History: Discovery

The Era of Discovery


Oceania is the site of many "lasts." It was the last area on earth to be settled by humans, the last to be discovered by Europeans, and the last to be both colonized and decolonized. It all began more than 50,000 years ago when Papuan-speaking Australoid migrants from Southeast Asia arrived in New Guinea and Australia, at a time when the two formed a single landmass. Buka Island in the North Solomons had already been settled by Papuans 30,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene (Ice Age), sea level was 150 meters lower and people could cross the narrow channels from Indonesia on primitive rafts more easily. Cut off by rising waters 10,000 years ago, the Australian Aboriginals maintained their Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) culture undisturbed until modern times.

Little is known about the prehistory of the Papuan peoples of New Guinea as their first coastal settlements are now covered by the sea, but they spoke non-Austronesian languages and were characterized by convex noses. Similar short, black peoples are found in various parts of Asia (the Philippine Negritos, for example). Some of the Dravidian peoples of southern India are also very short and dark, indicating the direction from which these migrations came. These pre-Austronesian societies were egalitarian, religious rites were performed communally, and a preference was shown for the curvilinear style in art.

The Austronesians

Next to arrive were the broad-nosed, lighter-skinned Austronesians who migrated from Taiwan to the Philippines around 3000 B.C., then from the Philippines and Indonesia to coastal Melanesia by 2000 B.C.They settled in enclaves along the coast of New Guinea and gradually populated the islands of Melanesia as far as Fiji. They mixed with the Papuans to become the Melanesians of today; in the Western Solomons the blue-black-skinned inhabitants still speak Papuan languages. The Papuans evolved their Neolithic (New Stone Age) culture long before the Austronesians passed this way: the earliest confirmed date for agriculture in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea is 4000 B.C., proving that the shift away from hunting and gathering was much earlier.

The Austronesians almost certainly introduced pottery and had more advanced outrigger canoes. Distinctive lapita pottery, decorated in horizontal geometric bands and dated from 1500 to 500 B.C., has been found at sites ranging from New Britain to New Caledonia, Tonga, and Samoa. Lapita pottery has allowed archaeologists not only to study Melanesian prehistory, but also to trace the migrations of an Austronesian-speaking race, the Polynesians, with some precision. These Lapita people were great traders: Obsidian from New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea was exported to Santa Cruz in the Solomons—some 1,700 km away. By A.D. 300 at the latest the Polynesians had ceased to make pottery.

It's interesting to note that the third to second millenniums B.C. saw continuous movement of peoples from Southeast Asia and southern China into Indonesia. All insular Southeast Asian peoples are Austronesian-speaking, and the Polynesians were the advance guard of this migration. These population movements continue today with contemporary Javanese colonization of West Papua and Polynesian migration to New Zealand, Hawaii, and the American continent. Recent comparisons of DNA samples have confirmed that the Polynesians traveled from Taiwan to the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea, Fiji, and Samoa.

The colorful theory that Oceania was colonized from the Americas is no longer entertained. The Austronesian languages are spoken today from Madagascar through Indonesia all the way to Easter Island and Hawaii, half the circumference of the world! All of the introduced plants of old Polynesia, except the sweet potato, originated in Southeast Asia. The endemic diseases of Oceania, leprosy and the filarial parasite (elephantiasis), were unknown in the Americas. The amazing continuity of Polynesian culture is illustrated by motifs in contemporary tattooing and tapa, which are very similar to those on ancient lapita pottery.