This website is a free e-resource, from the book entitled 'Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins' by Mervyn McLean. The complete text may be read either online or in paginated form as a downloadable pdf here.


Chapter 3

The Ethnographic Divisions 


Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont d'Urville (1790 - 1842) was a French navigator with extensive experience of the South Seas, first on an exploratory voyage with Louis Duperrey from 1822-25, when he was second in command, followed by two expeditions of his own in the ship Astrolabe, all under the orders of the king of France. His brief from the king was to " explore the principal groups of islands in the Grand Ocean" to augment information gathered by previous expeditions. On the first of these voyages from 1826-29 he visited New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, New Britain, New Guinea, Australia, the Santa Cruz Islands, Guam, and the Ile de France or Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as well as calling in at Amboyna and Batavia in Indonesia. From 1837-40 he was back in the Pacific with his second expedition, this time visiting Mangareva, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti and most of the other islands of the Societies group, as well as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Guam, Palau, the Philippines and Indonesia (Buck 1953; 83-84, 87-88).  

It was on the basis of observations during his earlier voyages, however, that he felt able to classify the peoples he had observed into broad regional groups, namely, as set out in numerous geography books and world atlases ever since, into Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians or inhabitants of the many, small, and black islands respectively, with Malaysia, incorporating the modern nations of the Philippines and Indonesia as a further category (Dumont d'Urville 1832).

D'Urville was well qualified to make such a judgement, not only on the basis of his personal experience of the peoples concerned, but also as a highly educated man with knowledge of languages and sciences, and undoubtedly familiar with the journals of all of his predecessors into the Pacific. Significantly, too, he was a member of the Linnean Society (DNZB Vol.1), so would have had knowledge of current conventions for classifying race, and doubtless took account of them.

The importance of d'Urvilles divisions of the Pacific into Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia can hardly be over-estimated. They formed the basis of museum catalogues of Pacific artefacts when these began to be compiled, and they later underpinned an entire science of Pacific ethnology when study began of the collections. As such the system he devised has endured until the present day, coming under scrutiny only after the lapse of well over a century. When criticism was finally voiced, it was not on the basis of the geographical boundaries, which after all can be readily adjusted, but because of d'Urville's race-based division of Oceania into two peoples, the one black and occupying Melanesia, and the other of lighter-skinned peoples who lived everywhere else. 

One of the earliest to voice dissatisfaction was Douglas Oliver in his 1961 book The Pacific Islands (Oliver 1961:23-5). As a result of the most recent research at the time, Oliver concluded that the regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia should now be regarded as no more than geographical, mainly, it would seem, on evidence from linguistics which has replaced the three former areas with a larger number of smaller ones which are inter-related, with Eastern Micronesia, parts of Island Melanesia, Fiji, and Polynesia all of common origin. Oliver noted also that although most Melanesians are darker than non-Melanesians, there is a range of phenotype in all areas.

In mitigation of Oliver's last point, which refers to Melanesians of the present day, it could well be that there is more intermixing now than there was when Dumont d'Urville made his observations over 180 years ago. Though noting some degree of  variation  within the broad  racial categories , the early European navigators did not report a mix of racial types in their various ports of call, and had no theoretical axe to grind, so it seems reasonable to conclude that they reported exactly what they saw, and their first-hand observations should be taken at face value.

In fairness to earlier scholars, as well, it needs to be recognised that a range of phenotype was always assumed in the various racial categories, so these were never regarded as rigid, and absence of absolute uniformity did not invalidate the concept. Thus, in a textbook on the subject of race, written at about the same time as Oliver published his book, it is noted

Everywhere we find that human races and sub-races grade into one another, that there are 'clines' between neighbouring populations. The tremendous variations in members of any race or sub-race must also be stressed. So, although we may define the characteristics of a race as a whole, there will always be individuals of that race who do not conform to the general pattern (Cole1963:10).

