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LOCATION: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia (Irian Jaya), Vanuatu (the former New Hebrides), New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and some smaller neighboring islands
LANGUAGE: English; Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu (Papua New Guinea); Bislama (Vanuatu); Solomon Islands Pidgin English (Solomon Islands); Bahasa Indonesia (Irian Jaya); other native languages
RELIGION: Christianity; some native religions


Melanesia is not a country, but instead a “culture area.” Culture area is a term used by anthropologists to refer to a geographical region where people share many of the same traits. These traits include family structure, marriage rules, organization of society, and ways of gaining survival needs or making a living. Melanesia itself is part of a larger culture area called Oceania that includes Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and Australia. The native inhabitants of Melanesia, called Melanesians, are characteristically dark-skinned with frizzy hair. They are sometimes referred to as “Papuans,” from the Malay word papua meaning “frizzy haired.”


Melanesia includes the islands of New Guinea, Vanuatu (the former New Hebrides), New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and some smaller neighboring islands. The island of New Guinea is divided politically down the middle. The western half of the island is a province of Indonesia called Irian Jaya. The eastern half is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. New Caledonia is under the administration of France, and Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980. The Solomon Islands are divided between Papua New Guinea and the independent country of the Solomon Islands (formerly a British Protectorate).
All of Melanesia lies within the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and is south of the equator. Melanesians migrate locally to other nearby islands or to Australia. A small percentage leave the region entirely and take up residence in the United States, Canada, or Europe.


In many of the island nations that comprise Melanesia, there is more than one official national language. For instance, Papua New Guinea has three official languages: English, Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language), and Hiri Motu (an Austronesian-based pidgin language). Tok Pisin has a history based in colonialism and forced plantation labor during the 1800s in the South Pacific. The language derives from a kind of nautical English that was spread throughout the Pacific by sailors. It has similarities to English as well as to the Austronesian languages spoken by the plantation laborers. A sample sentence in Tok Pisin might look like this: Bai mi kaikai wanpela kaukau, meaning “I will eat a yam.”

Within the region of Melanesia, the island of New Guinea alone has more than one thousand different languages. Some of these languages have as few as fifty speakers, while others, such as Enga, have a few hundred thousand. Many of the these languages have never been documented or described.


None of the cultures of Melanesia ever developed a native writing system. Consequently, oral history (historical information passed on through stories) is important to them. In the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, the origin myth of many groups tells of a crocodile who split in two. His upper jaw became the heavens and his lower jaw became the earth. For many of these groups, there was also an original pair of humans that sprang from the mud and are responsible for populating the Earth. In this origin myth, however, the original pair are brothers.


Christianity has spread throughout Melanesia. Missionaries are very active in this region. Native religions are still practiced by many groups, although in modified form. In many societies in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, the original belief systems included aspects of headhunting and cannibalism. Both practices have been illegal in the region since the late 1920s. Most groups believe in a variety of spirits that inhabit the forests, mountains, and swamps. They also believe that the ghosts of their ancestors inhabit the same plane of reality that they do. In fact, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, when Melanesians saw the first Europeans, they believed them to be the ghosts of their dead ancestors returning to the community. Some groups jokingly refer to white tourists in the same way.


Independence Day is a major holiday for the independent Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. For those that belong to the British Commonwealth, British holidays such as the Queen’s birthday are celebrated in urban areas. Banks and schools are closed for those holidays, but in areas where there are no banks or schools, these holidays have little meaning.


Puberty is an especially important rite in all Melanesian societies. However, these societies differ in regard to which sex undergoes initiation rites. In the Sepik River region, males used to undergo extreme and elaborate initiation rites. These involved extensive scarification (scarring) as well as brutal treatment by older males. Scarification has all but disappeared in the Sepik region, except for the few males who can afford this expensive process. In some societies, males at puberty were expected to kill someone and take their first head. This process was halted by colonial administrators in the 1920s, soon after the first European contacts in the region. Girls generally had less harsh puberty rites. With the onset of menstruation, they often underwent a brief period of seclusion. Funerals were also important rites of passage in traditional Melanesian societies. They involved much feasting and display of emotion.


Urban and rural Melanesians greet and take leave of each other in extremely different ways. In parts of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, males used to greet each other by rubbing each other’s groin region. In most of these cultures, the Western handshake has replaced this traditional form of greeting. Special ceremonial greetings took place when one group went to trade with another.
Many groups require that marriages occur between persons who come from different villages. Special courtship rituals still take place between men and women in these instances. Among the Chimbu of Papua New Guinea, men use their singing ability to woo women. They also decorate their bodies in elaborate ways to look beautiful for the women they are trying to court. Marriages, however, have to be negotiated between the families. They usually involve the payment of a “bride price” to the bride’s father by the prospective son-in-law.


Melanesia is a tropical region and its inhabitants experience the hardships of life in an environment where rain, heat, and mosquitoes are ever-present. Malaria is endemic (native) to the region and most local inhabitants of the low-lying areas suffer from this debilitating disease. Healing is a long process in the tropics and, as a result, infection is a serious problem. Most of Melanesia, though, is a relatively healthy region of the world.


In many Melanesian societies, there is a great deal of antagonism (hostility or opposition) between men and women. It is common in many villages to have separate men’s and women’s houses. In the Sepik River region, men’s ceremonial houses are off-limits to all women and to uninitiated (non-adult) males. Men would traditionally spend most of their time in this large house where matters of ceremonial importance were often planned. Men would also often take their meals here. There were no real family meals in traditional societies along the Sepik. Food for the day was often placed in a woven basket that was suspended from the house rafters. People simply ate when they got hungry.
Women are the primary caregivers to children and the primary food producers. Women play important roles in ceremonial and political life in many Melanesian societies.
Households vary in size. In some very small societies, everyone in the group lives in one house. Antagonism between the sexes is not as dramatic among these groups as it is among larger groups. In all societies, however, the domestic space is divided between males and females.


