastal dwellers and residents of the interior bartered fish for root vegetables at regular markets. Other Solomons coastal communities specialized in manufacturing and exporting shell beads, which were widely used as valuables. Similar arrangements occurred in the Admiralty Islands and other areas of island Melanesia.

Peoples of New Guinea and the islands to the east commanded a broad range of Neolithic technology, including the manufacture of ground stone adzes and axes. They also made bags and nets from bush fibres, using them for fishing, hunting, trapping, foraging, and carrying. Bark cloth was widely manufactured. Giant bamboo served a multitude of purposes, providing cooking vessels, water containers, torches, and carving knives. Melanesian peoples also constructed canoes that could range in size and complexity from small dugouts to elaborate composite seagoing vessels. Their weapons included bows and arrows, spears, and clubs.

Although these various forms of technology were distributed throughout the region, particular peoples specialized in the production of certain items. To some extent, specialization followed the distribution of resources, such as clay for pottery, chert or greenstone for tool blades, and trees for canoes or weapons. However, systems of trade and regional exchange seem to have depended on political and cultural imperatives as well as the local availability of resources.

Trade and exchange systems

The regional trading systems of the islands around the eastern end of New Guinea were particularly elaborate. In the Massim, people traded pottery from the Amphlett Islands and canoe timber and greenstone blades from Muyua (Woodlark Island). Carved platters, canoe prow boards, and other specialized products were complemented by a flow of yams and pigs from areas with rich resources to smaller, ecologically less-favoured islands. Some islanders, such as those from Tubetube in the southern Massim, produced very little themselves and specialized instead as middlemen. Similar interdependencies and specializations occurred in the Vitiaz Strait, between New Guinea and New Britain.

Through chains of intermediary trading partnerships between neighbouring peoples, exchange systems in the interior of New Guinea connected communities that were otherwise separated by hundreds of miles of rugged mountains. Such networks carried salt, shell, and other objects from coasts to interiors, and forest products, such as black palm, from interiors to coasts.

Both Papuan-speaking and Austronesian-speaking regions of Melanesia had highly elaborated exchange systems in which surpluses of pigs and root crops, as well as ceremonial valuables—usually shell beads or other shell objects, but also including dolphin and dog teeth and a range of other items—were exchanged. Elaborate ceremonial exchanges, mortuary feasts, homicide-compensation payments, bridewealth presentations, and various forms of competitive feasting were all foci of community production, social cooperation, status rivalry, and political conflict. In some areas competitive exchanges were a surrogate for warfare, and in some instances they seem to have grown out of homicide compensation.

Complex systems of prestige feasting, often with a strong competitive element, have been described for many parts of island Melanesia, including Goodenough Island (in the Massim) and the Solomons. In precolonial northern New Hebrides, status rivalry was played out through complex graded societies in which men moved to progressively higher grades by sponsoring feasts and presenting valuables and pigs. In New Guinea the most highly developed exchange systems were those of the western Highlands: the Enga tee, the Hagen moka, and other mass exchanges of pigs and shell. Cycles of pig production were orchestrated so that vast surpluses of sweet potatoes were required to feed expanded herds. Mass pig kills, or the presentation of live pigs to the leaders of rival clans, were a focus of political rivalry and community labour.

In island Melanesia the best-known prestige exchange system was the kula of the Massim, documented by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in 1920. As he described it, the kula entailed the constant movement of valuables through a vast circular network of island communities. Kula partners, men who spoke different but related languages and observed slightly different cultural traditions, traveled long distances by carved and decorated outrigger canoes, and later by motorboat and even airplane, to exchange shell valuables. These superficially useless items circulated through the network: shell-bead necklaces passed around the ring in a clockwise direction and were exchanged for decorative shell armbands, which moved counterclockwise. The exchanges were made between partners in neighbouring communities or, in the most dangerous and prestigious exchanges, between neighbouring islands. The exchanges engendered by the kula also provided opportunities for the transmission of knowledge and the increase of individual status. Indeed, these elements of the kula are considered by many to have been as important as the circulation of the objects themselves. Research in different parts of the kula region has shown the exchange to have been considerably more complex than Malinowski was able to ascertain from his vantage point in the Trobriands. It has also been highly resilient in the face of Westernization and economic change.

Although strung shell beads and other valuables were best known as exchange tokens in the prestige economy, in some parts of Melanesia they also served very much like money—as media of economic value and exchange. They were used to buy and sell pigs, fish, craft products, and even land. The tambu (shell currency) of the Tolai of New Britain are well known, and similar valuables were used on Malaita and in some other areas as generalized instruments of value, with standard denominations and standard prices for commodities.


