What is Melanesia?

A division of Oceania in the southwest Pacific Ocean comprising the islands northeast of Australia and south of the equator. It includes the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Bismarck Archipelago, various other island groups, and sometimes New Guinea.


Island group, South Pacific Ocean. A subdivision of Oceania, it lies northeast of Australia and south of the Equator and includes New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, the Bismarck and Louisiade archipelagoes, the Solomon Islands, the Santa Cruz Islands, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Norfolk Island, and numerous others. Two distinct populations and cultures exist in the region. The Papuans, who have inhabited the area for 40,000 years, devised one of the earliest agricultural systems and developed the Papuan languages. Seafaring peoples with an Austronesian language and a Southeast Asian cultural tradition settled in the area about 3,500 years ago.

For more information on Melanesia, visit Britannica.com.


The term Melanesia can be used in either an anthropological or ageographical 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.


The original inhabitants of the group of islands now named Melanesia were likely the ancestors of the present-dayPapuan-speaking people. They appear to have occupied these islands as far east as the main islands in theSolomon Islands, including Makira and possibly the smaller islands farther to the east.[2]

It was particularly along the north coast of New Guinea and in the islands north and east of New Guinea that theAustronesian people came into contact with these preexisting populations of Papuan-speaking peoples, probably around 4,000 years ago. There was probably a long period of interaction that resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture.[3] It is possible that from this area a very small group of people (speaking anAustronesian language) departed to the east to become the forebears of the Polynesian people.[4] This finding is, however, contradicted by a study published by Temple University finding that Polynesians and Micronesians have little genetic relation to Melanesians; instead, they found significant distinctions between groups living within the Melanesian islands.[5] Genome scans show Polynesians have little genetic relationship to Melanesians.[6]


Formerly, in most parts of the area, leaders were chosen not through inheritance, but based on their personality. Key qualities were the candidates' power of persuasion, choosing high-placed women as sexual partners, and other physical qualities such as combat skills.[7]

Today, however, because of the Western influences of colonisation, the island countries of the southwest Pacific have similar, European-style governments, and leadership is thus taken up by democratically elected officials. Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are constitutional monarchies. Parliaments in the region use English or French, a legacy of colonial rule. Traditional leaders in some islands still have considerable social power.

Associated Islands

The following islands and groups of islands since the 19th century have been considered part of Melanesia:

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