Melanesians are the predominant and indigenous inhabitants of Melanesia, in a wide area from the Maluku Islands, East Nusa Tengarra and New Guinea to as far east as the islands of Vanuatu and Fiji. Most speak either one of the many languages of the Austronesian language family, especially ones in the Oceanic branch, or from one of the many unrelated families of Papuan languages. Other languages are the several creoles of the region, such as Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, Solomon Islands Pijin, Bislama, Ambonese Malay and Papuan Malay.[1]

Girls from Vanuatu

A 2011 survey found that 92.1% of Melanesians are Christians.[2]

Origin and geneticsEdit

The original inhabitants of the group of islands now named Melanesia were likely the ancestors of the present-day Papuan people. They appear to have occupied these islands as far east as the main islands in the Solomon Islands, including Makira and possibly the smaller islands farther to the east.[3]

Particularly along the north coast of New Guinea and in the islands north and east of New Guinea, the Austronesian people, who had migrated into the area more than 3,000 years ago,[4] came into contact with these pre-existing populations of Papuan-speaking peoples. In the late 20th century, some scholars theorized a long period of interaction, which resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture among the peoples.[5] It was proposed that, from this area, a very small group of people (speaking an Austronesian language) departed to the east to become the forebears of the Polynesian people.[6] The indigenous Melanesian populations are thus often classified into two main groups based on differences in language, culture or genetic ancestry: the Papuan-speaking and Austronesian-speaking groups.[7][8]

A Fijian mountain warrior, photograph by Francis Herbert Dufty, 1870s.

This Polynesian theory was overturned by a 2008 study, which was based on genome scans and evaluation of more than 800 genetic markers among a wide variety of Pacific peoples. It found that neither Polynesians nor Micronesians have much genetic relation to Melanesians. Both groups are strongly related genetically to East Asians, particularly Taiwanese aborigines.[4] It appeared that, having developed their sailing outrigger canoes, the ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from East Asia, moved through the Melanesian area quickly on their way, and kept going to eastern areas, where they settled. They left little genetic evidence in Melanesia, "and only intermixed to a very modest degree with the indigenous populations there".[7] Nevertheless, the study still found a small Austronesian genetic signature (below 20%) in less than half of the Melanesian groups who speak Austronesian languages, and which was entirely absent in the Papuan-speaking groups.[4][7]

The study found a high rate of genetic differentiation and diversity among the groups living within the Melanesian islands, with the peoples not only distinguished between the islands, but also by the languages, topography, and size of an island. Such diversity developed over the tens of thousands of years since initial settlement, as well as after the more recent arrival of Polynesian ancestors at the islands. Papuan-speaking groups in particular were found to be the most differentiated, while Austronesian-speaking groups along the coastlines were more intermixed.[4][7]

Further DNA analysis has taken research into new directions, as more homo erectus races or sub-species have been discovered since the late 20th century. Based on his genetic studies of the Denisova hominin, an ancient human species discovered in 2010, Svante Pääbo claims that ancient human ancestors of the Melanesians interbred in Asia with these humans. He has found that people of New Guinea share 4%–6% of their genome with the Denisovans, indicating this exchange.[9] The Denisovans are considered cousin to the Neanderthals. Both groups are now understood to have migrated out of Africa, with the Neanderthals going into Europe, and the Denisovans heading east about 400,000 years ago. This is based on genetic evidence from a fossil found in Siberia. The evidence from Melanesia suggests their territory extended into south Asia, where ancestors of the Melanesians developed.[9]

PCA calculated on present-day and ancient individuals from eastern Eurasia and Oceania. PC1 (23,8%) distinguish East-Eurasians and Australo-Melanesians, while PC2 (6,3%) differentiates East-Eurasians along a North to South cline.
Principal component analysis (PCA) of ancient and modern day individuals from worldwide populations. Oceanians (Aboriginal Australians and Papuans) are most differentiated from both East-Eurasians and West-Eurasians.

