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Oceania - History

Major parts of Near Oceania / Melanesia were settled from Southeast Asia early in modern human prehistory, between ~50,000 to ~30,000 years before present (YBP). Populations were relatively isolated at this margin of the human species range for the following 25,000 years. The early settlers in Near Oceania were very small groups of hunter-gatherers. For example, New Ireland, which is more than 300 km long, is estimated to have had a pre-Neolithic carrying capacity of no more than ~1,200 people. There is evidence of sporadic, modest contact between New Guinea and the Bismarcks from 22,000 YBP, and with Bougainville/Buka in the Solomons only from ~3,300 YBP. By ~3,300 YBP, at least one powerful new impulse of influence had come from Austronesian speaking migrants from Island Southeast Asia, likely associated with the development of effective sailing, that led to the appearance of the Lapita Cultural Complex in the Bismarck Archipelago. After only a few hundred years, Lapita People from this area had colonized the islands in Remote Oceania as far east as Tonga and Samoa, where Polynesian culture then developed. Polynesia is a stretch of ocean larger than the continental United States. Pioneers sailed from the Caroline Islands near the coast of New Guinea to Samoa in central Polynesia between three and four thousand years ago. From there the seafarers reached all the habitable islands in the Pacific by about AD 1000. This was a voyage of exploration, discovery, and migration to rival the accounts of Europes boldest adventurers, but with a striking difference: The Polynesians staked their claims across the open sea instead of land. Captain James Cook described this as "by far the most extensive nation upon earth."

Polynesians were the only deep water sailors in the world for at least two thousand years. Crewmembers struggled to overcome many challenges associated with the maiden trip. Winds blew from the wrong directions, and sometimes there were no winds at all. Cloudy nights hid the navigational stars during parts of the passage. High seas left everyone cold and wet.

But European historians rejected the concept of Polynesian settlement as one of deliberate exploration. They insisted instead that pioneers arrived at new islands entirely by accident, blown off course in their inadequate boats. This view prevailed well into the second half of the twentieth century. As European navigation techniques spread, traditional knowledge waned. By the 1970s, Polynesian navigation and canoe-building techniques were almost forgotten.

Melanesia was a large staging ground for the Pacific Campaign in World War II. There were many American bases there. The Melanesians were Stone Age peoples. With the tremendous influx of the American servicemen and their technology and their food, they very quickly adopted many Western ways. And then, when the Americans just as quickly pulled out, it left them without the basis of their traditional culture. Some people cleared whole stretches of jungle to make dirt runways. They carved rifles out of sticks, formed up into platoons and marched up and down in the jungle to make planes come and bring cargo. Hence, the whole notion of cargo cults.

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