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Melanesia: The Future of Tradition

Western Melanesia, comprising New Guinea, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), New Caledonia, and the Solomon Islands, has long been one of the most ethnographically investigated regions of the Fourth World. Although the coastal areas have been the sites of contact with European and other Pacific Island cultures since well before the 20th century, many peoples of the rugged and remote interiors, particularly on the island of New Guinea (now politically divided into the independent Commonwealth country of Papua New Guinea in the east and the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya or West Papua in the west), were first directly contacted only after the Second World War. During the 1950s, anthropologists had an unprecedented opportunity to bring modern social analytical techniques to societies that were only then encountering--and under the mildest of conditions--the presence of European colonizers.

The cultural variation in Melanesia, particularly in Papua New Guinea, is unique in the history of human societies. Residents of Papua New Guinea, who number nearly 4 million today, speak one-quarter of the world's languages, around 800 distinct tongues. Many of these languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and many are in danger of disappearing altogether with the spread of two common languages, English and New Guinea Tok Pisin. Fortunately, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an adjunct to the country's Christian missions, has done a great deal of linguistic work in Papua New Guinea. For more than 30 years, the Institute has documented grammars and lexicons of New Guinea dialects. The Department of Linguistics in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University has also accumulated linguistic data on many Melanesian languages. And most importantly, the overwhelming proportion of Papua New Guinea people are still village dwellers in their traditional land; most of their languages will continue to be spoken and transmitted for the time being.

The resilience of Melanesian cultures, and their capacity to absorb new elements into their cultural repertoire, continues to compel the attention of anthropologists. In the 1950s, Australian anthropologist Peter Lawrence wrote of the now-famous "cargo cults." Cargo cults were the Melanesians' attempt to explain, in their own cultural terms, Western dominance in material wealth and technology. They attributed to westerners a superior form of cult and magic and tried to appropriate it. Cargo cults were the sporadic outbreak of communal ritual innovation in this regard, but the cargo cult as a more enduring feature of Melanesian cultural innovation represented the deep-seated capacity of local Melanesian traditions to borrow new concepts and infuse their cult life with the power of external knowledge. The cargo cult remains a feature of communal cosmology throughout Melanesia and, as Tony Regan shows in his account of the Bougainville rebellion, has played a key role in local people's perception of their disadvantage with respect to the Panguna mine.

Politically, Melanesia is notable for its benign attitude toward the West. With the exceptions of New Caledonia, which Denis Monnerie discusses in his contribution, and West Papua, which is still engaged in a struggle for independence from Indonesia, as Eben Kirksey and Diana Glazebrook remind us in their contributions, no legacy of colonial brutality or wholesale appropriation of land or labor served to radicalize a generation of Melanesian leaders. Residents of Vanuatu have, however, made strenuous efforts to reassert kastom (customary, pre-Colonial village law and practice) against the cultural influence of the English and French. Kastom, as Tim Curtis notes in his contribution, is a political statement of traditional Vanuatuan culture's role in contemporary nation-building. Further, as Tony Regan shows in his contribution on the Solomon Islands, the struggle between ethnic groups looms large in western Melanesia, a function of the way in which the idea of a sovereign national state has influenced local aspirations toward autonomy and cultural distinctiveness.

Stuart Kirsch and Mike Wood remind us that some of the most pressing problems (now receiving increasing international attention) are the environmental concerns of indigenous populations faced with large-scale logging and resource extraction projects on their lands. Papua New Guinea is heavily dependent on the income from foreign-owned resource projects. Some multinational resource companies such as Chevron and Placer, and smaller companies such as Oil Search, have taken seriously1 the idea of a stakeholder-constituted forum for planning local development and securing an economic future for local landowners. These attempts, however encouraging, must be balanced against notable failures in Melanesia, both political (Bougainville) and environmental (the Ok Tedi Mine).

Papua New Guinea has been labelled a "weak state," in which the practices and structures of governance, particularly in remote areas, are tenuous at best. Because of its lack of resources and personnel, the Papua New Guinea government is inclined to cede to resource extraction companies responsibility for the maintenance of social order and the provision of services in such regions. Although resource companies bring to local communities increased opportunities for income, training, and employment, as well as improved educational and health services, they also bring less desirable influences.

Holly Wardlow describes the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, an increasingly serious problem in Papua New Guinea today. Anthropologists have focused on Papua New Guinea as an area where sexual activity, both homosexual and heterosexual, was a critical component of ritual and initiatory practices in many places and where gender dichotomies are still salient in everyday life. The effect of STDs on societies in which the sexual act is of such signal cultural significance is a threat not only to the physical wellbeing of these communities but to their cultural values as well.

Three of this issue’s contributions concern West Papua, perhaps the most politically volatile region in Melanesia today, particularly in the wake of East Timor's success in gaining independence from Indonesia. Poorly armed, small in numbers, and without the resources to take advantage of international communication channels, the West Papuan secession movement (OPM) has nevertheless attracted international attention for its cause--Melanesian independence from Indonesia. Indonesia's interest in the region's vast mineral wealth, however, will likely preclude West Papuan independence.

Despite the political, economic, and physical hazards brought about by Melanesia's increasing exposure to a global world, local communities have responded in ways that augment and enhance their cultural identity and uniqueness. Eager to embrace western modes of life, they nevertheless insist on doing so within the framework of their customary laws and their still profound attachment to their ancestral lands. The constitutional protection afforded their cultural laws in the independent countries of Melanesia is the most secure bulwark against threats to their cultural survival.

1. These companies are submitting proposals to the PNG government to address issues of landowner political instability in oil project area.

James Weiner received his Ph.D. in anthropology from The Australian National University in 1984. He conducted fieldwork among the Foi of Papua New Guinea for more than three years. He has been lecturer in anthropology at The Australian National University and the University of Manchester and professor of anthropology at the University of Adelaide. Author of four books and many articles on the Foi, he now works as an independent consultant in Australia. He can be reached at

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