LOCATION: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia (Irian Jaya), 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 (Irian Jaya); other native languages

RELIGION: Christianity; some native religions


Melanesia is not a country, 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 traits. These traits include family structure, marriage rules, organization of society, and ways of gaining survival needs or making a living. Melanesia itself is part of a larger culture area called Oceania that 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 a province of Indonesia called Irian Jaya. The eastern half is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. New Caledonia is under the administration of France, and Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980. The Solomon Islands are divided between Papua New Guinea and the independent country of the Solomon Islands (formerly a British Protectorate).

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 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 during the 1800s in the South Pacific. The language derives from a kind of nautical English that was spread throughout the Pacific by sailors. It has similarities to English as well as to the Austronesian languages spoken by the plantation laborers. A sample sentence in Tok Pisin might look like this: Bai mi kaikai wanpela kaukau, meaning "I will eat a yam."

Within the region of Melanesia, the island of New Guinea alone has more than one thousand different languages. Some of these languages have as few as fifty speakers, while others, such as Enga, have a few hundred thousand. Many of the these languages have never been documented or described.


None of the cultures of Melanesia ever developed a native writing system. Consequently, oral history (historical information passed on through stories) is important to them. In the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, the origin myth of many groups tells of a crocodile who split in two. His upper jaw became the heavens and his lower jaw became 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. Native religions are still practiced by many groups, although in modified form. In many societies in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, the original belief systems included aspects of headhunting and cannibalism. Both practices have been illegal in the region since the late 1920s. Most groups believe in a variety of spirits that 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 British 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.


Puberty is an especially important rite in all Melanesian societies. However, these societies differ in regard to which sex undergoes initiation rites. In the Sepik River region, males used to undergo extreme and elaborate initiation rites. These involved extensive scarification (scarring) 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 this expensive process. In some societies, males at puberty were expected to kill someone and take their first head. 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. With the onset of menstruation, they often underwent a brief period of seclusion. Funerals were also important rites of passage in traditional Melanesian societies. They involved much feasting and display of emotion.


Urban and rural Melanesians greet and take leave of each other in extremely different ways. In parts of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, males used to 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. Special ceremonial greetings took place when one group went to trade with another.

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 use their singing ability to woo women. They also decorate their bodies in elaborate ways to look beautiful for the women they are trying to court. Marriages, however, have to be negotiated between the families. They 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 (native) to the region and most local inhabitants of the low-lying areas suffer from 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.


In many Melanesian societies, there is a great deal of antagonism (hostility or opposition) between men and women. It is common in many villages to have separate 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 was often placed in a woven basket that was suspended from the house rafters. People simply ate when they got hungry.

Women are the primary caregivers to children and the primary food producers. Women play important roles in ceremonial and political life in many Melanesian societies.

Households vary in size. 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 minimal by Western European standards. In the highland societies of New Guinea, men went naked except for a penis sheath made from the gourd of a vine. Nowadays, men only dress this way in a few remote societies. For the most part they wear Western-style shorts or long trousers and shirts. In these societies, women wear skirts made from handmade fiber. Traditionally, an important part of personal adornment in these societies was body decoration, including elaborate painting and the use of various headgear, wigs, and other items. The most extensive adornment took place when exchanges between groups were to occur. These exchanges were times of feasting and boasting, and individual beauty was an important aspect of these events. Some individuals at these events still adorn themselves in this manner.

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, that is 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 not to wear any covering on their upper body. However, when tourists are in the village, Melanesian women may adjust the laplap to cover their breasts.

12 • FOOD

The sago palm is an important foodstuff in parts of the lowland areas of Melanesia. The pith (core tissue) of the palm is processed into a starch that can be made into pancakes or dumplings. A sago pancake has the appearance of a freshly cooked, soft tortilla. In the higher elevations, yams are the staple diet, with pork eaten 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 are part of urban life for Melanesians and have reached some remote areas. Education in schools revolves around literacy (establishing reading and writing skills) in the national language(s). They also prepare Melanesians for urban life, such as civil service (governmental administration) careers. In Papua New Guinea, the educational system is based on the Australian model, where formal, required education ends at grade ten. Grades eleven and twelve are only for students who wish to pursue a university education. 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 skills in written English.


