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    Melanesia, home to some 7 million people, covers a vast geographic region of the Southwest Pacific, comprising more than ten thousand islands, ranging from New Guinea, the world’s second largest at some 785,753 km2, to a myriad of high volcanic islands through to small low atolls, stretching for thousands of kilometres across the Pacific Ocean (Map 1.39.1). It is an extraordinarily diverse place biogeographically, as on many other levels, and no more diverse than the people who inhabit the region. If there is an overarching theme that sums up the region’s people, it has to be diversity: their languages, cultures, sociopolitical structures, phenotype and even their very deep pasts, fragments of which are found in the archaeological record. As eloquently described by Walter and Sheppard (2006: 137), it is a region “inhabited by a mosaic of culturally and linguistically diverse peoples with various historical relationships and complex patterns of social and political interaction”. How then did we arrive with such an all-encompassing, entrenched and familiar label for a region of such diversity? For such seemingly arbitrary labelling, credit goes to the French explorer Dumont d’Urville and his carving up of the Pacific in 1832 into Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Heavily influenced by the ideas of earlier European explorers of the Pacific and the contemporary concepts of racial categorisation, his divisions were founded on many perceived and some real geocultural boundaries (Clark 2003). But while the literal translation of the popularised category “Melanesia” simply meant the “black islands”, it carried with it a host of negative connotations, including the idea that the peoples of the region were generally physically and culturally inferior and particularly so when compared with Polynesians.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Cambridge World Prehistory Volume 1: Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific
    Editors Colin Renfrew, Paul G. Bahn
    Place of PublicationNew York
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    ISBN (Print)9780521119931
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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