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Melanesia differs markedly from the broad, islet studded expanse of Polynesia and comprises, instead, a fairly compact chain of large and small islands, chiefly volcanic in origin but here and there still being some active volcanoes. The larger islands are from 50 to 100 miles in length with their mountains ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 feet in height.

The climate is tropically humid and forest and jungle prevail, affording shelter and seclusion for the inland tribe, who remain as aloof from one another as they are from the remote coastal folk. The result of this is that, while there is a degree of physical variation among Melanesians, there is everywhere a much greater, indeed a remarkable, diversity of language and culture. Indeed it is impossible to describe the whole area in general terms, we must be content to note the chief features of each recognised group, to suggest the waves of migration by which the region has become populated, and to observe in what respects Melanesia resembles or differs from Polynesia.

War Clubs from Fiji.

The basic population is Negroid, a tall, dark-skinned people with broad features and a mop of black, woolly hair who at an early period occupied the whole area from New Guinea to Fiji. At the present time, they exist as a people inhabiting the western three-quarters of Papua New Guinea. Elsewhere they had been modified through the migration through the southeast of New Guinea and the island chain of Melanesia, of those Indonesian folk who became the Polynesians and the Micronesians.

War Clubs from Fiji.

We can therefore distinguish the unmodified Papuans of New Guinea from the Melanesians of the islands, who, through Indonesian admixture, are somewhat lighter coloured and finer featured. This immigrant influence has also affected the culture of Melanesia. For example, the diverse Melanesian tongues belong to the Austronesian group of languages to which Polynesia also belongs; this is regarded as a very early proto-Polynesian or Indonesian influence. In many places, the framework of society has been changed from an older system, which counted descent from the mother (matrilineal) to a patrilineal system, and there frequently exists a kind of combination of two forms of social organization. These influences have been accompanied by changes in the manner of dress, in domestic arts and in magical and religious beliefs. The customs of kava drinking and tattooing were possibly the result of later intrusions and a still later migration brought the practice of betel-chewing, which only extended as far south as Santa Cruz.

172: A chief's mace with green stone disc from New Caledonia.
173: Ornamental Comb, New Caledonia.
174: A hand weapon.
175: A grotesque dancing mask which may have belonged
to a secret society such as the tamate of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

In some cases the invading culture did not penetrate beyond the coastal areas, or affected only one part of an island, and this has contributed materially to the complexity and diversity of Melanesian culture.

The dug-out sailing canoe without rigger is common to Melanesia and Polynesia; it was however, very little use in the Solomon Islands where shorter sailing distances and semi-sheltered seas encourage the construction of light, plank-built paddling craft, whose elegance enhanced by sparkling inlaid shell ornament, belied their undoubted seaworthiness.

A large drum hollowed from a tree trunk, Vanuatu. 

In hunting and fighting, the Melanesians used the bow and arrow, which had almost disappeared from Polynesia. He also practiced head-hunting which was a matter of stealthy raiding to secure proof of manhood. But hardly had the same implication of prowess as the Polynesian custom of preserving the head of a noted enemy slain in open, hand-to-hand combat.

Tattooing is practised throughout Oceania, but scarification, or the raising of great scars or keloids as marks of age or social status, is a Papuan custom.

A door-post carving, New Caledonia.

Pottery making is confined to New Guinea, the northern Solomons and Fiji. It is definitely prehistoric in other places, where fragments, of whose origin the native had no knowledge, are not infrequently found. The loss of such useful art may have been due to the lack of suitable clay, or to the ease with which other material such as coconuts could be utilised. It is not always possible to account definitely for the many local characteristics for the arts and crafts of an area, but they can usually be referred to local resources, as well as to special requirements and beliefs. 

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(E-mail: -- Rev. 29th July 2004)