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Notes on Oceania

Origin of the indigenous populations

Archaeological digs indicate that Homo Sapiens reached New Guinea as early as 50 000 BC in during an ice age when lower sea levels exposed land bridges between the islands and narrowed sea crossings thus facilitating migrations through the Indonesian archipelago. Australia was reached around 40 000 BC and the Solomon Islands, around 25 000 BC. The influx of primitive negroid hunters and gatherers continued until the sea levels rose again at the end of the ice age about 11 000 BC. By that time they had spread all over Australia and had divided into thousands of clans fighting to maintain and extend their tribal hunting territories. They shared many common beliefs about man's intimate relation with nature and about ancestral spirits but their social organisation did not rise above the level of the tribe. They developed complex intertribal bride exchange systems but remained politically divided. This fragmentation into a multitude of small tribal units gave rise to a huge number of languages, especially where topography accentuated their isolation in mountainous areas. Some 250 Aboriginal languages have been identified in Australia and more than 800 Papuan idioms are thought to exist in New Guinea.

After thousands of years of isolation, these pioneers were followed by more advanced tribes who had developed the seafaring skills that enabled them to cross open seas and migrate through the now flooded Indonesian archipelago. They introduced new languages of the Austronesian linguistic family whose roots are thought to have originated in the island of Formosa, now called Taiwan. Some of the new comers mixed with the black skinned Papuan speaking aborigines to give rise to the Melanesian people that later spread eastward to the Fiji Islands. A particularly advanced group of seafaring Austronesians, recognised by their pottery of "Lapita" style, continued their expansion to populate Polynesia in the east and Micronesia in the north.

The table and map (copied from Lonely Planet), shows how man's expansion into Oceania proceeded by waves separated by pauses during which population growth led to overcrowding and new migratory waves.


Australia, Papua New Guinea (from Asia) 50 000 BC
Solomon Islands (from Papua NG) 25 000 BC
New Caledonia, Vanuatu,Fiji, Samoa, Tonga (from the Solomons) Marianas (from Philippines) 1500 BC
Caroline Islands (from Vanuatu via Nauru) 500 BC
Society & Marquesas Islands (from Samoa) 200 BC
Marshall Islands (from Fiji) 1 AD
Cook Islands (from Society Is.) Easter Island (from Marquesas Is.) 300 AD
Hawaiian Islands (from Marquesas Is.) 400 AD
New Zealand (from Marquesas, Society Is. & Rarotonga) 950 AD



Indigenous cultures

Thus, the overall picture of the indigenous populations of this part of the world includes the black skinned, land bound aborigines of Australia and New Guinea speaking very ancient languages, the more recent seafaring lighter skinned populations of Polynesia and Micronesia who use the more recent Austronesian languages and an intermediate between these two, the Austronesian speaking Melanesians. (It is worth mentioning that Austronesian speaking navigators also sailed westward as far as Madagascar which they populated around the 1st century AD.)

I am not an anthropologist but I will try to share with you what I have gathered about the principal characteristics that distinguish these three groups. I will concentrate on the differences that existed just before the first contacts with Europeans and will use a broad brush to paint the picture of these regional cultures because each of them encompasses several distinct societies.

Polynesian cultures

The Polynesian cultures evolved, with very little outside input, from the lineage of the seafaring Austronesian speaking people who developed the Lapita culture and whose ancestors can be traced back to Southeast Asia. Polynesian societies were strongly hierarchical with several levels ranging from the hereditary chiefs and nobles, the various experts (priests, healers, navigators, boat builders etc.), commoners and slaves. Land was owned communally but its use was allocated according to social standing.

Polynesians believed in a pantheon of gods of which, Tangaroa (the creator), Tane (the god of light), Oro or Tu (the god of war), Rongo (the god of agriculture and peace), Maui (who gave fire and fished for islands), Hina (who fled to the moon), and several others. They also believed in ghosts which were the spirits of dead people. This polytheism, came to maturity on the island of Raiatea in the Society Islands, from which it spread to all of Polynesia. The priestly class organised worship around low stone platforms called "marae" and where stone or wooden sculptures, called "Tiki", that represented gods and spirits, were placated and honoured.

Polynesians believed that individual gods, spirits and living beings possessed varying quantities of "mana", a sort of "life force" similar to "The Force" that gave the "Jedai" their power in the "Star Wars" films and evoked in the expression "may The Force be with you". Mana could be gained by eating the flesh of their enemies or lost by breaking the sacred rules of "tapu" declared by the priests.

Micronesian cultures

Most original Micronesian cultures are related to the Polynesian cultures as they can both be traced back to Asia through the Lapita people in the Vanuatu - Fiji area around 1000 BC. The western islands of Palau, Yap and the Marianas were however populated much earlier from the Philippines and Indonesia (around 1500 BC and perhaps as early as 2000 BC). Skilled navigators, the Micronesians made long sea voyages in fleets of canoes.