There are a number of musical traditions within Melanesia. In the Solomon Islands, there is a tradition of panpipe orchestras. 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 ceremonial gatherings called sing sing .

Dance is another important part of ritual life. 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.


Wage labor was introduced to Melanesia by European colonists. Prior to this, work was often cooperative and it continues to be for village-based projects. Individuals have certain responsibilities to their relatives and in-laws. These 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. Anthropologists call this practice "bride service."


Soccer, rugby, and cricket are important sports in Melanesia. Some societies have changed 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 that do not allow for a winner. In many remote villages of the various islands in the region, the inhabitants have no knowledge of these sports.


Electricity does not reach many Melanesian homes, so television is a luxury of the urban dwellers. 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 limited viewing schedule. Cable and satellite service are available to the wealthy residents of the islands.

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


Art in most Melanesian societies is utilitarian (designed for usefulness rather than beauty). 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, once an important aspect of ritual performances, 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 money and time on their hands. AIDS poses a serious health threat in Papua New Guinea, especially in urban areas. Condoms have only recently become available. The social phenomenon of "rascals" in parts of Papua New Guinea is a cause for concern for locals and visitors alike. Rascals are unemployed, disadvantaged youths 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.


Codrington, Robert Henry. The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folklore. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF Press, 1957.

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

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

Spriggs, Matthew. The Island Melanesians. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.


Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Papua New Guinea. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Melanesians from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Jay Wratten
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Nov 6, 2008 @ 1:01 am
thanks guys for the info that is just what i needed to do my oral presentation, im yr 8 and now i know alot about the melanesian tribe.
Justin Banks
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Mar 15, 2011 @ 5:05 am
Hey Jay,
I am yr 8 too, and i have to make posters for our biannual community event, called Pasam Alam.
Thanks to website creators.
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Jun 21, 2011 @ 11:11 am
Hello, I am an online student, studying Cultural Anthropology. I am trying to find information On Tikopia of Melanesia. It has to be scholarly research journals,etnographies and ethnologies. If anyone could help I would appreciate it. Thank-you in advance. I have already tried my local libraries.
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Aug 31, 2011 @ 9:09 am
I have long thought that the inhabitants are a Neanderthal/African
hybrid. With the recent discovery that all non Africans are Neanderthal hybrids,
that seems to confirm what many of us have been saying all along, that some
Africans ran into and crossbred with Neanderthal and then migrated into Melanesia.
Many Neanderthals had red or blonde hair.
Gideon Ben
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Apr 22, 2012 @ 7:19 pm
Hellow, I'am a student studying Antropology and Sociology at the university of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of PNG. I need more information concerning the "purposes for marriage in melanesia". could you please assist me.
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May 11, 2012 @ 9:09 am
THanks guys for alll the info it's been so helpful! I'm year 6 and i have to do a project in social studies on Malanesia! So much help!
Email me if you have anymore info!
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Oct 14, 2012 @ 7:19 pm
I am trying to find information on Tikopia people. I have some but want MORE, and am having a hard time finding it. Any suggestions or guidance is appreciated!
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May 3, 2013 @ 12:00 am
Cool Thanks. That saved me a lot of time. I would be up until midnight without it.
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May 10, 2013 @ 8:08 am
This is a great passage about this subject. It answered all of my questions. Thanks. So far this Is the best web site to look stuff up. thanks
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Nov 11, 2013 @ 10:22 pm
This webbsite has helped me with my history assignment. Im graade7 and am finding this helpful
Sasa Jacob
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Mar 4, 2014 @ 3:15 pm
Guys this info is cool I really enjoyed it with my social science homework!
Tatiana Holmes
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Jun 11, 2014 @ 4:16 pm
Hey, I am 15 years old and I love science and this blog was very useful. Once again thank you y'all for this blog
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Oct 9, 2014 @ 1:13 pm
Reading the above information about the Melaneasians, just blew my mind.
I have to say, this webbsite is awesome.
It helped me get a clear understanding in doing my assignment.

