From New World Encyclopedia
Geographic definition of Melanesia, surrounded by a pink line.

Melanesia (from Greek, meaning "black islands") is a region extending from the western side of the eastern Pacific to the Arafura Sea, north and northeast of Australia. It consists of 2,000 islands with a total land area of about 386,000 square miles (one million square kilometers), and is home to about 12 million people. These islands have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.

The term "Melanesia" was first used by Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1832 to denote an ethnic and geographical grouping of islands distinct from Polynesia and Micronesia. Today d'Urville's racial classification is considered inaccurate because it obscures Melanesia's cultural, linguistic, and genetic diversity. Most importantly, this term combines two quite distinct groups, the Austronesians and the Papuans (who themselves can be considered as comprising a number of distinct groups). The Papuans arrived in New Guinea’s around 40,000 years ago; they developed agriculture. The later wave of Austronesian people, from Taiwan, brought ocean-voyaging skills.

Ethno-cultural definition of Melanesia.
Melanesia is one of three major cultural areas in the Pacific Ocean.


The term Melanesia can be used in either an anthropological or a geographical context. In the former, the term refers to one of the three regions of Oceania whose pre-colonial population generally belongs to one ethno-cultural family as a result of centuries of maritime migrations. The geographic conception of Melanesia is used as a reference to the area where political, ethnic, and linguistic distinctions are not relevant.[1]

The term is also present in geopolitics, where the Melanesian Spearhead Group Preferential Trade Agreement is a regional trade treaty involving the states of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

This general article only covers the broad characteristics of Melanesia. For more information, see the links to the individual articles.


Melanesia's 2,000 islands and total land area of about 386,000 square miles (one million square kilometers) is home to about 12 million people. The climate of Melanesia is tropically humid. The vegetation comprises forest and jungle, providing resources, shelter, and seclusion for inland tribes.

The following islands and groups of islands are traditionally considered part of Melanesia:

Islands of mixed ancestry which do not necessarily self-identify as Melanesian:

Some of the islands to the west of New Guinea such as Halmahera, Alor, and Pantar can also be considered to be part of Melanesia, although people in this area do not make use of the term.

The Bismarck Archipelago comprises 200 islands off the northeastern coast of New Guinea and belongs to Papua New Guinea. The archipelago includes mostly volcanic islands, the most important of which are: the Admiralty Islands, Duke of York Islands, Mussau Islands, New Britain, New Hanover Island, New Ireland, and the Vitu Islands.

Fiji consists of 322 islands, of which 110 are inhabited, and 522 smaller islets. The two most important islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

New Caledonia is made up of a main island, Grande Terre, and several smaller islands, the Belep archipelago to the north, the Loyalty Islands to the east, Île des Pins to the south, the Chesterfield Islands and Bellona Reefs further west.

New Guinea, located just north of Australia, is the world's second largest island. The name Papua has been long associated with the island. The western half of the island contains the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Irian Jaya, while the eastern half forms the mainland of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.

The Solomon Islands are located east of Papua New Guinea, consist of nearly 1,000 islands, and cover a land mass of about 11,000 square miles (28,400 square kilometers).

The Maluku Islands (also known as the “Moluccas,”) are an archipelago in Indonesia, and part of the larger Malay Archipelago. They are located east of Sulawesi (Celebes), west of New Guinea, and north of Timor.

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. They are part of Queensland, a state of Australia.

Vanuatu is located some 1,100 miles (1,750 km) east of Australia, 30 miles (50 km) northeast of New Caledonia, west of Fiji and south of the Solomon Islands. Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands, of which two — Matthew and Hunter Islands — are also claimed by the French overseas department of New Caledonia.


Levuka circa 1842.

Melanesia has been the site of human habitation for tens of thousands of years. The first pre-European inhabitants of the Torres Strait Islands are believed to have migrated from the Indonesian archipelago 70,000 years ago when New Guinea was still attached to the Australian continent. New Guinea’s first inhabitants arrived around 40,000 years ago, having traveled through the southeast Asian peninsula; they developed one of the earliest known agricultures. A later wave of Austronesian people, from Taiwan, brought ocean-voyaging skills. The Maluku Islands have been occupied for 32,000 years, as have the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, where Polynesian settlers began to arrive around 4000 B.C.E.. The Lapita people arrived in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands around 1500 B.C.E.; Polynesians also arrived, beginning around the eleventh century. Vanuatu was settled around 1300 B.C.E., and Fiji around 1000 B.C.E..