The strongly hierarchical Micronesian societies were made up of clan groupings, with family identity traced through the mother (except on Yap and Kiribati). Land was traditionally owned by the clans. The dominant clan of each island held that position due to its claim to trace its lineage back to the island's original settlers. Clan groupings extended across islands and were sometimes joined in confederations.

The indigenous populations believed in several spirits of nature and in magic but there was no priestly class and religion never became an organised social force as it was in Polynesia.

Melanesian cultures

The several Melanesian cultures resulted from various degrees of interbreeding and cultural exchange between the ancient black skinned Papuan speaking tribes that had settled in New Guinea around 50 000 BC and in the Solomon Islands around 25 000 BC, and some of the light skinned Austronesian navigators who started to arrive in the coastal areas of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands as early as 2000 B.C. The skin colour of Melanesians varies from dark brown to very black, hence their name.

Melanesians gained the seafaring skills of the Austronesian newcomers and adopted their languages but they retained the social organisation of their Papuan ancestors based on the predominance of the "Big Man" who had the most followers but whose leadership could always be contested. Melanesian societies were not stratified like those of Polynesia, where the priviledges of the nobles were deemed to proceed from their descent from the gods.

Each small community had its own gods and mythological beings whose names were seldom known beyond its borders. The community owned the land. The typical Melanesian was concerned only with the origin of his own social unit, his clan and his totem for that was what determined whom he could marry and the people he considered "wantok" (one talk), to whom he owed solidarity. Anyone outside his own community was considered a potential enemy and more distant strangers were fair game for a meal.

The three cultures (Papuan, Austronesian and Melanesian), existed side-by-side for a long time in the "New Guinea - Solomon Islands - Vanuatu" region from which several migratory waves departed to populate Polynesia and Micronesia. The Papuan tribes that lived of hunting and farming remained mostly isolated in the rough valleys of new Guinea's highlands. The Austronesian newcomers were navigators and fishermen. They stayed on the coast of New Guinea and on the shores of the islands as they developed the "Lapita" pottery style that characterises their culture. It seems that most of these light skinned people passed through the region without mixing with the Papuans on their slow migration eastward and and northward. Finally, the new Melanesian civilisation evolved for some time in that same central region before spreading eastward as far as Fiji.

Papuan cultures

The Papuans trace their roots directly to the first humans who settled in New Guinea as early as 50 000 BC. They were probably light skinned when they first arrived from south east Asia but natural selection had enough time to effect an adjustment of their skin colour to the high intensity of ultra violet radiation in their Papuan environment near the equator. Population pressure led to endemic intertribal fighting and cannibalism because they did not have the seafaring skills that could have brought relief through migratory expansion. Their social organization did not extend beyond the level of clans or tribes led by a dominant "big man". The isolation resulting from the rugged topography of the New Guinea highlands, led to the development of more than 800 languages and dialects belonging to some 60 distinct linguistic families. This intensive fragmentation over a relatively small territory gives New Guinea a language density of one idiom per 1000 km² which is a world record.

Papuan languages generally place the verb at the end (subject-object-verb) whereas Austronesian languages use the same subject-verb-object order as most European languages. Papuan languages are also distinctive by their small number of phonemes (Rotoka, a Bougainville Papuan language has only 5 vowels and 6 consonants!).

Little is known about the pre-contact religions of New Guinea because of the thoroughness with which the Catholic and Protestant missionaries eradicated these pagan beliefs. It is though however that they involved a multiplicity of gods, culture heroes and spirits with varied characters and roles. Spirits were associated with the creation and sustenance of the cosmos, with war, fecundity, prosperity and welfare. They had to be placated through a variety of rites and sacrifices in order to ensure success and well-being. The dead whose names were remembered were usually still considered to be part of the community and could also bring on trouble unless placated.

Aboriginal cultures

Australia's Aborigines trace their ancestry directly to the first humans who, having populated New Guinea around 50 000 BC, continued their southward expansion into Australia and Tasmania around 40 000 BC The social organization of these primitive hunters and gatherers did not extend beyond the tribal level either but the topography of Australia did not restrain their mobility as much it did that of their Papuan cousins in New Guinea. That factor probably explains why cultural identity and language have been less fragmented in in Australia were only 250 languages and dialects have been identified than in New Guinea where there are 800 . Most of these 250 are unfortunately extinct and only two dozen Aboriginal languages are still actively in spoken in Australia.

All the Aboriginal religions of Australia share the same cosmogony about primordial spirits who created the wind and the rain, the mountains and the rivers, and all the living creatures including man. According to these beliefs, these great spirits exercise their power through dreams to dictate man's correct behavior in all matters. For believers, "Dreamtime" is sacred moment when the past, the present and the future coexist and when man is in intimate communication with his origins.