Thanks creators of this web
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Nov 4, 2014 @ 2:02 am
Thank you so much creators of this website!!! This information about the Melanesians and New Caledonians on another of your pages was amazing and such a great help!! Keep up the great work and continue maintaining such a great website!!!
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Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:22 pm
This website has helped me so much! I am in the 9th grade and I have to do a report on the culture of Papua New Guinea and this is very helpful! There are many interesting facts in here about the people and their ways of living! Please keep me updated if you end up learning or putting more information onto this website.
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Jun 8, 2015 @ 3:15 pm
according to the information given, its really helpful in the sense that i was able to gather as much information as i can to write a good essay for the unit am doing... thanks very much.
Supriya M Devi
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Jul 24, 2015 @ 9:21 pm
thanks very much... it will be quite helpful for my 10 page essay...
Supriya M Devi
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Jul 26, 2015 @ 5:17 pm
thanks very much... it will be quite helpful for my 10 page essay...
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Jul 27, 2015 @ 9:09 am
hey thank you so much much this has really help in my history assignment.
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May 19, 2016 @ 5:17 pm
Hey! I was wondering can u post more things about Melanesia so I can finish my project? Thany you
Ashley Hernandez
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Apr 11, 2017 @ 8:08 am
Heyo! My Name is Ashley and i'm 13 years old! I am learning about this in my geography class i need all the facts i can get so for people who bump into this website reading the comments! This is the best website you can find information in!
Jerry Regan
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Apr 30, 2017 @ 10:10 am
My DNA shows I am a small part Melanesian. I was surprised that my family's Native American didn't show up. For many generations my family lived in Kentucky and Tennessee. My grandmother and great grandmother, on my mother's side, were proud of their Cherokee history, yet none of that showed in my DNA. I was surprised I showed Melanesian when no one in my entire family background have been to that part of the world; I have been busy searching my families and both sides go back several generations to 12 and 1400 AD. We are from the South, I was born in Tennessee, and I have been wondering if this ancient Indian blood in my DNA could be from the ancient Cahokia Indians, a long extinct tribe of mound builders who settled in the river lowlands of Illinois and Missouri. This is a mystery to me that I would love to clear up. Thank you.
marsha stow
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Feb 5, 2018 @ 8:08 am
I am interested in the answer to Jerry Regan's question, as I have a native American background, not Melanesian as far as I can tell but I have no DNA related to Native Americans but there is a trace from Melanesia. Can Native Americans trace lineage to Melanesia?
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May 12, 2018 @ 10:22 pm
I am also interested in the answer to Jerry Regan's question. Everybody in my mom's dad's side of the family got traces of Melanesian, and we had ancestors on that side that came from Eastern Tennessee and had always assumed there might have been some Cherokee in there, but none of us got Native American, but my grandfather, mom, and two of her siblings and myself all got somewhere between a trace to 1 to 2 percent Melanesian. I've been seeing this Melanesian pattern showing up not just here, but on many other websites with other people thinking they had Native American ancestry, and then got Melanesian, and are similarly confused. Obviously something is going on here, and although there were two independent studies released right around the same time in July 2015 that found DNA links between Oceania and Native Americans, supposedly the Oceania link was to South American tribes. However, I think there's probably not yet discovered links to the Cherokee or other Eastern North American tribes too, as most of these DNA websites don't even have Eastern North American tribe DNA reference samples for comparison.
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May 15, 2018 @ 1:13 pm
This website is really good and helped me a lot on a social studies report thank u.
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Jan 10, 2019 @ 9:09 am
This website helped a lot! I really think that this article will help you out if you're studying Oceana or just Melanesia. As a year 7 I can say this is by far the best website I've used for a Social Studies project!
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Feb 27, 2019 @ 1:13 pm
This helped with my presentation a lot it covered almost everything thx

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