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LOCATION: [ Papua] New Guinea, 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 (Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia); other native languages
RELIGION: Christianity; some native religions


Melanesia is not a socio-political unit, 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 cultural traits, such as family structure, marriage rules, socio-political organization, or subsistence strategies. Melanesia itself is part of a larger culture area called Oceania which 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 comprised of two provinces of Indonesia called Papua and West Papua, while the eastern half is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. New Caledonia is a departmente of France, and Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980. 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 does 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 in the 1800s in the South Pacific. The language ultimately derives from a kind of nautical English that was spread throughout the Pacific by sailors. The structure of the language is somewhat like English and somewhat like the Austronesian languages that were spoken by the plantation laborers. A sample sentence in Tok Pisin looks like this: "Bai mi kaikai wanpela kaukau" (translated, "I will eat a yam.").

Within the region of Melanesia, the island of New Guinea alone has over 1,000 different languages. Some of these languages have as few as 50 speakers, while others, such as Enga, have a few hundred thousand. Many of these languages remain undocumented and undescribed. Melanesia is truly a linguistic frontier.


Oral history is important to the peoples of Melanesia since none of these cultures ever developed a native writing system. In the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, the origin myth of many groups tells of a mythical crocodile that split in two, with his upper jaw becoming the heavens and his lower jaw becoming 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, learning the native languages and translating the New Testament into those languages. Native religions are still practiced, although in modified form, by many groups. In many societies in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, the original belief systems incorporated aspects of both headhunting and cannibalism. The two practices have been illegal in the region since the late 1920s. Most groups believe in a variety of spirits which 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 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.


There are many important rites of passage in Melanesian societies. Puberty is an especially important rite in all Melanesian societies; however, these societies differ in regards to which sex undergoes initiation rites. In the Sepik River region, males used to undergo extreme and elaborate initiation rites. These involved extensive scarification 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 to have the process done. It is an expensive proposition to pay the fees of the scarification experts who perform the operations. In some societies, males were expected to commit a homicide and take their first head at puberty. 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, often undergoing only a brief period of seclusion with the onset of menstruation. Funerals were also important rites of passage in Melanesian societies involving much feasting and display of emotion.


There are extreme differences between urban Melanesians and rural Melanesians in terms of how they greet and take leave of each other. In parts of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, males would 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. Since trade was such an important part of daily life in parts of Melanesia, special ceremonial greetings took place when one group went to trade with another. Special languages were used and the participants placed specific roles with each other.

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 woo women through their ability to sing. They would also decorate their bodies in elaborate ways to look beautiful for the women whom they are trying to court. Marriages, however, have to be negotiated between the families and 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 to the region and most local inhabitants of the low-lying areas are afflicted with 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.

Transportation varies from region to region within Melanesia. In areas where flooding is common, roads are of little value in the rainy season. During that time of year almost all transportation is by dugout canoe. Some people are wealthy enough to buy outboard motors for their canoes so that they do not have to paddle. In the cities of Melanesia, automobiles are common, especially taxis and minibuses which transport people as far as the roads will allow. In rural areas there are no posted speed limits, and travel by bus can be considered a dangerous activity. Drivers with a schedule to keep seem to have little regard for hazardous road conditions or the possibility of oncoming traffic. Small propeller aircraft are an important means of travel between the cities and the isolated mountain valleys. It is not uncommon to share a row on a plane with an individual in traditional dress.


In many Melanesian societies, there is a great deal of antagonism between men and women. It is common in many villages to have 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 is often placed in a woven basket that is suspended from the house rafters. People just eat when they get hungry.

Women are the primary caregivers of children and the primary food producers. Women play important roles in ceremonial and political life in many Melanesian societies. In some societies, a child's maternal uncle is the most important male figure.

Households vary in size from society to society. 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 scant by Western European standards. In the highland societies of New Guinea, men went naked except for their "penis sheath" made from the gourd of a vine. Nowadays, in only a few remote societies do men continue to dress in this manner; instead, they wear Western-style shorts or long trousers and shirts. In these societies, women wear skirts made from handmade fiber. An important aspect of adornment in these societies was body decoration, which involved elaborate painting and the use of various headgear, wigs, and other items. The most elaborate adornment took place when exchanges between groups were to occur. These were a time of feasting and boasting and beauty was an important aspect of the event. Some individuals still adorn themselves in this manner at these events, while others choose to refrain from the traditional activity.

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, which can be 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 to not wear any covering on their upper body; however, when tourists are in the village, they can adjust the laplap to cover their breasts.


