The Oceanic world makes up one-third of the earth's surface, and although it was one of the first regions where humans stepped foot (New Guinea), it was also one of the last regions where the journey of human colonization ended (New Zealand). The earliest occupation of New Guinea began at least 50,000 years ago as part of the spread of humanity out of Africa. New Zealand was occupied less than 1,000 years ago as part of one of the last great movements of people in world history. To understand the past from 500 to 1000 CE, historians use archaeology and historical linguistics as no written record survives. To explore this part of the world during this period, Oceania will be divided into three major geographic areas. The first region, Melanesia, is made up of the major island of New Guinea, the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago and the islands of the Solomon Chain, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. The second region contains the islands known as Polynesia, which will be separated into West and East Polynesia in this chapter, to separate the regional differences. Lastly, to the north of both Melanesia and western Polynesia are the island chains known as Micronesia. Map 5 sets out the islands for this region. Each will be examined at two points of time: 500 CE and 1000 CE.
The terms Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia were originally defined in the early nineteenth century by the French explorer, Dumont d’Urville. Melanesia literally means “black islands.” It was defined to describe the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji in contrast with those from Polynesia (“many islands”) and Micronesia (“small islands”). Such racial observations based on skin colour were not only incorrect but also masked the great variety between the many peoples and their customs who lived in this region. Yet the terms are useful as explicit geographical regions on the planet and will be used as such in this paper. The continent of Australia which covers 7.7 million squared kilometres will not be covered in this chapter.