Oceania ethnology






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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.




 139 above is an adze constructed from a turtle bone.
140 is a Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) spear with rows of shark's teeth.
141 is a carved wood mask from the Caroline Islands.
142 is a wooden box from Ocean Island.


Micronesia as an area is for the most part a featureless expanse of ocean peppered with small coral islands and islets. It extends from the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) which straddles the equator, north and west to the Marshall, Caroline and Federated States of Micronesia. This equatorial area is a region of steady wind, from which the low islands, particularly in the eastern area, failed to attract much rain, though the high islands, Kosrae, Yap, Pohnpei and Guam, have abundant and luxuriant verdure.

These scattered atolls, provide a uniform and circumscribed environment for their isolated communities. Nevertheless, each islet, although but a strand and loosely heaped coral fragment, has its contrast. Its outer margin has the fresh tang of the wind and the steady thunder of rollers dashing a lively, spurting barrage of spray along the reef. Almost immediately, the blinding glare of the reef gives place to the cool and grateful shade of coconut groves, extending across the half-mile or less to the sometimes placid, but often lively, dancing waters of the lagoon.

Slender resources face the Micronesian. The inhospitable sand will grow few plants, and even the coconut bears relatively few small nuts. Nevertheless, the coconut suffices; apart from nut, it supplies through a cut flower-stalk a steady drip of nutritious sap; its leaves provide plaiting material; the husk fibre serves for cordage and textile, and from spent trees the meagre timber supply is secured.

The pandanus is the second tree - its fruit provides a not unpalatable food, its leaves an admirable fibre, and its branches small timber for canoe outriggers and other light woodwork. The larger islands may even have a few breadfruit, while drenches dug in depression in the sand are moist enough to grow taro. Animals are quite scarce, however there may be a few chickens and perhaps a pig or two.

Although the Micronesian's land supplies are very limited, he finds the sea a generous provider. Squid, crabs and shellfish haunt the innumerable cracks and crannies of the reef, and fish abound both in the sheltered waters of the lagoon and beyond. Fishing is the chief activity of the atoll dwellers, and lines, nets, sinkers and hooks are inevitably prominent in any display of Micronesian arts and crafts.

Houses in Micronesia were of the usual wood-and-thatch construction with the roofs being very high and steep, reaching close to the ground. Not infrequently stone house-platforms three feet high were constructed and thick-walls enclosures made of large basaltic prisms are now buried in the jungle on Yap Island. Platforms and walls also occur at Ponape and at Guam there are pillar-like footings capped by large mushroom-head stones.

Implements, as well as fish hooks are derived from sea products in Micronesia. Slender adzes are contrived by grinding down large specimens of the auger shell, while larger adzes are made from the thick shell of the giant clam. Hoes and scrapers are often made of turtle bone. Everyone seems to wear a necklace: a string of shells, of teeth, or of discs cut from larger shells.

Among the Micronesians, the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) seems to have been the most warlike; at least they have the nastiest weapons - long, lacerating spears and swords, set with rows of shark's teeth which must have torn the combatants cruelly, except for those who wore a full suit of thick, closely plaited sinnet armour, which is peculiar to these islands. In single combat, each armour-clad warrior was supported by an attendance, whose duty it was to ward off the opponent's blows.
Taken altogether, the Micronesian culture could not be described as rich, and this no doubt is due to the restricted resources of the whole area. Enterprise and ability are evident in the ingenuity and versatility which wrung every possible use out of the limited materials; but there seems to have been less of elaborate feast and organized ceremonial than in Polynesia, certainly a less developed art, and, except for the forgotten stone structures on Yap, Pohnpei and Guam less of temple or marae-building.

One might have expected to find in Micronesia some of the ideas or philosophy of nearby Asia in particular Malaysia or China. This is not evident however and maybe that the area is too scattered, too diffuse and sieve-like to have retained such influences.




The high volcanic islands of French Polynesia had been indicated as being the base for the development of Polynesian social structure, its art and its customs. For the precise date of their first arrival no reliable evidence is available, and if a guess is ventured it could fall equally appropriately on the century of Roman withdrawal from Britain or that of the Saxon invasion.

Whatever the date, the period of occupation was sufficient for the development, by the time of European discovery over 200 years ago, of three grades or social classes among the inhabitants: the manahune or landless serfs; the class of landed proprietors ra'atira (ringatira), who held them in subjection; and a supreme aristocracy the ari'i (ariki or aliki). Traditions and religious ceremonies in this area show that political aristocracy first arose in the western island of Raiatea, which formerly bore the significant name of Havaii (cf. Hawaiki) - "Vikings of the Sunrise": Ch. VIII - and retained its prestige even though Tahiti ultimately grew to dominance.

The subsequent migrations and disbursals from Tahiti, such as that to the Marquesas, 900 miles north-east of Tahiti, which took place in the 10th century, and the migration to New Zealand 400 years later, were probably made by the ringatira class, who founded it economically difficult and socially intolerable to continue in submission to the ariki. This would seem to be definitely so in the Cook Islands, whose chiefs falsified their genealogy, claiming direct descent from the gods in order to eliminate or suppress those details in their ancestry which would reveal their descent from the less important chiefs of Rarotonga.
Although the inhabitants of Polynesia were physically akin to one another and shared a common culture, considerable differences arose in their manner of life in response to the widely different environments which the islands offered.

The high islands for instance, such as Tahiti and Rarotonga, had deep, sheltered, forest-clad valleys leading down to fertile, alluvial plains; water was abundant, and there was a great variety of food plants and material resources. On the low islands, coconut and pandanus might be the only useful trees and areas for cultivation would probably be limited. Not only did the varied environment, with limited resources here with abundant supplies there, have their influence on life and customs, and on the articles made for use and pleasure, but isolation also had a marked effect, particularly upon decorative art and on religion.