Recent genetic evidence suggests that Australo-Papuans (or Australo-Melanesians) formed from two distinct lineages, which merged in Oceania at about 37,000BC. According to the genomic data, as well as archeologic evidence, Australo-Papuans (such as the indigenous people of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australians) fromed from a basal lineage, closer to Africans, sometimes referred to as South-Eurasian, and an East-Eurasian lineage (represented by Basal-East Asians, such as the Andamanese (Onge) or Tianyuan man from modern day China). Australo-Papuans therefore form an outgroup to other Eurasians (West-Eurasians and East-Eurasians) and split from them between 55,000BC to 61,000BC, although being shifted towards East-Eurasian populations. A Holocene hunter-gatherer sample (Leang_Panninge) from South Sulawesi was found to be genetically in between East-Eurasians and Australo-Papuans. The sample could be modeled as ~50% Papuan-related and ~50% Basal-East Asian-related (Andamanese Onge or Tianyuan). The authors concluded that Basal-East Asian ancestry was far more widespread and the peopling of Insular Southeast Asia and Oceania was more complex than previously anticipated.[10][11][12]

Melanesians of some islands are one of the few non-European peoples, and the only dark-skinned group of people outside Australia, known to have blond hair. The blonde trait developed via the TYRP1 gene, which is not the same gene that causes blondness in European blonds.[13]

History of classificationEdit

Early European explorers noted the physical differences among groups of Pacific Islanders. In 1756 Charles de Brosses theorized that there was an 'old black race' in the Pacific who were conquered or defeated by the peoples of what is now called Polynesia, whom he distinguished as having lighter skin.[14]: 189–190  By 1825 Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent developed a more elaborate, 15-race model of human diversity.[15] He described the inhabitants of modern-day Melanesia as Mélaniens, a distinct racial group from the Australian and Neptunian (i.e. Polynesian) races surrounding them.[14]: 178 

In 1832 Dumont D'Urville expanded and simplified much of this earlier work. He classified the peoples of Oceania into four racial groups: Malayans, Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians.[16]: 165  D'Urville's model differed from that of Bory de Saint-Vincent in referring to 'Melanesians' rather than 'Mélaniens.' He derived the name Melanesia from Greek μέλας, black, and νῆσος, island, to mean "islands of black people".

Bory de Saint-Vincent had distinguished Mélaniens from the indigenous Australians. Dumont D'Urville combined the two peoples into one group.

Soares et al. (2008) have argued for an older pre-Holocene Sundaland origin in Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) based on mitochondrial DNA.[17] The "out of Taiwan model" was challenged by a study from Leeds University and published in Molecular Biology and Evolution. Examination of mitochondrial DNA lineages shows that they have been evolving in ISEA for longer than previously believed. Ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea at least 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.[18]

Paternal Y chromosome analysis by Kayser et al. (2000) also showed that Polynesians have significant Melanesian genetic admixture.[19] A follow-up study by Kayser et al. (2008) discovered that only 21% of the Polynesian autosomal gene pool is of Melanesian origin, with the rest (79%) being of East Asian origin.[20] A study by Friedlaender et al. (2008) confirmed that Polynesians are closer genetically to Micronesians, Taiwanese Aborigines, and East Asians, than to Melanesians. The study concluded that Polynesians moved through Melanesia fairly rapidly, allowing only limited admixture between Austronesians and Melanesians.[21] Thus, the high frequencies of B4a1a1 are the result of drift and represent the descendants of a very few successful East Asian females.[22]

Austronesian languages and cultural traitsEdit

Austronesian languages and cultural traits were introduced along the north and south-east coasts of New Guinea and in some of the islands north and east of New Guinea by migrating Austronesians, probably starting over 3,500 years ago.[7] This was followed by long periods of interaction that resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture.[23]

It was once postulated that from this area a very small group of people (speaking an Austronesian language) departed to the east and became the forebears of the Polynesian people.[24] This theory was, however, contradicted by a study published by Temple University finding that Polynesians and Micronesians have little genetic relation to Melanesians; instead, they found significant distinctions between groups living within the Melanesian islands.[25][7]

Genetic links have been identified between the Oceanic peoples. Polynesians are dominated by a type of macro-haplogroup C y-DNA, which is a minority lineage in Melanesia, and have a very low frequency of the dominant Melanesian y-DNA K2b1. A significant minority of them also belongs to the typical East Asian male Haplogroup O-M175.[19]

Some recent studies suggest that all humans outside of Sub-Saharan Africa have inherited some genes from Neanderthals, and that Melanesians are the only known modern humans whose prehistoric ancestors interbred with the Denisova hominin, sharing 4%–6% of their genome with this ancient cousin of the Neanderthal.[9]

Incidence of blond hair in MelanesiaEdit

Blond hair is rare in native populations outside of Europe and North Africa. It evolved independently in Melanesia,[26] where Melanesians of some islands (along with some indigenous Australians) are one of a few groups not descended from Europeans who have blond hair. This has been traced to an allele of TYRP1 unique to these people, and is not the same gene that causes blond hair in Europeans. As with blond hair that arose in Europe and parts of Asia, incidence of blondness is more common in children than in adults, with hair tending to darken as the individual matures.

