First People in Oceania and the Pacific

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Modern humans reached Australia by at least 55,000 B.C. which implies some degree of water crossing. There is evidence that New Guinea was continuously occupied by indigenous Papuans beginning 40,000 years ago, and the Solomon Islands was continuously occupied by indigenous Papuans at least 30,000 years ago. The rest of Melanesia and Polynesia — the main areas of the western and central Pacific Ocean — was occupied later at different times.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The ancestors of all Oceania's peoples and artistic traditions came originally from Southeast Asia. Although the exact sequences, dates, and chronologies for the colonization of the various regions are complex and often poorly understood, owing to a lack of even basic archaeological information in some areas, the broader history of the settlement of Oceania is well established. The settlement of the Pacific essentially occurred in two major episodes, involving two quite different groups of peoples, at widely separated periods of time. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Oceania's first human inhabitants, ancestors of present-day Melanesians, Aboriginal Australians, and some Island Southeast Asian peoples, began to move southward from the Asian mainland between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, settling Island Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea. Although the islands of this region are large and closely spaced, some of these early migrations required substantial journeys across open water. From New Guinea these peoples, who in physical appearance resemble the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, expanded eastward into Island Melanesia, reaching the northern Solomon Islands by 29,000 years ago and probably rapidly settling the remainder of the archipelago. Here, for some 25,000 years, further human expansion into the Pacific appears to have ceased, the descendants of the original settlers gradually diversifying into the hundreds of peoples that make the western Pacific by far the most culturally and artistically diverse area of Oceania.

Migration of the First People to Oceania

About 60,000 years ago, a group of modern humans migrated from Africa across the Middle East and along Asia’s southern coast, reaching Australia and New Guinea — then more accessible then because of low ocean levels due to Ice Ages — in only 10,000 years. For another 10,000 years these people spread through the island region, sometimes called Near Oceania, where the islands are relatively close together, until they reached the curved archipelagos of the Bismarck and Solomon Islands, where they were stopped by large expanses of open ocean. Ana Duggan, who is studying this migration at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told National Geographic Up to that point “the islands they moved among were generally intervisible.” [Source: David Dobbs, National Geographic, January 2013 ||]

David Dobbs wrote in National Geographic: “That is, land was always in sight: The island in front of you would rise up from the horizon before the one you’d left sank behind. Sail beyond the Solomons, however, and you could go weeks without spotting land. Neither the navigation these Near Oceanians used nor their boats — probably fairly crude rafts or dugout canoes — could cope. So they stayed put, limited to their line of sight. ||

“This next part,” says Duggan, “is a bit controversial,” though it’s supported by most Polynesian scholars and a growing confluence of linguistic, archaeological, and genetic evidence. According to this “out of Taiwan” theory, some 3,500 years ago the Near Oceanians received visitors from the north — a coastal people known as the Austronesians (confusing, since they come from Asia) who had left Taiwan and south coastal China a thousand years earlier and spread slowly through the Philippines and other islands off Southeast Asia before reaching Near Oceania. Once there, they mixed and mated with the native population. Over the next few centuries this meshing of genes and cultures created a new people called the Lapita. Soon after that, the Lapita people started sailing eastward across the Pacific. ||

“What got them started again? It probably wasn’t new genes. None of the incoming Austronesian ones jump out as restless-gene candidates. In fact the 7R and 2R variants were less common in the Asians than in the Near Oceanians. But the Asians brought something else that was decidedly new. “They brought a better boat,” says Duggan. ||

Theories About First Arrivals in Oceania

Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “When Europeans first entered the Pacific in the sixteenth century, nearly all of the islands of Oceania had already been discovered by the aboriginal islanders. Although the size of the indigenous population at the time of European contact is impossible to know with precision, current estimates by anthropologists suggest that perhaps as many as 3.5 million people were settled on 1,000 or fewer of the islands by that time. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991. Hays is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island. |~|]

Over the centuries since then, Western Europeans have speculated regarding the origin (or origins) of the peoples of Oceania, proposing canoeloads of Native Americans, or lost tribes of Israel," or fleeing refugees from the sinking mythical continent of Mu as their ancestors. Few scholars today would give credence to any such proposals. While systematic archaeological research has only been undertaken intensively in the past few decades, the general outlines of the human settlement of Oceania have now emerged, and for some areas at least we know a great deal about Pacific prehistory. |~|

“There are no human fossils or any other kind of evidence that would suggest that human beings in the Pacific evolved there from some prehuman ancestor. Indeed, the most liberal estimates of how long any of Oceania has been inhabited do not exceed 50,000 years; that is, they fall within the time period when modem forms of Homo sapiens have existed on earth. Obviously, then, Pacific islanders are derived from people who originally went into Oceania from someplace else. All responsible scholars today would say that, as for so much of the native flora and fauna, the initial source was Asia, including insular southeast Asia. |~|

