Ancient Oceania Research Paper

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Oceania is the large region of islands and archipelagos stretching across the South Pacific Ocean. The region encompasses more than 88 million square kilometers, most of which is ocean. The total landmass in the region is 1.6 million square kilometers, made up of more than twenty-five thousand islands. Oceania is divided into three general areas: Melanesia, which includes New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji, and other islands making up a belt roughly to the northeast of Australia; Micronesia, a collection of archipelagos including the Marshall Islands, the Palau Islands, Guam, and other smaller atolls (coral islands consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon) lying to the east of the Philippines; and Polynesia, the scattered island groups including the Samoan Islands, the Cook Islands, and others lying in a large triangle running from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island.

Although the history of human migration across ancient Oceania is still debated, most archeological and linguistic evidence suggests that humans colonized the region in a succession of waves emanating from Southeast Asia and moving eastward. The earliest known human settlements in New Guinea date from around 40,000 to 35,000 BCE, approximately the same time that humans first arrived in Australia, whereas parts of the Solomon Islands lying closest to New Guinea appear to have been colonized around 26,000 BCE. By 7000 to 5000 BCE much of western Melanesia was occupied by hunter-gatherer groups, although several sites in New Guinea show evidence of early patterns of crop cultivation, including irrigation systems for growing taro (a plant grown for its edible rootstock). But the rest of Oceania remained uninhibited.

Between 2000 and 1000 BCE another wave of migration spread across Melanesia from Southeast Asia, giving rise both to new language forms and new patterns of human settlement that had a significantly greater environmental impact than the first hunter-gatherers who occupied the region. The Lapita culture, named for the distinctive pottery found at archeological sites in New Caledonia, was marked by larger settlements practicing a combination of marine and shell fishing along with an agricultural complex based on cultivation of yam, taro, and banana crops and the domestication of pigs, dogs, and chickens.

Rapid Colonization

The most important innovation of the Lapita culture, however, was advanced maritime technologies that enabled the rapid colonization of eastern Melanesia and from there, for the first time, migration northward into Micronesia and eastward into Polynesia. Larger outrigger canoes of 15 to 20 meters, coupled with improved sail technologies and refined navigation techniques, permitted colonists to cross the large expanses of ocean, bringing with them the crops and animals needed to establish settlements. The first known settlements in Fiji, on the eastern edge of Melanesia, date from 1500 BCE, and by 1000 BCE voyagers had crossed the several hundred kilometers of open ocean separating Fiji from the Samoan and Tonga Islands in western Polynesia. At around the same time colonists pushed northward into Micronesia, settling the Caroline and Marshall islands. Over the next fifteen hundred years the rest of Polynesia became inhabited, with humans arriving last in Hawaii around 650 CE and in New Zealand between 1000 and 1200 CE. But internal settlement and migration continued after this period, the most notable being contacts between Polynesians and South America, which resulted in the introduction of sweet potatoes as a basic crop throughout eastern Polynesia.

The establishment of human settlements on the previously isolated islands of Oceania produced profound environmental changes. None of the islands had any mammal species, with the exception of bats, before humans introduced domesticated animals. The arrival of humans was marked by sharp depletions in the numbers of native fauna through overhunting and competition from domesticated animals, resulting in the extinction of many species. Likewise, the pioneering agriculture practiced by the colonists included extensive use of slash-and-burn techniques, which resulted in significant amounts of deforestation and corresponding erosion problems on many islands. This was especially true in parts of eastern and southern Polynesia, where a cooler and drier climate proved ill suited to the types of tropical agriculture that the arriving colonists attempted to introduce. In some extreme cases, such as Easter Island and on some of the Marquesas islands in eastern Polynesia, the arrival of humans appears to have precipitated an environmental crisis resulting in a large-scale collapse of the ecosystem and a sharp population decline or abandonment of the settlement within a century or two after colonization. Also, a continuing pressure on natural resources was one of the major forces driving the rapid migration across Oceania as colonists sought to find new islands to exploit.

Sustenance Systems

By 1500, on the eve of European arrival in the region, most of the human settlements in Oceania had developed more or less stable sustenance systems that varied according to their local climate and ecological conditions. Fishing was the most important element, and the inhabitants of Oceania practiced a wide variety of techniques, including the use of elaborate nets and traps as well as lures and harpoons. The major agricultural staples were coconuts, breadfruit, yams, and taro roots, with domesticated pigs, dogs, and chickens providing additional protein. Although many islanders continued to practice swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture in which fields were cleared, burned, used for two to three years, and then allowed to lie fallow for up to two decades, some Oceania societies developed more extensive farming systems using terraced plots and elaborate irrigation systems. Also, the island inhabitants developed complex social structures designed to keep the population from rising beyond what could be sustained by local environmental limits.

For the European voyagers, who began visiting the South Pacific in larger numbers between 1600 and 1800, many of the Oceania islands assumed mythical status as tropical paradises. From a European perspective the relatively benign climate and apparent richness of natural resources disguised the fact that most Oceania societies rested on a fragile ecological balance that seldom lasted long after the initial contact with outsiders.


  1. Craig, R., & King, F. (1981). Historical dictionary of Oceania. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  2. Denoon, D.; Malama, M.; Firth, S.; Linnekin, J.; & Nero, K. (Eds.). (1997). The Cambridge history of the Pacific islanders. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Jennings, J. (Ed.). (1979). The prehistory of Polynesia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Scarr, D. (1990). The history of the Pacific islands; kingdoms of the reefs. Melbourne: Macmillan Company of Australia.
  5. Spate, O. (1988). Paradise found and lost. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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