Melanesian areas of OceaniaEdit

The predominantly Melanesian areas of Oceania include parts of the Maluku Islands (Moluccas) of Eastern Indonesia, East Nusa Tenggara, New Guinea and surrounding islands, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. New Caledonia and nearby Loyalty Islands for most of their history have had a majority Melanesian population, but the proportion has dropped to 43% in the face of modern immigration.[27]

The largest and most populous Melanesian country is Papua New Guinea. The largest city in Melanesia is Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea with about 318,000 people, mostly of Melanesian ancestry.[28]

In Australia, the total population of Torres Strait Islanders, a Melanesian people, as of 30 June 2016, was about 38,700 identifying as being of Torres Strait Islander origin only, and 32,200 of both Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander origin (a total of 70,900).[29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Dunn, Michael, Angela Terrill, Ger Reesink, Robert A. Foley, Stephen C. Levinson (2005). "Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History". Science. 309 (5743): 2072–2075. Bibcode:2005Sci...309.2072D. doi:10.1126/science.1114615. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0013-1B84-E. PMID 16179483.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020 Society, Religion, and Mission, Center for the Study of Global Christianity
  3. ^ Dunn, Michael, Angela Terrill, Ger Reesink, Robert A. Foley, Stephen C. Levinson (2005). "Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History". Science. 309 (5743): 2072–2075. Bibcode:2005Sci...309.2072D. doi:10.1126/science.1114615. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0013-1B84-E. PMID 16179483.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b c d "Genome Scans Show Polynesians Have Little Genetic Relationship to Melanesians", Press Release, Temple University, 17 January 2008, accessed 19 July 2015
  5. ^ Spriggs, Matthew (1997). The Island Melanesians. Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-16727-3.
  6. ^ Kayser, Manfred, Silke Brauer, Gunter Weiss, Peter A. Underhill, Lutz Rower, Wulf Schiefenhövel and Mark Stoneking (2000). "The Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes". Current Biology. 10 (20): 1237–1246. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(00)00734-X. PMID 11069104.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ a b c d e f Friedlaender J, Friedlaender FR, Reed FA, Kidd KK, Kidd JR (18 January 2008). "The Genetic Structure of Pacific Islanders". PLoS Genetics. 4 (3): e19. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0040019. PMC 2211537. PMID 18208337.
  8. ^ Jinam, Timothy A.; Phipps, Maude E.; Aghakhanian, Farhang; Majumder, Partha P.; Datar, Francisco; Stoneking, Mark; Sawai, Hiromi; Nishida, Nao; Tokunaga, Katsushi; Kawamura, Shoji; Omoto, Keiichi; Saitou, Naruya (August 2017). "Discerning the Origins of the Negritos, First Sundaland People: Deep Divergence and Archaic Admixture". Genome Biology and Evolution. 9 (8): 2013–2022. doi:10.1093/gbe/evx118. PMC 5597900. PMID 28854687.
  9. ^ a b c Carl Zimmer (22 December 2010). "Denisovans Were Neanderthals' Cousins, DNA Analysis Reveals". Retrieved 22 December 2010.
  10. ^ Genomic insights into the human population history of Australia and New Guinea, University of Cambridge, Bergström et al. 2018
  11. ^ Genetics and material culture support repeated expansions into Paleolithic Eurasia from a population hub out of Afri, Vallini et al. 2021 (October 15, 2021) Quote: "Taken together with a lower bound of the final settlement of Sahul at 37 kya (the date of the deepest population splits estimated by 1) it is reasonable to describe Oceanians as an almost even mixture between East Asians and a basal lineage, closer to Africans, which occurred sometimes between 45 and 37kya."