Portuguese and Spanish explorers made contact with the Maluku Islands, then known as the “Spice Islands,” New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands in the sixteenth century. Dalmatian sailors were the first Europeans to reach the Bismarck Archipelago also in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese maritime explorer Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the Torres Strait in 1606, and in that year a Spanish expedition became the first Europeans to reach Vanuatu. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman visited Fiji in 1643, and the British explorer James Cook named "New Caledonia" in 1774.

European colonization of Melanesia gathered pace from the late eighteenth century. Vanuatu suffered from "blackbirding," wherein half of the adult male population of some of the islands became indentured workers in Australia. The Netherlands claimed the western half of New Guinea in 1828. Britain took over southeastern New Guinea, and Germany claimed northeastern New Guinea (including the Bismarck Archipelago) in 1884. The Dutch and the British tried to suppress warfare and headhunting throughout Melanesia. New Caledonia was made a French possession in 1853. Blackbirding prompted the United Kingdom to declare a protectorate over the southern Solomons in 1893. Queensland annexed the Torres Strait Islands in 1879. The Fiji islands came under British control as a colony in 1874. In 1906, the British government transferred responsibility for their territory in New Guinea to Australia.

The world wars of the twentieth century brought both changes to the balance of foreign domination in Melanesia, and intense fighting. During World War I, Australian forces seized German New Guinea, including the Bismarck Archipelago, both of which became League of Nations-mandated territories of Australia in 1920. The Japanese invaded Netherlands New Guinea and the Australian territories in 1942. The highlands, northern, and eastern parts of the island became key battlefields. Papuans fought alongside Australian and U.S. troops. Some of the most intense fighting of World War II occurred in the Solomons as well.

English map of New Guinea, circa 1940s.

During World War II, the islands of Éfaté and Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu were used as Allied military bases. During the Japanese occupation of the Maluku Islands, the islanders fled to the mountains and began a campaign of resistance known as the South Moluccan Brigade. Thursday Island became the military headquarters for the Torres Strait and was a base for Australian and United States forces. In 1942, the Japanese bombed neighboring Horn Island, which had an airbase used by the Allies to attack parts of New Guinea.

Independence became an issue throughout Melanesia after the war ended in 1945. Political leaders of the Maluku Islands and Netherlands New Guinea discussed independence with the Netherlands, but both regions came under the control of Indonesia. Fiji was granted independence in 1970. Australia granted full independence to Papua New Guinea on September 16, 1975. On January 2, 1976, the Solomons became self-governing, then two years later became independent. In the 1960s, the ni-Vanuatu people started to press for self-governance, and later, independence. Full sovereignty was granted to them on July 30, 1980. The Torres Strait Islanders became citizens of Queensland in 1967 with full access to Australian health and social services and the freedom to travel and work in Australia.

Independence struggles continued in those Melanesian countries remaining under foreign control, and poor governance dogged the newly independent countries. The governments formed in the Solomon Islands since independence have not improved the country. Democratic rule was interrupted in Fiji by two coups in 1987, caused by concern over a government perceived as dominated by the Indo-Fijian (Indian) community, and a further coup in 2000. Tension between the government and the army surfaced in 2006. Agitation in New Caledonia by the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak Socialiste for independence began in 1985, resulting in increased autonomy. There has been intermittent ethnic and nationalist violence on the Maluku Islands, and acts of terrorism by members of the Republik Maluku Selatan government-in-exile in the Netherlands since that time.

A most startling discovery in Papua New Guinea took place on August 4, 1938, when Richard Archbold discovered the Grand Valley of the Balim River that had 50,000 yet-undiscovered Stone Age farmers living in orderly villages. The people, known as the Dani, were the last society of its size to make first contact with the Western world.

Solomon Island Warriors with Spears in Ornamented War Canoe


The politics of Fiji take place in a framework of a parliamentary representative democratic republic, whereby the Prime Minister of Fiji is the head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system.

New Caledonia has a political status that is in between that of an independent country and a normal overseas "département" of France.

