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Melanesia is a subregion of Oceania extending from the western end of the Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea, and eastward to Fiji. The region comprises the countries of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea; besides these independent countries, Melanesia also includes New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France, and the region of West Papua, which includes two provinces of Indonesia, Papua and West Papua.
The name Melanesia (from Greek: μέλας black; Greek: νῆσος islands) was first used by Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1832 to denote an ethnic and geographical grouping of islands whose inhabitants he thought were distinct from those of Polynesia and Micronesia.
The concept among Europeans of Melanesia as a distinct area evolved gradually over time as their expeditions mapped and explored the Pacific. Early European explorers noted the physical differences among various groups of Pacific Islanders. In 1756 Charles de Brosses theorized that there was an 'old black race' in the Pacific who were conquered or defeated by the peoples of what is now called Polynesia, whom he distinguished as having lighter skin.:189–190 By 1825 Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent developed a more elaborate, 15-race model of human diversity. He described the inhabitants of modern-day Melanesia as Mélaniens, a distinct racial group from the Australian and Neptunian (i.e. Polynesian) races surrounding them.:178.
In 1832 Dumont D'Urville expanded and simplified much of this earlier work. He classified the peoples of Oceania into four racial groups: Malaysians, Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians. :165 D'Urville's model differed from that of Bory de Saint-Vincent as he referred to 'Melanesians' rather than 'Mélaniens.'
Although Bory de Saint-Vincent had distinguished Mélaniens from the indigenous Australians (now known as Aborigines), Dumont D'Urville combined the two peoples into one group. He thought 'Melanesia' included Australia, in addition to the countries which today constitute Melanesia. Dumont D'Urville's concept of Melanesia was not geographic or cultural—it was based on classification according to visible physical characteristics, which he called "race." He described Melanesia as "the home of the black race of Oceania." :165 He wrote,
"all the nations of this major division of Oceania are more or less black in colour, with curly, fuzzy or sometimes nearly woolly hair, flat noses, wide mouths and unpleasant features, and their limbs are often very frail and seldom well shaped... Their aptitudes and their intelligence are also generally largely inferior to those of the copper-skinned race [i.e. Polynesians]".:169
Over time Europeans increasingly viewed 'Melanesia' as a distinct cultural, rather than racial, area. Different scholars and other commentators disagreed on its boundaries, which were fluid. In the nineteenth century Robert Codrington, a British missionary, produced a series of monographs on 'the Melanesians' based on his long-time residence in the region. In works including The Melanesian Languages (1885) and The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folk-lore (1891), Codrington defined Melanesia as including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and Fiji. He did not include the islands of New Guinea because only some of its people were Melanesians. Like Bory de Saint-Vincent, he excluded Australia from Melanesia.:528 It was in these works that Codrington introduced the cultural concept of mana to the West.
Uncertainty about the delineation of the region continues, related to the basis for definition; the scholarly consensus now includes the island of New Guinea. Ann Chowning wrote in her 1977 textbook on Melanesia that there is
"no general agreement even among anthropologists about the geographical boundaries of Melanesia. Many apply the term only to the smaller islands, excluding New Guinea; Fiji has frequently been treated as an anomalous border region or even assigned wholly to Polynesia; and the people of the Torres Straits Islands are often simply classified as Australian aborigines".:1
In 1998 Paul Sillitoe wrote of Melanesia: "it is not easy to define precisely, on geographical, cultural, biological, or any other grounds, where Melanesia ends and the neighbouring regions... begins".:1 He ultimately concludes that the region is
"a historical category which evolved in the nineteenth century from the discoveries made in the Pacific and has been legitimated by use and further research in the region. It covers populations that have a certain linguistic, biological and cultural affinity -- a certain ill-defined sameness, which shades off at its margins into difference".:1.
Both Sillitoe and Chowning include the island of New Guinea in the definition of Melanesia, and both exclude Australia.
Most of the peoples in Melanesia have established independent countries, are heading towards independence (in the case of New Caledonia), or have active independence movements (in the case of west Papua). Many have recently taken up the term 'Melanesia' as a source of identity and empowerment. Stepahnie Lawson writes that the term "moved from a term of denigration to one of affirmation, providing a positive basis for contemporary subregional identity as well as a formal organisation.":14 For instance, the author Bernard Narokobi wrote about the "Melanesian Way" as a distinct form of culture that could empower the people of this region. The concept is also used in geopolitics; for instance, the Melanesian Spearhead Group preferential trade agreement is a regional trade treaty among Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji.
“The first settlers of Australia, New Guinea, and the large islands just to the east arrived between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, when Neanderthals still roamed Europe.” The original inhabitants of the group of islands now named Melanesia were likely the ancestors of the present-day Papuan-speaking people. Migrating from Southeast Asia, they appear to have occupied these islands as far east as the main islands in the Solomon Islands, including Makira and possibly the smaller islands farther to the east.