How People Got to the Pacific Islands

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “To get a general idea of how” people got to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, we might follow some scholars and divide the Pacific into Near Oceania and Remote Oceania. Near Oceania includes the islands of the western Pacific from Australia and New Guinea eastward to the end of the Solomon Islands. These islands tend to be relatively large and are fairly close together, often grouped in clusters (or archipelagoes) within which at least some islands are mutually visible under clear conditions. In the remainder of the Pacific, the islands of Remote Oceania are separated from Near Oceania by at least 350-kilometer gaps of open ocean, and many archipelagoes are 1,000 kilometers or more from their nearest inhabited neighbors. All available evidence indicates that Near Oceania was initially settled by people tens of thousands of years before anyone ventured into Remote Oceania, or at least before they left behind any evidence of their presence there. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

“Relative nearness to Asia and its large southeastern islands-where the human lineage goes back in time at least a million years-is only one of the conditions that favored the earlier settlement of Near Oceania. Many of the details of the settlement of Oceania are not yet known. Moreover, there is much that we will never be able to know for sure since the original inhabitants of the Pacific islands-like their descendants today-were the agents of tremendous changes in the islands themselves, thereby complicating the tasks of historical reconstruction. The introduction of new plants and animals, deforestation through fire and land-clearing activities, and the depletion and extinction of many natural species began to alter the Pacific landscapes from the beginning. |~|

“What we can say with some certainty is that the Pacific was colonized over a long period of time, at many different periods in time (with some places settled much more recently dtan others), probably for many different reasons (including both accidental and purposeful ventures), and by many different groups of people, who varied among themselves in physical types, languages, and cultures. Much of dtis diversity has been subsequently enhanced and redirected through both mixing and isolating of populations and as a result of local adaptations to circumstances that were themselves highly diverse. |~|

Ice Ages in The Dispersal of People in Oceania

During the Pleistocene era, beginning over 2 million years ago, major drops in worldwide atmospheric temperatures resulted in the formation of enormous ice caps in the Northem Hemisphere and ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere. This impoundment of a significant amount of the Earth's water resulted in significant lowering of sea levels and shorelines around the world. Conversely, warming periods resulted in partial melting of these ice caps and consequent raising of sea levels. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““During the later stages of this epoch, with one climax about 53,000 years ago and another about 20,000 years ago, sea levels in the southwestern Pacific dropped to such an extent (by about 120 to 140 meters from their present levels) and for such long periods that two massive land units were created called the 'Sunda (or Asian) Shelf' and the 'Sahul (or Australian) Shelf." The former connected Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali to mainland Asia, and the latter joined Australia to New Guinea and many of its nearby islands. These dry-land connections facilitated the dispersal of Asian plants, animals, and peoples to Near Oceania, although Sunda and Sahul were themselves still separated by deep ocean troughs no narrower than the 90 kilometer-wide gap then existing between Timor and Australia. While sea levels were lowered in Remote Oceania as well, of course, its islands remained relatively isolated because of their still-vast distances from both Sunda and Sahul.

“Given these conditions, then, it is not surprising that diverse types of evidence now indicate the earliest presence of Oceanic peoples in "Greater Australia," with generallyagreed-upon dates such as: eastern New Guinea's Huon Peninsula by 40,000 Years ago and the interior of the island from 30,000 to 25,000 Years ago; New Ireland, 32,000 Years ago; Buka, in the Solomon Islands, 28,000 Years ago; Lake Mungo, in the western part of New South Wales in Australia, 32,000 to 24,000 Years ago; Keilor, near Melbourne in southeastern Australia, 45,000 to 36,000 Years ago; various sites in the state of Western Australia, 38,000 to 35,000 Years ago; and Tasmania, then joined to the rest of Australia, about 30,000 Years ago |~|

What the First People of Oceania Were Like

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “We do not know a great deal about” the pioneer settlers of Oceania “apart from their mainly stone and wooden tool kit and the fact that they all apparently subsisted by hunting, gathering, and fishing. They were certainly highly mobile, as can be seen by their rapid colonization of the whole continent of Australia, and at least the initial arrivals must have possessed viable watercraft. While prehistorians debate many of the details of early settlement, all would agree that it was a gradual process, undoubtedly involving numerous separate landfalls and many different small groups. The apparent lack of any clear relationship between Australian Aboriginal languages and those of New Guinea or the rest of Oceania is but one indication that the diversity of the native peoples of the Pacific began a very long time ago. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

“New arrivals of human groups in Near Oceania (and local diversification within it) unquestionably continued to occur over thousands of years, perhaps slowing with the final major rise in sea levels at about 7,000 Years ago In any case, the next large-scale human incursions into the Pacific, as well as expansion into Remote Oceania, seem to have begun about 4,000 Years ago |~|