The western half of the island of New Guinea consists of two provinces of Indonesia, Papua and West Irian Jaya, and so is part of the Indonesian republic. The eastern half of the island, Papua New Guinea, which includes the Bismarck Archipelago, is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations; Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom is the head of state, represented by a governor general. Executive power lies with the Prime Minister, who heads the cabinet. The unicameral national parliament has 109 seats.

The Maluku Islands, as of 2006, were divided into two provinces of Indonesia, Maluku and North Maluku. The Torres Strait Islands are part of Australia and are governed by the Torres Strait Regional Authority.

Vanuatu has a republican political system headed by a President. The Prime Minister, elected by Parliament, appoints a Council of Ministers to form the executive. The Parliament of Vanuatu is unicameral, and has 52 members. The National Council of Chiefs advises on culture and language.


Did you know?
Melanesia consists of 2,000 islands and 12 million people who practice a variety of subsistence economies

Subsistence is the main characteristic of the economies of Melanesia.

Fiji, endowed with forest, mineral, and fish resources, has one of the more developed economies, though still has a large subsistence sector. Fiji experienced a period of rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s but stagnated in the early 1980s.

New Caledonia has about 25 percent of the world's known nickel resources, mostly mined from open-pit mines. Only a small amount of the land is suitable for cultivation, and food accounts for about 20 percent of imports. Substantial financial support from France, and tourism, are key to the health of the economy.

Papua New Guinea is richly endowed with natural resources, but exploitation has been hampered by rugged terrain, the high cost of developing infrastructure, serious law and order problems, and difficulties with land title. Agriculture provides a subsistence livelihood for 85 percent of the population. Mineral deposits, including petroleum oil, copper, and gold, account for 72 percent of export earnings.

The economy of Western New Guinea is undeveloped. The people subsist by hunting, fishing, and cultivating bananas, corn, manioc, sago, yams, and other crops.

Pearl farming is a major source of income for the Maluku island of Aru.

The Solomon Islands is a lesser-developed nation, and more than 75 percent of its labor force is engaged in subsistence farming and fishing. Fishing is the main economic activity in the Torres Strait Islands, particularly fishing for prawns, rock lobsters, and Spanish mackerel, along with subsistence horticulture.

The Vanuatuan economy is based on small-scale agriculture, which provides a living for 65 percent of the population. Fishing, offshore financial services, and tourism are other mainstays. Mineral deposits are negligible. The country has no known petroleum deposits.


The original inhabitants of Melanesia are likely to have been the ancestors of the present-day Papuan language-speaking people. These are Negroid people, a tall, dark-skinned people with broad features, and with black, kinky hair. These people are thought to have occupied New Guinea tens of thousands of years ago, and to have reached the islands of Melanesia at least 35,000 years ago (according to radiocarbon dating of artifacts).

It is along the north coast of New Guinea and in the islands north and east of New Guinea that the Austronesian people came into contact with these pre-existing populations of Papuan-speaking peoples, probably around 4,000 years ago. It seems there was a long period of interaction that resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture. It is likely that it is from this area that a very small group of people departed to the east to become the original Polynesian people.

Most Melanesian people belong to a Christian church, the denomination depending upon the established church of the colonial power. However, many people combine their Christian faith with some pre-Christian traditional indigenous practices. In Fiji, religion is one of the faultlines between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, with the former overwhelmingly Christian, and the latter mostly Hindu and Muslim.

Dense jungle historically allowed tribes to remain aloof from one another. This resulted in a much greater diversity of language and culture. There are hundreds of languages and even more dialects spoken throughout Melanesia. Fiji has three official languages: English, which was introduced by the former British colonial rulers, Bau Fijian, spoken by ethnic Fijians, and Hindustani, the main language spoken by Indo-Fijians. English is the main medium of communication. Bau Fijian belongs to the Austronesian family of languages.

In New Caledonia, French is the official language, while an estimated 27 Kanak languages, belonging to the Oceanic sub-branch of Austronesian languages, coexist. There are three official languages for Papua New Guinea, in addition to over 700 indigenous non-Austronesian (or Papuan languages) and Austronesian languages. An incredible ten percent of the world's total languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea. In Western New Guinea, there are over three hundred languages and two hundred additional dialects.

There are 74 languages in the Solomon Islands, four of those extinct. While English is the official language, only one to two percent of the population speak it, and the prevalent language is Solomons Pijin. In Vanuatu, English, French, and Bislama (a Creole language which evolved from English) are the three official languages, while over one hundred local languages are spoken there. The density of languages per capita is the highest of any nation in the world (with an average of only two thousand speakers per language).