Melanesians had a strong orientation to ancestors and the past, but it was a past manifested in the present, with ancestral ghosts and other spirits participating in everyday social life. Human effort in the uncertain projects of war, food production, and the pursuit of prestige was thought to succeed only when complemented by support from invisible beings and forces, which were manipulated by magical formulas and elicited through prayer and sacrifice. The presence and effects of ghosts and spirits were manifested in dreams, revealed in divination, and inferred from human success or failure, prosperity or disaster, and health or death. In such a world, religion was not a separate sphere of the transcendental but a part of everyday life.

Religion and magic were not clearly distinguishable. The most sacred rituals often entailed the performance of magic accompanied by spells and the manipulation of special substances. The concepts of mana (“efficacy” or “potency”) and tapu (“sacred, forbidden, off-limits”), well known in Polynesia, were fairly widely distributed in Melanesia as well.

Melanesian societies lacked full-time religious specialists, so those who acted as priests or as community magicians, intermediating with ghosts and spirits, were indistinguishable from others in daily life. Some forms of everyday magic—for gardening or fishing or for attracting valuables or lovers—were widely known, although knowledge of magic often constituted a form of personal property. Some forms, especially those used to aid in fighting or thievery, tended to be closely guarded, and malevolent magic was secretly held and generally used in clandestine fashion. In many Melanesian societies sorcery was seen as the major cause of death or illness. Belief in witchcraft occurred in many areas. Some highland peoples, such as Chimbu, Kuma, and Hewa, believed that witches—humans acting in the grip of forces or agencies beyond their conscious control—preyed on the living, taking possession of them or draining their bodily substances.

The advent of colonialism saw the old religions begin to give way under the combined pressures of Christianity and capitalist development. A striking phenomenon of the early colonial period was the emergence of cargo cults in coastal New Guinea and island Melanesia. These movements, such as the Vailala Madness (1919) of the Gulf Province and the cargo cults of the Rai coast, were based on the revelations by local prophets that the ancestors were withholding European material goods from indigenous peoples. Cult doctrines included the iconoclastic destruction of old ceremonial objects and the moral, social, and logistical preparation for the arrival of vast quantities of Western “cargo,” expected to be delivered by ship or plane. Cargo cults were widespread in New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and parts of the Solomons and New Hebrides (the John Frum Movement of Tanna is well known). Some of the movements were highly political and explicitly anticolonial in character, with a spectrum connecting millenarian movements, such as the Vailala Madness, at one end and political movements with mystical overtones, such as the postwar Maasina Rule movement in the Solomons, at the other.


Melanesian art is highly varied. In much of highland New Guinea, the body itself becomes a focus for art; face and body painting, wigs and headdresses, and elaborate costumes are all used. In lowland New Guinea, ebullient art traditions, like the paintings and carvings by such Sepik peoples as Iatmul and Abelam, have become widely known. The curvilinear art of the Massim style, of which Trobriand canoe prow boards and dancing shields are examples, has also attracted interest.

The malanggan carvings of New Ireland are equally spectacular, well known, and relatively well documented. The latter, in contrast to the Sepik and Massim carvings, are ephemeral art; the fretwork malanggan, like some of the fern bole carvings of Vanuatu, were created for ceremonies and abandoned or destroyed afterward.

In some Melanesian cultural traditions, carvings and other art forms had strong religious significance. Masks, which were a focus of creativity in several regions, were often used in elaborate ceremonials, with masked figures impersonating mythical beings or dramatizing cult secrets. Many peoples, however, decorated virtually every object not immediately discarded, however utilitarian.

Melanesian dance, music, and oral traditions have been less well documented, partly because (until the era of tape recording and film) they were less easy to preserve than material objects and partly because the Christianization of much of the area led to the abandonment of many forms of music and dance. Although it is difficult to generalize, dancing often focused on displaying the bodies and costumes of the dancers, and sometimes the collective strength of the group they represented. Complex dance forms have been recorded from some areas. Musical genres range from funeral dirges and love songs to highly complex forms such as polyphonic panpipe music with as many as eight contrapuntal voices. Also characteristic of the region are various genres of epic narrative, myth, folktale, and oratory, redolent with metaphor and mythic allusion. These traditions too have often been lost because of the incursions of Christianity and the unavailability, until modern times, of effective recording devices.

Since the 1970s, there has been a revival of traditional art forms, especially of Melanesian designs that are produced in new media, such as silk-screen prints. An indigenous literature (both fiction and poetry) also blossomed in the early 1970s. By the early 21st century, Melanesian music included a range of syncretic practices that creatively accommodate both Western influences and an emerging creative local style. See also Oceanic art and architecture; Oceanic music and dance; Oceanic literature.


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