They were called Papua - ‘frizzy-haired’, by their western neighbours, the Malay-speaking people of Southeast Asia. This apt distinction and handy term was commonly adopted. The dark skinned, frizzy-haired people speaking Non-Austronesian (Papuan) languages made a distinctive group in Oceania. Or did they?

The picture is complicated since many frizzy-haired people in our region speak Austronesian – a family of languages with the largest geographical spread in the world in the pre-colonial era. This reflects past migration events, mixing traditions and formation of new cultures which historians, linguists and archaeologists attempt to reconstruct.

The complexity is well illustrated in East Timor where indigenous Papuan people speak Tetum – a language from the Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian) family with some Portuguese influence, and another popular language - Fataluku - a Papuan (or more correctly Non-Austronesian) language, widely used in the eastern part of the country. Several smaller language groupings are also associated with Papuan language family. Bahasa and Portuguese were adopted in a more recent colonial period.

Ceremonial mask from Papua New Guinea
Ceremonial mask from Papua New Guinea Image: Carl Bento
© Australian Museum

Europeans, often obsessed with skin colour, introduced the name Melanesia - meaning black, borrowed from Greek via French. It was coined by Jules Dumont d'Urville, French explorer, in 1832. He intended to define an ethnic and geographical grouping of islands whose inhabitants, he thought, were different from those of Polynesia and, of course, the most of Southeast Asia.

But Austronesian languages of the Malayo-Polynesian branch are spoken by inhabitants of Melanesia, including the Solomon Islands, Fiji and north eastern regions of Papua New Guinea such as Manus Island, New Britain, New Ireland and the Milne Bay area with hundreds of small islands. Scholars think this is a product of Austronesian people expanding east to the Pacific via Melanesia in prehistoric times, at least by the second millennium before the Common Era.

On their ‘journey’ future Polynesians picked up a bit of Melanesian pigment in their skin, but left a rich linguistic heritage and various cultural practices, including tattooing, head-hunting, making backcloth and outrigger canoes.

Hidden in the jungle and possibly in the deep shadows of the past are some little people. They are like Papuans, but very small, such as the Tapiro People in the Mimika River region of the Papua Province. Similar small people with frizzy hair and chocolate-coloured skin live, usually isolated, in remote locations across Southeast Asia – from Taiwan and the Philippines through to the Andaman Islands, and possibly even Australia.

According to an old theory, these little people, sometimes called Negritos, may represent a remnant of original ‘modern’ humans in Southeast Asia and the first people ever who populated New Guinea and Australia a bit over 40,000 years ago. In recent times anthropologists eloquently dismissed this alluring theory, but the mystery of the little people still awaits explanation.

Additional information:

In commonly used geographical definition, Melanesia includes New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Bougainville, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji, where about 1000 languages are spoken. But Melanesian people are present in Southeast Asia as well, prominently in East Timor and Halmahera, making western boundary of Melanesia as blurry as the others.