“During a period lasting for 1,000 to 1,500 years, new groups of people colonized Oceania, initially sailing from the islands of eastern Indonesia along the northern coast of New Guinea into Near Oceania, where they settled on the seacoasts and offshore islands amid the descendants of the earlier arrivals. By about 3,500 Years ago they were established in the Bismarck Archipelago and had expanded to the Santa Cruz Islands, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), and New Caledonia. Soon afterward some of their representatives moved on to become the first settlers of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa (by about 3,000 Years ago) and smaller islands such as Futuna and Uvea. |~|

Lapita Culture

The Lapita culture is the name given to a Neolithic Austronesian people and their material culture, who settled Island Melanesia via a seaborne migration at around 1600 to 500 B.C.. The ''Lapita Culture'' is named after a site in New Caledonia. The Lapita intermarried with the Papuan populations to various degrees, and are the direct ancestors of the Austronesian peoples of Polynesia, eastern Micronesia, and Island Melanesia. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Archaeologists have been able to trace their influence and probable movements thanks to discoveries on numerous islands of a relatively sudden and widespread appearance of their trademark a distinctive kind of pottery, characterized by small dentate toothlike) patterns stamped into the clay and simple line incisions, often in complex geometric designs. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

The term 'Lapita' was coined by archaeologists after mishearing a word in the local Haveke language, xapeta'a, which means 'to dig a hole' or 'the place where one digs', during a 1952 excavation in the Foué peninsula on Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia. The excavation was carried out by American archaeologists Edward W. Gifford and Richard Shulter Jr at 'Site 13'. The settlement and pottery sherds were later dated to 800 B.C.. More than 200 Lapita sites have since been uncovered, ranging more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from coastal and island Melanesia to Fiji and Tonga with its most eastern limit so far in Samoa.

Archaeological Research on Ancient Pacific Islanders

Around 3,000 years, Neolithic people exchanged obsidian from New Britain that reached present-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo 3.860 kilometers (2,400 miles) away. The Lapita people of the western Pacific moved it 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) to Fiji.

Samir S. Patel wrote in Archaeology magazine: Oceania was the last region on Earth colonized by humans. When the first settlers from the Lapita Culture arrived in Vanuatu 3,000 years ago, they transported certain plants with them that aided their ability to survive, including the banana. Analysis of microparticles trapped in the dental plaque of individuals buried on Efate Island has indicated the presence of the nonnative species at this early date. Banana plants would not only have provided sustenance, but could also have been used for building material, textiles, cordage, and medicine. [Source: Archaeology magazine, May-June 2020]

Analysis of seven 3,000-year-old skulls from the oldest cemetery in the South Pacific, on Efate, an island in Vanuatu, is helping explain how the region was settled. The people of this island nation today resemble Melanesians — natives of Australia and New Guinea — more than Polynesians, such as natives of New Zealand and Hawaii. Osteological data are showing that a people called the Lapita, who first colonized the Pacific, looked more like Polynesians. Melanesians apparently came later and the groups intermarried. In places such as Vanuatu and Fiji, Melanesian traits won out, while Polynesian ancestry dominated elsewhere, as people island-hopped to the east. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March-April 2016]

In the Solomon Islands, using obsidian and pig skin, researchers are attempting to determine whether certain artifacts found at archaeological sites in Melanesia had been used for tattooing. They conducted these experiments to observe the wear, such as chipping and scratches, and residues on the stone caused by tattooing, and then compared that use-wear with 3,000-year-old artifacts. They found that the obsidian pieces, old and new, show similar patterns, suggesting that they hadn’t been used for working hides, but were for adorning human skin. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, November-December 2016]

Expansion of People Across the Pacific

About 3000 B.C. speakers of the Austronesian languages, probably from Taiwan (Formosa), mastered the art of long-distance canoe travel and spread themselves, or their languages, south to the Philippines and Melanesia and east to the islands of Micronesia. The Polynesians branched off and occupied Polynesian Triangle to the east.

Some have theorized that these people traveled first to the Philippines and Indonesia. Then they made it the coast and islands of New Guinea. After that they moved eastward towards Fiji and the Pacific islands in that area and possibly westward to Madagascar. The last place to be reached were New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Dates and routes are uncertain, but they seem to have started from the Bismarck Archipelago, went east past Fiji to Samoa and Tonga about 1500 B.C.. By A.D. 100 they were in the Marquesas Islands and A.D. 300-800 in Tahiti, west of the Marquesas. Between A.D. 300-800 are also given as the time of arrival of people in Easter Island, their easternmost point, and Hawaii, which is far to the north and distant from other islands. Far to the southwest, New Zealand was reached about A.D. 1250. The Chatham Islands, about 500 miles east of New Zealand were reached about 1500.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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