Two trees, coconut and breadfruit, provided the staple vegetable food of Polynesia and their relative importance was in accordance with the height of the island. Coconut grew on low-lying areas while the breadfruit was planted on the slopes of the high islands. Breadfruit was baked for daily use, and mashed baked breadfruit, which kept indefinitely provided both a valuable reserve for food for time of scarcity and an esteemed relish at all times. In Polynesia, the serving of food to guests was done in accordance with the degree of ceremony.

Kava is drunk throughout Polynesia, except New Zealand and is made by adding water to the pounded root of the pepper tree. In some low islands a special brew of coconut is substituted for kava. In all sections of the Southsea islands, food bowls were made of wood, but pottery was made only in some parts of Melanesia.


For clothing, a strong, tough, but pliable paper (tapa) was made by felting the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree and the breadfruit, but plaited grass fabrics were also made everywhere, and alone were used on the coral atolls. Tapa was decorated with attractive designs, which were usually painted but sometimes printed.


Houses in tropical Polynesia were merely thatched rooms, supported on stout centre and side posts, and, except for movable screens used temporarily to keep out driving rain were without walls. Throughout Polynesian dwelling houses were of modest size, but very large buildings were erected to serve as meeting places and guest houses, and as a focus for hospitality and social and religious ceremonies. These houses stood on a stone platform originally no more than a foundation. In eastern Polynesia the platform became much larger and more elaborate and was bounded by carefully built walls of dressed stone around which stood either large upright slabs or carved stone figures representing gods or ancestors.

The erection of commemorative carvings is a fundamentally eastern Polynesian practice which found expression in a medium and a manner related to local conditions and resources. In Tahiti, stone figures were fashioned and in the Marquesas Islands naturalistic carvings in both wood and stone were made. But it was in Easter Island however that sculptures attained their most majestic proportions.

Large, but not gigantic, stone figures formally stood in Raivavae, a southern outlier of the Tahiti islands. Statues of wood and stone of medium size were made also in the Marquesas Islands and from these and other resemblances it is often considered that the Easter Islanders could have migrated from the Marquesas though, there is evidence in culture and myth that Mangareva might have been their last prior homeland.


The fact that the Polynesians inhabited Easter Island is almost as remarkable as their achievements in sculpture. Easter Island is 1,750 miles from Mangareva and is an isolated speck in a wide open ocean. The Polynesians sailed to Easter Island as they sailed to the Marquesas and to New Zealand, and as they had sailed for hundreds of years from island to island across the broad Pacific. Their craft were frail but buoyant and generations of experience, added to bravery and enterprise, had made them the best navigators of their time in the world. They lacked nautical instruments, but their knowledge of the stars and of the winds prevailing in the different seasons kept them on their main course, while their custom of sailing in squadron, spread over a wide front by day, though gathered together at night time increased their chance of sighting land.


The Pacific often belies its name, with even the smallest community inhabiting low coral islets finding occasion for war. The men love fighting at all times, and social and economic stress gave them frequent occasion. Fighting, however was not haphazard; custom and tapu impose upon it a certain orderliness. Treacherous attacks were seldom made; instead, a raiding party would halt before its opponent village, and formal challenges from tribe to tribe, from family to family, and even from individual to individual would be made. Sometimes, indeed, the battlefield was carefully cleared of trees and shrubs.

The most surprising feature was a deliberate restriction in the type of weapon to be used; the bow and arrow, though known throughout Polynesia, were never used in fighting, but only in a formal archery practice or competition in which chiefs alone took part. Clubs, spears and throwing stones were the weapons chosen, and the battle between the opposing lines, which had been carefully drawn up according to rank, commenced with a volley of hurled stones. A general melee of hand-to-hand combats with spear and club immediately followed, but even here a man shows as his opponent an enemy of rank and status equal to his own.
The chief decorative art of Polynesia was wood carving. Also, tattooing had an ornamental purpose as did the painted designs on tapa and the intricate cord-lashing patterns on adze handles. Intricate carved patterns on weapons, canoe and houses generally had some symbolic significance - perhaps a story of the gods, or some episode in legends or tradition. The most obvious symbolism are found on the Easter Island tablets, the carvings on which appear to have hieroglyphic characters.


The commemoration of ancestors whose personal mana persisted after death was an essential part of Polynesian religion. The only variation was in the relative importance of the different gods. The chief place, according to Tane in New Zealand, was held by Tu, the war god in Hawaii, and by Tangaroa in Central and Eastern Polynesia. Sometimes the function of a god varied; Rongo, the Tahitian god of agriculture became a war god in Hawaii.
See Polynesian Mythology

The marae, where elaborate ritual with human sacrifice was practised, was the centre of public religious practice. Images of the gods were made but not worshipped as idols; they stood around the marae or were kept in special god-houses or in a curtain sanctuary in a priest's home.

The spiritual sanction of religion was mana, the influence of power and authority believed to exist in all gods and to be invested in men of rank and authority. It was acquired from the gods by ritual and incantation; but, just as some men command respect without having to demand it, so did men of rank and personality find it inherent in them. The most powerful negative influence was tapu, which set an article apart as too powerful, too charged with mana, and therefore too dangerous to be touched. Only a special ritual carried out by a priest could remove the tapu and render an article usable again.
The exalted rank of chiefs, particularly of the ariki or aristocracy was inherent in the powerful tapu of their person; it demanded low obeisance from all who approached them, and the same powerful influence protected their food supplies and their possessions.

The social ceremonies were subsidiary only to religious observances. Tribal rank was emphasized in large tribal gatherings, at which every man sat and spoke according to a precisely predetermined precedence, which was observed also in the distribution of food during their accompanying feast, or in ceremonial kava drinking.




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