In other words, all that matters in terms of classification is that members of any one group should be more like each other than members of another group, and despite the diversity of Melanesia compared with the other divisions, it contrasts sufficiently on ethnographic and other grounds to qualify as a region in its own right. As a demonstration of traits found predominantly in Melanesia but only seldom or not at all in other areas one need only cite Papuan complexes such as men's houses, men's cults and graded societies, moieties, pig husbandry and ceremonial killing of pigs, initiation, ancestral ghosts, spirit voices to frighten women and uninitiated boys, masks and other ritual paraphernalia, sorcery, trading and purchase of song and dance complexes etc., along with associated traits of many kinds. There is a gradient of these traits from a Papuan core with attenuation west to east into Island Melanesia, with bullroarers, for example, losing their significance as esoteric voices and eventually becoming no more than toys for children. All of this is far too significant for the area to be dismissed as a category error, or regarded as gaining such traits recently enough to be considered irrelevant. This, nevertheless, has been the fate of Melanesia because of an alliance between archaeology and linguistics which has seen the three traditional areas of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia replaced by only two, which have been adopted in recent decades by most scholars and are known as Near and Remote Oceania.  


Disestablishing Melanesia?

The new terms were first proposed in a paper jointly written by the linguist Andrew Pawley and the archaeologist Roger Green in 1973 (Pawley and Green 1973), and were reafirmed by Green in 1991 in a paper entitled "Near and Remote Oceania: Disestablishing 'Melanesia' in Culture History." (Green 1991a). In the first of these papers the areas were essentially as foreshadowed by Oliver, with the boundary between them defined as a stretch of 350km of open sea between San Cristobal at the end of the Solomons chain and the Santa Cruz group to the east, with Vanuatu and New Caledonia further to the south , separated by still further water gaps of 200km and 250km respectively, with another 850km separating Vanuatu from Fiji. These water gaps were later to prove crucial for Lapita studies, as natural barriers to both plants and people, and forming the boundaries of both stylistic areas for Lapita pottery and associated linguistic subgroups. 

From the 1960s onwards, Pacific archaeology was dominated by exciting new finds of Lapita pottery, on an astonishing number of sites, with Roger Green taking a prominent part in ensuing discussion, so it is not surprising that his preferred terminology caught on. Soon few scholars were even referring to Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia as units for discussion but fell into Near and Remote Oceania as less troublesome alternatives. Even a seeming  possibility that Micronesia was peopled from Vanuatu (Grace 1955 & 1964; Marck 1975) was accepted as if proven, and allowed Micronesia to be sidelined as a member of the Remote community that required no further attention in terms of peopling Polynesia.

Green's 1991 assault on the concept of Melanesia takes the form of a comprehensive survey of the area named as Near Oceania, with attention to its bio-geographical boundaries and population movements through time. Only towards the end of the article, however, does he turn to Remote Oceania, doing so only briefly, and offering no arguments beyond statements that Near Oceania does not tie in with Remote Oceania, and Melanesia as an area is unnecessary for an understanding of Lapita expansion. Elsewhere, Green made it clear that his objection to Melanesia was not only archaeological and historical but also biological on grounds of phenotype, and linguistic on the basis that there is no Melanesian subgroup, but only subgroups within Oceanic (Comments by Green in Terrell et al. 2001). The linguistic argument is conclusive, however, only if the areas so identified are truly lineal homelands. But, as will be seen in Chapter 5, linguists themselves do not agree on subgroups, so it would be fair to say that in this respect the jury is still out. Moreover, regardless of the outcome of any future debate there may be on this matter, it makes no difference to the arguments central to the present book which puts the case for a Micronesian as well as Melanesian connection to Polynesia. If Micronesians turn out to be more closely involved with Polynesians than currently thought, linguists will doubtless make appropriate adjustments to subgroups. Meanwhile, if there is to be any debate at all on the paths taken by pre-Polynesians, all three of Dumont d'Urville's regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia remain essential, and will feature in all chapters of the present book.