Traditional clothing in Melanesia was minimal by Western European standards. In the highland societies of New Guinea, men went naked except for a penis sheath made from the gourd of a vine. Nowadays, men only dress this way in a few remote societies. For the most part they wear Western-style shorts or long trousers and shirts. In these societies, women wear skirts made from handmade fiber. Traditionally, an important part of personal adornment in these societies was body decoration, including elaborate painting and the use of various headgear, wigs, and other items. The most extensive adornment took place when exchanges between groups were to occur. These exchanges were times of feasting and boasting, and individual beauty was an important aspect of these events. Some individuals at these events still adorn themselves in this manner.
In many parts of Melanesia the all-purpose laplap has become the standard unisex item of clothing. Laplap refers to a piece of cloth, usually store-bought, that is wrapped around the waist or up under the armpits to cover the body, somewhat like a sarong. In the lower altitude areas, women still prefer not to wear any covering on their upper body. However, when tourists are in the village, Melanesian women may adjust the laplap to cover their breasts.

12 • FOOD

The sago palm is an important foodstuff in parts of the lowland areas of Melanesia. The pith (core tissue) of the palm is processed into a starch that can be made into pancakes or dumplings. A sago pancake has the appearance of a freshly cooked, soft tortilla. In the higher elevations, yams are the staple diet, with pork eaten on ceremonial occasions.


Many parts of Melanesia do not have access to formal, European-style education. Education focuses on traditional ways of life and the values of the society. Schools are part of urban life for Melanesians and have reached some remote areas. Education in schools revolves around literacy (establishing reading and writing skills) in the national language(s). They also prepare Melanesians for urban life, such as civil service (governmental administration) careers. In Papua New Guinea, the educational system is based on the Australian model, where formal, required education ends at grade ten. Grades eleven and twelve are only for students who wish to pursue a university education. Literacy in Tok Pisin is growing among the urban population in particular, while literacy in English is lower. Children who attend school have at least basic skills in written English.


There are a number of musical traditions within Melanesia. In the Solomon Islands, there is a tradition of panpipe orchestras. Drums are nearly universal in the musical traditions of Melanesia. Melanesian drums are usually hand-held, hourglass-shaped, and single-headed. The Tok Pisin word for this type of drum is kundu . In many highland societies of Papua New Guinea, large groups of men play drums together at ceremonial gatherings called sing sing .
Dance is another important part of ritual life. Both men and women dance; however, in many societies there are separate men’s and women’s dances.
Written literature is a recent development in Melanesia. Many pieces of written literature are the transcriptions of folklore and oral history.


Wage labor was introduced to Melanesia by European colonists. Prior to this, work was often cooperative and it continues to be for village-based projects. Individuals have certain responsibilities to their relatives and in-laws. These typically include working for them on cooperative projects such as house-building. In some societies, a son-in-law has to work in his father-in-law’s gardens for a fixed period of time after his marriage. Anthropologists call this practice “bride service.”


Soccer, rugby, and cricket are important sports in Melanesia. Some societies have changed these sports in unique ways or adapted them to meet local conditions. In a well-known case in the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, cricket is played by local rules that do not allow for a winner. In many remote villages of the various islands in the region, the inhabitants have no knowledge of these sports.


Electricity does not reach many Melanesian homes, so television is a luxury of the urban dwellers. There is one television station in Papua New Guinea called Em TV in Tok Pisin, one of the national languages of the country. Em in Tok Pisin means “it, he, or she,” so the station’s name means something close to “It’s TV.” Australian, American, and locally produced shows are aired during a limited viewing schedule. Cable and satellite service are available to the wealthy residents of the islands.
Traditional recreation involves storytelling and performances of music, dance, and song. No recreational event is complete without chewing betel nuts, which are a stimulant and a favorite of most Melanesians.


Art in most Melanesian societies is utilitarian (designed for usefulness rather than beauty). In the Sepik River region, there is an extremely well developed tradition of artistic expression involving sculpture and painting. Every item is elaborately decorated with important animals and birds, as well as geometric and abstract designs. Masks, once an important aspect of ritual performances, have now become important items of tourist art. Every year, several thousand tourists visit this area of New Guinea to purchase the art and artifacts of these people. It is not an industry that creates any wealthy Papuans, however.


Like every other group of people, Melanesians are dealing with the modern world. Alcoholism is becoming a more serious problem in parts of Melanesia where males have money and time on their hands. AIDS poses a serious health threat in Papua New Guinea, especially in urban areas. Condoms have only recently become available. The social phenomenon of “rascals” in parts of Papua New Guinea is a cause for concern for locals and visitors alike. Rascals are unemployed, disadvantaged youths who rob people as well as businesses, often assaulting their victims. Guns are rarely used in these robberies since they are difficult to come by and ammunition is illegal by Papua New Guinea law.


Codrington, Robert Henry. The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folklore. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF Press, 1957.
Holdsworth, David. Festivals and Celebrations in Papua New Guinea. Bathurst, Australia: Robert Brown & Associates, 1982.
Ryan, P., ed. The Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea . Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1972.
Spriggs, Matthew. The Island Melanesians. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.


Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Papua New Guinea. [Online] Available , 1998.

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