Particularly along the north coast of New Guinea and in the islands north and east of New Guinea, the Austronesian people, who had migrated into the area somewhat more than 3,000 years ago, came into contact with these pre-existing populations of Papuan-speaking peoples. In the late 20th century, some scholars theorized a long period of interaction, which resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture among the peoples. Kayser, et al. proposed that, from this area, a very small group of people (speaking an Austronesian language) departed to the east to become the forebears of the Polynesian people.
But, this theory is contradicted by the findings of a genetic study published by Temple University in 2008; based on genome scans and evaluation of more than 800 genetic markers among a wide variety of Pacific peoples, it found that neither Polynesians nor Micronesians have much genetic relation to Melanesians. Both groups are strongly related genetically to East Asians, particularly Taiwanese Aborigines. It appeared that, having developed their sailing outrigger canoes, the Polynesian ancestors migrated from East Asia, moved through the Melanesian area quickly on their way, and kept going to eastern areas, where they settled. They left little genetic evidence in Melanesia.
The study found a high rate of genetic differentiation and diversity among the groups living within the Melanesian islands, with the peoples distinguished by island, language, topography, and geography among the islands. Such diversity developed over their tens of thousands of years of settlement before the Polynesian ancestors ever arrived at the islands. For instance, populations developed differently in coastal areas, as opposed to those in more isolated mountainous valleys.
Additional DNA analysis has taken research into new directions, as more human species have been discovered since the late 20th century. Based on his genetic studies of the Denisova hominin, an ancient human species discovered in 2010, Svante Paabo claims that ancient human ancestors of the Melanesians interbred in Asia with these humans. He has found that people of New Guinea share 4%–6% of their genome with the Denisovans, indicating this exchange. The Denisovans are considered cousin to the Neanderthals; both groups are now understood to have migrated out of Africa, with the Neanderthals going into Europe, and the Denisovans heading east about 400,000 years ago. This is based on genetic evidence from a fossil found in Siberia. The evidence from Melanesia suggests their territory extended into south Asia, where ancestors of the Melanesians developed.
Melanesians of some islands are one of the few non-European peoples, and the only dark-skinned group of people outside Australia, known to have blond hair.
Most of the languages of Melanesia are members of the Austronesian or Papuan language families. By one count, there are 1,319 languages in Melanesia, scattered across a small amount of land. The proportion of 716 sq. kilometers per language is by far the most dense rate of languages in relation to land mass in the earth, almost three times as dense as in Nigeria, a country famous for its high number of languages in a compact area.
In addition to the numerous indigenous vernacular languages, a number of pidgins and creole languages have developed, often from trade and cultural interaction centuries before European encounter. Most notable among these are Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu in Papua New Guinea. They are now both considered distinct creole languages, and Tok Pisin is increasingly widely used and sometimes learned as a first language, especially in multi-cultural families. Other creoles include Solomon Islands Pijin, Bislama, and Papuan Malay.
A distinction is often made between the islands of New Guinea and what is known as Island Melanesia, which consists of "the chain of archipelagos, islands, atolls, and reefs forming the outer bounds of the sheltered oval-shaped coral sea":5. This includes the Louisiade archipelago (part of Papua New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago (part of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands), and the Santa Cruz Islands (part of the country called Solomon Islands). The country of Vanuatu is composed of the New Hebrides island chain (and in the past 'New Hebrides' has also been the name of the political unit located on the islands). New Caledonia is composed of a single large island and several smaller chains, including the Loyalty Islands. The nation of Fiji is composed of two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, as well as series of smaller islands, including the Lau islands.
In general the names of islands in Melanesia can be confusing: they have both indigenous and European names, national boundaries sometimes cut across archipelagos, and the names of the political units in this area have changed over time, and sometimes have included geographical terms. For example, the island of Makira was once known as San Cristobal, the name given to it by Spanish explorers. It exists in the country Solomon Islands, which is a nation-state and not a contiguous archipelago. The border of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands separates the island of Bougainville from nearby islands like Choiseul, although Bougainville is geographically part of the chain of islands that includes Choiseul and much of the Solomons.
In addition to the islands mentioned here, there are numerous smaller islands and atolls in this area. These include
Based on ethnological factors, some of the islands to the west of the Moluccas, such as Flores, Sumba, Timor, Halmahera, Alor, and Pantar, can also be considered to be part of Melanesia. Most people in this area do not identify with this term or use it in daily talk.
The following countries are considered part of Melanesia:
Melanesia also includes one dependency of France
Several Melanesian states are members of various intergovernmental organizations. Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu are members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu are also members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
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