Effects of colonisation

Dire necessity due to overcrowding pushed the first Islanders to pursue their exploration of the Pacific Ocean on their frail canoes but it was greed and missionary zeal that motivated the Europeans to do the same many centuries later. The Islanders were still in the Stone Age when the Europeans arrived.

As international trade developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whalers, sealers, and adventurers arrived who sometimes stayed to act as mercenaries or advisors to local chiefs. They brought with them alcohol, firearms and a dozen diseases that were fatal to the Islanders whose immune system had not yet developed a resistance (dysentery, influenza, measles, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, typhus, whooping cough etc.)

Then, white traders and planters arrived to establish posts and to create copra and cotton plantations on the finest land. Missionaries came to "civilize" the natives by teaching them that all their customs (cannibalism, warring with their neighbors, having more than one wife, wearing leaves instead of clothes, dancing, drinking kava, chewing betel nut, etc.) were wrong. They taught hard work, shame, thrift, abstention, modesty, obedience and fear of God. As unpalatable as this austere Christianity was, the new gods (Christ and the Saints), easily overcame the old ones because they were obviously more powerful since Europeans had metal tools, swords and guns and much bigger ships than their frail outrigger canoes.

The islanders of the Pacific have all abandoned their traditional religions to become ardent Christians, be they Catholic or Protestant. They are also in the process of abandoning their traditional staples (taro, breadfruit, yams, etc.), in favour of canned and prepackaged imported foods that require less effort to prepare and that enjoy the higher status of being "modern". The results of this new fashion have been a higher incidence of diabetes and vitamin deficiency as well as chronic balance of payment deficits for many islands that could not survive without foreign aid.

In many places, the younger generation prefer English or French to their own mother tongue which is more and more spoken only at home. Modern music and dance styles have also become more fashionable than the traditional artistic expressions which are more and more reserved for tourists. It seems that none of the islands has the critical mass necessary to maintain a distinct identity indefinitely against the onslaught of global cultural assimilation. The Yapese are trying hard but they are only 12 000. Most of the others have long thrown in the sponge.


Communal Ownership of Land

Like it or not, the epoch of the closed village economy belongs to the past and we are all moving towards a global economy where competition will have no borders. The multiple and diverse links (kinship, common language, values and religion) that temper competition and produce solidarity inside a protected village economy already have no effect in today's broader market where the predominant decision factor is "value for money" (bang for the buck).

There is considerable opposition to the advent of a global market. Resistance comes from the most diverse quarters but in the final analysis it stems from individuals and groups who fear losing their privileges to competition. For once, the management, the shareholders and the workers of inefficient enterprises are strongly united to prevent the competition that could force them to clean up their act or disappear. Leaders of authoritarian governments also fear forms of globalisation that could impose standards of transparency and good governance on them and reduce their power.

In spite of all the opposition, globalisation is happening and, in my opinion, it will continue to grow, for better and for worse. I think that those individuals and groups who try to adapt to globalisation because they realise its inevitability, will fare better than those who choose to fight a rearguard struggle against it.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the communal ownership of land that is so prevalent in Oceania is incompatible with the successful integration of these island communities into the world market. I am also fully aware of how deep-rooted this practice is in Polynesia, in Micronesia and in Melanesia and I realize how enormously difficult it will be to replace the present frozen communal ownership of land by individual ownership with the freedom to sell to the highest bidder.

Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't, I don't know what will happen but I do think that the development of whatever economic potential each island has, will depend on the initiative and efforts of individual entrepreneurs risking their time and resources for their private interest.

Land is a resource whose economic value is measured by the perception that prospective buyers can have of its potential to produce a return on investment. Ultimately, the land's potential must be realised for that perception to be maintained. The optimum choice between the various uses of a given piece of land is the one that produces the maximum return. Land that is never exposed to the market cannot be evaluated and its optimum use cannot be determined.

Please excuse me for mentioning these basic tenets of economics 101. My intention is not to insult your intelligence but to support my opinion that private land ownership will be a prerequisite to the successful integration of Oceania into the world market.

Communal ownership might have been the best form of land management when village territories were in effect mini states. In those days, tribal warfare and migration were the best way to deal with population pressure but now the only acceptable solutions are economic growth and birth control. In today's world, communal ownership hampers individual entrepreneurship, it rewards laziness and leads to abuse of power and erroneous choices by those responsible for land management. Communal ownership is no longer in the interest of the islanders because it is an obstacle to economic growth and it is often the cause of regional violence like in the dramatic cases of the Wallisian conflict in New Caledonia and the Malaita-Guadalcanal crisis in the Solomon Islands.



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