Although English is the official language of the Torres Strait Islands, there are two indigenous languages. The language of the western and central islands is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages, which covers most of Australia, while the language of eastern Torres Strait is Meriam Mìr, related to the languages of the nearby coast of Papua New Guinea.

Society and culture

People of Melanesian countries often talk about the “Melanesian way,” that people of the region see as a distinctively Melanesian set of cultural values and behavior.

Melanesians used the bow and arrow in hunting and fighting, and practiced head-hunting as a tradition of stealthy raiding to secure proof of manhood. Tattooing is practiced throughout Oceania, but scarification, or the raising of great scars or keloids as marks of age or social status, is a Papuan custom.


In numerous places throughout Melanesia, an older social system, based on descent from the mother (matrilineal), has changed to a patrilineal system. A combination of these two forms of social organization frequently exists. The customs of kava drinking and tattooing were possibly the result of later waves of immigration. A still later migration brought the practice of betel-chewing.

In New Guinea, the basic village household consists of a husband, a wife, their unmarried children, and perhaps the husband's parents. Extended families live in adjacent houses, gathering frequently for meals, companionship, work parties, and ceremonies. Men's houses are no longer common, although young men may live with other bachelors.

Central to Torres Strait Islanders' sense of identity are the extended families, within which respect for elders is preserved. Families provide the framework within which obligations to kin are met and the sharing of resources is ensured. The family is also the source of emotional and spiritual support.


New Guinea is well-known in the popular imagination for ritual cannibalism that was practiced by some (but far from all) ethnic groups. The Korowai and Kombai peoples of southeastern Western New Guinea are two of the last surviving tribes in the world said to have engaged in cannibalism in the recent past. In the Asmat area of southwestern Papua, it may have occurred up until the early 1970s. In a 2006 episode of the BBC/Discovery Channel documentary series "Going Tribal," ("Tribe" in the UK) a Kombai man recounts his participation in cannibal rituals. In 1963, a missionary named Tom Bozeman described the Dani tribe feasting on an enemy slain in battle.[2]

According to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, cannibalism may have arisen in New Guinea due to the scarcity of sources of protein.[3] The traditional crops, taro and sweet potato, are low in protein compared to wheat and pulses, and the only edible animals available were small or unappetizing, such as mice, spiders, and frogs. Cannibalism led to the spread of Kuru disease, affecting the brain, similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, prompting the Australian administration to outlaw the practice in 1959.


  1. Jared Diamond and Ernst Mayr, The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology, and Biogeography (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0195141709).
  2. Here Be Cannibals The Heretical Press. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  3. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005, ISBN 978-0393061314), 149.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. ISBN 978-0393061314
  • Diamond, Jared, and Ernst Mayr. The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology, and Biogeography. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0195141709
  • May, R.J., Anthony Regan, Sinclair Dinnen, Michael Morgan, Brij Lal, and Benjamin Reilly. Arc of Instability? - Melanesia in the Early 2000s. University of Canterbury, New Zealand, 2003. ISBN 1877175137
  • Moore, Clive. New Guinea: Crossing Boundaries and History. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0824824853
  • Regan, Anthony J., and Helga M. Griffin. Bougainville: before the conflict. Pandanus Press and the State Society and Governance Project in Melanesia, The Australian National University, Canberra, 2005. ISBN 1740761383
  • Sullivan, Nancy. Governance Challenges for PNG and the Pacific Islands. DWU Press and State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project, RSPAS, ANU, 2004. ISBN 9980997672

Countries and territories of Oceania
Australia.png Australia : Australia · Norfolk Island
Melanesia.png Melanesia : East Timor · Fiji · Maluku Islands & Western New Guinea (part of Indonesia) · New Caledonia · Papua New Guinea · Solomon Islands · Vanuatu
Micronesia.png Micronesia : Guam · Kiribati · Marshall Islands · Northern Mariana Islands · Federated States of Micronesia · Nauru · Palau · Wake Island
Polynesia.png Polynesia : American Samoa · Cook Islands · French Polynesia · Hawaii · New Zealand · Niue · Pitcairn Islands · Samoa · Tokelau · Tonga · Tuvalu · Wallis and Futuna


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