  12. ^ Carlhoff, Selina; Duli, Akin; Nägele, Kathrin; Nur, Muhammad; Skov, Laurits; Sumantri, Iwan; Oktaviana, Adhi Agus; Hakim, Budianto; Burhan, Basran; Syahdar, Fardi Ali; McGahan, David P. (2021). "Genome of a middle Holocene hunter-gatherer from Wallacea". Nature. 596 (7873): 543–547. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03823-6. ISSN 0028-0836. PMC 8387238. PMID 34433944. The qpGraph analysis confirmed this branching pattern, with the Leang Panninge individual branching off from the Near Oceanian clade after the Denisovan gene flow, although with the most supported topology indicating around 50% of a basal East Asian component contributing to the Leang Panninge genome (Fig. 3c, Supplementary Figs. 7–11).
  13. ^ Kenny, Eimear E.; Timpson, Nicholas J. (4 May 2012). "Melanesian Blond Hair Is Caused by an Amino Acid Change in TYRP1". Science. 336 (6081): 554. Bibcode:2012Sci...336..554K. doi:10.1126/science.1217849. PMC 3481182. PMID 22556244.
  14. ^ a b Tcherkézoff, Serge (2003). "A Long and Unfortunate Voyage Toward the 'Invention' of the Melanesia/Polynesia Distinction 1595–1832". Journal of Pacific History. 38 (2): 175–196. doi:10.1080/0022334032000120521.
  15. ^ "MAPS AND NOTES to illustrate the history of the European "invention" of the Melanesia / Polynesia distinction". Retrieved 7 March 2013.
  16. ^ Durmont D'Urville, Jules-Sébastian-César (2003). "On The Islands of the Great Ocean". Journal of Pacific History. 38 (2): 163–174. doi:10.1080/0022334032000120512.
  17. ^ Martin Richards. "Climate Change and Postglacial Human Dispersals in Southeast Asia". Oxford Journals. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
  18. ^ DNA Sheds New Light on Polynesian Migration
  19. ^ a b Kayser, M.; Brauer, S.; Weiss, G.; Underhill, P.A.; Roewer, L.; Schiefenhövel, W.; Stoneking, M. (2000). "Melanesian origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes". Current Biology. 10 (20): 1237–1246. doi:10.1016/s0960-9822(00)00734-x. PMID 11069104. See also correction in: Current Biology, vol. 11, no. 2, pages 141–142 (23 Jan. 2001).
  20. ^ Kayser, Manfred; Lao, Oscar; Saar, Kathrin; Brauer, Silke; Wang, Xingyu; Nürnberg, Peter; Trent, Ronald J.; Stoneking, Mark (2008). "Genome-wide analysis indicates more Asian than Melanesian ancestry of Polynesians". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 82 (1): 194–198. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2007.09.010. PMC 2253960. PMID 18179899.
  21. ^ Friedlaender, Jonathan S.; Friedlaender, Françoise R.; Reed, Floyd A.; Kidd, Kenneth K.; Kidd, Judith R.; Chambers, Geoffrey K.; Lea, Rodney A.; et al. (2008). "The genetic structure of Pacific Islanders". PLOS Genetics. 4 (1): e19. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0040019. PMC 2211537. PMID 18208337.
  22. ^ Assessing Y-chromosome Variation in the South Pacific Using Newly Detected, by Krista Erin Latham [1] Archived 2015-07-13 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Spriggs, Matthew (1997). The Island Melanesians. Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-16727-3.
  24. ^ Kayser, Manfred, Silke Brauer, Gunter Weiss, Peter A. Underhill, Lutz Rower, Wulf Schiefenhövel and Mark Stoneking (2000). "The Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes". Current Biology. 10 (20): 1237–1246. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(00)00734-X. PMID 11069104.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ Friedlaender, Jonathan (17 January 2008). "Genome scan shows Polynesians have little genetic relationship to Melanesians" (Press release). Temple University.
  26. ^ Sindya N. Bhanoo (3 May 2012). "Another Genetic Quirk of the Solomon Islands: Blond Hair". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2012.
  27. ^ "Synthèse N°35 – Recensement de la population 2014" (pdf). Nouméa, Nouvelle Calédonie: Institut de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (ISEE). 26 August 2014. p. 3. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
  28. ^ "About PNG". Canberra, Australia: High Commission of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
  29. ^ "3238.0.55.001 - Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 18 September 2018. Retrieved 1 January 2020.