Food varies in Melanesia but there are some similarities. In parts of the lowland areas of the region, the sago palm is an important foodstuff. The pith of the palm is processed into a starch which can be made into pancakes or dumplings. A sago pancake has the appearance of a freshly cooked soft tortilla and the consistency and texture of a rubber-soled shoe. They are, however, very filling and taste quite nice with peanut butter. In the higher elevations, yams are the staple diet, with pork being consumed 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 have reached some remote areas and are part of urban life for Melanesians. Education in schools revolves around literacy in the national language(s) and preparation for urban life, such as civil service careers. In Papua New Guinea, the educational system is based on the Australian model, where formal required education ends at grade 10. Grades 11 and 12 are not mandatory; they are only for those students who have a desire to pursue higher education at the university level. The University of Papua New Guinea offers a variety of degrees in a number of fields. Many of its faculty are indigenous Papuans who trained both in foreign and domestic institutions. 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 proficiency in written English.


There are a number of musical traditions within Melanesia. In the Solomon Islands, there is a tradition of panpipe orchestras that is well-known to ethnomusicologists (scholars who study the role of music in its cultural contexts). These panpipes look and sound very similar to those played by the Aymara and Quechua of the Andean region of South America. 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 large ceremonial gatherings called sing sing.

Dance is an important part of ritual life in Melanesian societies. 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. Nationalism in island Melanesian nations has resulted in the production of modern literatures in the national languages of the countries, such as Tok Pisin and Bislama.


Wage labor was introduced to Melanesia by European colonists. Prior to this, work was often cooperative and reciprocal, and for village-based projects it still remains so to this day. Individuals have certain responsibilities to their relatives and in-laws which 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. This practice is called "bride service" by anthropologists.


Soccer, rugby, and cricket are important sports in Melanesia. Some societies have transformed 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 which do not allow for a winner. In many other remote villages of the various islands in the region, these sports are no more than names to the people.


Electricity does not reach many Melanesian homes, so television is a luxury of the urban folk. 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 restricted viewing schedule. Cable and satellite service are available to the wealthy locals as well as the expatriates of the islands.

Traditional recreation involves storytelling and performances of music, dance, and song. No recreational event is complete without betel nut chewing, a favorite recreation of most Melanesians.


Art in most Melanesian societies is utilitarian: there is no saying "art for art's sake." 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 were an important aspect of ritual performances, but 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 access to money and find time on their hands. AIDS poses a serious health threat in Papua New Guinea, where condoms were not available until recently, and again, more predominately in the urban areas. The social phenomenon of "rascals" in parts of Papua New Guinea is a cause for concern for locals and visitors alike. Rascals are unemployed, disenfranchised youth 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.


The relationships between males and females are highly varied within the Melanesian culture area. While initiation for males certainly dominates the cultural landscape of Melanesia, there are several societies in which female initiation is found. One complaint that has leveled in feminist anthropology is that the male-bias of most modern ethnography has obscured the roles of women in Melanesian societies.

Among the Abelam of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, there is both male and female initiation. For a female, adulthood is marked through a public ritual that celebrates the girl's first menses. For a period of a month or two after that, the young woman is called naramtaakwa, meaning "decorated woman." During this time, she wears particular decorations, follows a set of social restrictions, and avoids work. At the end of the naramtaakwa period, a young woman is called taakwa and is now eligible for marriage. For a male in Abelam society, on the other hand, adulthood is attained through a gradual social process that does not reach completion until a man is in his forties.

Segregation of the sexes is common throughout Melanesia and recent interpretations of the ethnographic data provide new insights into the reasons why this pattern is common. Previous explanations focused on the concept that women, and by extension children, were seen as polluting to men. This pollution stemmed from menstruation and fear of male contact with menstrual blood. Recent ethnographic studies in parts of Papua New Guinea have shown that men are believed to be equally polluting to women. Among the Abelam, for instance, virile men are seen as dangerous to certain female activities. The Abelam believe that sexual intercourse is detrimental to the growth of yams, which are their staple crop. During yam growing season, the young men and women are kept apart to insure their adherence to the prohibition on sexual intercourse. The reinterpretation of the ethnographic facts place a dual equality on the "dangerous" aspects of male and female in Abelam society.

Gender differences are also signaled through grammar in some of the languages spoken in Melanesia. The language of the Trobriand Islanders, Kilivila, has a complex system of gender. In Kilivila, every noun-even inanimate nouns-has a defined gender that is signaled by the use of a suffix that is attached to the noun.

In 2005, the Melanesian island nation of Vanuatu instituted a law that girls and women could be fined for wearing trousers or jeans in public. The law stemmed from concerns that traditional dress is being abandoned by ni-Vanuatu girls and women in favor of western styles. A further deterrent is that the family of the female violating the law will have to kill one pig, and pigs are items of wealth for ni-Vanuatu families.


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Harrison, Simon. The Mask of War: Violence, Ritual, and the Self in Melanesia. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Holdsworth, David. Festivals and Celebrations in Papua New Guinea. Bathurst: Robert Brown & Associates, 1982.

Knauft, Bruce M. South Coast New Guinea Cultures: History, Comparison, Dialectic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Ryan, P., ed. The Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1972.

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Strathern, Marilyn. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

———. Dealing with Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

-by J. Williams