History of Oceania

Main Article


Oceania is the name for the vast, island-dotted swath of the Pacific that lies beyond maritime Southeast Asia. (Oceania is distinct from Southeast Asia in that the history and culture of Oceania are not strongly linked to the Asian mainland.) Oceania contains thousands of islands, scattered across thousands of miles of ocean. Although civilization (urban life) never emerged among these islands (prior to the modern age), they were governed by a rich mosaic of non-urban cultures.3

Culture Areas

Oceania can be divided into four main culture areas: Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Each culture area features distinct forms of subsistence, art (see Oceanian Art), religion, and so on. Notably, while hunter-gatherer life (especially fishing) and agriculture were both practised in the three island regions, Australia retained a purely hunter-gatherer lifestyle.3

The Four Major Culture Areas of Oceania
Traditional Subsistence in Oceania
culture area subsistence
Australia hunting/gathering
Micronesia hunting/gathering and farming

The largest component of Oceania is Australia, which (being a continent) is not considered an island. The next-largest land mass is New Guinea, the world's second-largest island (after Greenland). New Guinea is by far the largest component of Melanesia. The next-largest Oceanian islands are the south and north islands of New Zealand, the largest component of Polynesia.

Oceania was colonized by waves of migration emanating from Southeast Asia. The first waves, which occurred during the Paleolithic, colonized Melanesia and Australia. (These migrants could easily reach Melanesia and Australia due to the lower sea level during the Paleolithic.) Later waves, which occurred during antiquity, colonized Micronesia and Polynesia.1

The native peoples of Melanesia and Australia are quite dark-skinned, while the peoples of Micronesia and Polynesia are generally lighter in complexion.1 The name of each island region is descriptive: the prefix mela- means "dark" (because the inhabitants of Melanesia are so dark), micro- means "small" (because the islands of Micronesia are so small), and poly- means "many" (because the islands of Polynesia are so numerous).

The social groups of non-urban peoples, which are typically based on extended family, are known as tribes (or "clans"). The tribes of Australia were semi-nomadic; they did not travel constantly, but rather migrated periodically between settlements, with each tribe controlling a portion of the Australian continent. In the other three culture areas, the territory controlled by a given tribe might consist of a portion of an island, an entire island, or even multiple islands.K216-17,3,7

Modern Oceania

Europeans gradually explored Oceania throughout the Early Modern and modern ages. The single most prolific explorer of the region was James Cook, whose many achievements include the first major expedition to Australia. Unfortunately, Western activity in Oceania was no less destructive than elsewhere. Most islands were seized as colonies (by European nations and the United States), populations were decimated by European diseases, and many natives were forced into slavery.1

Oceania was a major theatre of World War II, where the Allies battled the Japanese for control of the Pacific (see World War II). In the period ca. WWII-1980 (the "age of decolonization"), most colonies achieved independence. Today, the islands of Oceania are grouped into over a dozen nations.1

Island Types

Oceania features many examples of all three major island types: continental, volcanic, and coral. These types are distinguished according to some basic principles of geology.

The Earth consists of four layers: a solid inner core, a liquid outer core, a liquid mantle, and a solid crust.

Layers of the Earth

The crust, which floats on the mantle, can be divided into two types: continental crust, which is thick and light, and oceanic crust, which is thin and dense.4 Continental crust rises above the ocean (thus providing dry land), while oceanic crust lies far underwater. The edges of continental crust also lie underwater; this is termed the continental shelf.

Island Geology

A continental island (the most common type) is simply a bump in the continental shelf that rises above the water. A volcanic island (aka oceanic island), on the other hand, rises all the way up from oceanic crust. A volcanic island forms when liquid rock spurts up from the mantle and hardens; in other words, a volcanic island is the tip of a volcano.5

A coral island is formed by a coral reef that grows in shallow water. Shallow-water coral can grow in two places: upon a continental shelf, or upon the underwater slopes immediately around a volcanic island. A coral island does not result from coral growing up above the surface of the water (where it would die), but rather from the accumulation of rocky debris upon the reef (which is often stirred up by storms) or by an upward shift in the earth's crust directly below the reef (which happens mainly along fault lines, where volcanic islands are usually found).6

Volcanic Island (surrounded by a coral reef)

A coral island that forms around a volcanic island is shaped like a ring (or a partial ring). If the volcanic island erodes away, all that remains is an atoll: a ring-shaped coral island surrounding a lagoon.

1 - "Oceania", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Australia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
3 - "Oceania", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
4 - "Ocean basin", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
5 - "Island", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
6 - "Coral Island", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
7 - "Aboriginal Settlement. Accessed June 2010.