Cultures of the native peoples of the Pacific stem

The cultures of the native peoples of the Pacific stem ultimately from Asia and more immediately from Indonesia. The original heritage of those who moved away from the homeland has been so attenuated by time and by the changing of conditions that we can do little more than trace a number of features back to Indonesia. The Australian aborigines probably retain, in a general way, important elements of culture that flourished in Indonesia in the beginning. Melanesians undoubtedly preserve numerous features of later culture in Indonesia, and the Polynesians, still later development. Therefore, through the cultures of the people who moved eastward into the Pacific and through survivals of early culture in Indonesia itself, an approximate idea can be acquired of life in Indonesia before Oriental civilizations, using metal and employing writing, broke in upon the island world at the beginning of our Christian era. Their influence, in the realm of religion, trade, and government, while profound in the East Indies and the southern Philippines, had spread no further than the western outskirts of Melanesia and Micronesia, and here feebly, when Europeans first entered the Pacific in the sixteenth century.


The Australoids, epitomized by the Australian aborigines, live in small, independent groups. Within the group in which they live they divide themselves into kin groups having animal and plant totems, and employ much of their time in initiation rites and magic ritual intended to protect themselves and increase their food supply. Bands of Australians wander in search of the kangaroo and the ostrichlike emu, which they hunt with boomerangs. They keep themselves mobile by doing without clothing, permanent houses, and food gardens. They move ceaselessly over a large area in search of roots, grubs, reptiles, and the kangaroo and are ready to repulse any intruder with spears or boomerangs. Through long centuries of roaming the desert they have become remarkably adapted to it, even to its intense heat and cold.

The Negritos also hunt, but with the bow and arrow. Throughout mountainous New Guinea they live in independent hamlets and cultivate taro, sugar cane, bananas, and, since their introduction, sweet potatoes and tobacco. They also raise pigs. Little is yet known about their social organization except that the dwellers in many villages belong to either one or the other of two groups, each of which is named for a totemic animal. A member of one group marries someone in the other group. Although they sometimes war upon each other, they are not headhunters or cannibals like their larger Negroid-Australoid neighbors who occupy more favorable lands and have access to the sea.

The clothing of the Negrito, like that of all New Guinea natives in general, is scant and aimed at adornment and some bodily protection rather than concealment. A gourd penis cover serves for the men, and a fringed-leaf apron for the women. The septum of the nose is pierced to receive a boar's tusk.

A stone axe consisting of a smooth blade mounted in a socket at the end of a stout handle is still their main tool. Food is cooked by placing it with stones that have previously been heated and covering it with leaves and more hot stones. Fire is produced by rubbing a length of rattan thong around a dry stick.

As throughout most of Oceania there is very little restriction on sexual intercourse before marriage, the women marry very early. When a person dies, relatives may cut off a joint of the finger as a token of their grief and to propitiate the spirit. Spirits of the dead are much feared. To protect themselves against these spirits, feasts are held for the dead, accompanied by singing and simple dancing. Bodies are cremated.

The language of the Negritos of the Philippines is apparently borrowed from their neighbors. It is quite possible that the unstudied languages of the Negritos of New Guinea will prove to be our first records of original Negrito speech.

The culture of the taller Papuans, who surrounded the Negritos in New Guinea, is not much advanced over that of the Negrito except when influenced by the Melanesians who encompass them in the islands north and east of New Guinea and have nearly encircled New Guinea. It is difficult now to determine what culture the Papuans originally had. The Papuans are hunters and agriculturists rather than fishermen. They grow the same foods as the Negritos. The starch in the trunk of the sago palm is an important element in the diet of those who live in the lowlands. Pigs are very important to them. Their social and political organization is extremely simple. A few villages or hamlets may join together for strength in dealing with enemies, but otherwise they may be quite independent, their affairs being managed by the family heads with perhaps the oldest ablebodied man as the chief. The kin groups are clans, that is, they belong to either their mother's family or their father's family; and they usually believe themselves descended from a totem, an animal or plant forbidden to them as food. A man gains prestige by collecting heads of enemies and strangers and may rise to chieftainship by giving feasts. Through the help of clansmen a man can buy himself into secret societies and rise in grades in the society. Certain of these societies possess the magic over specific sources of food. By donning elaborate masks, members of a secret organization impersonate their gods at important ceremonies. These are the people who sometimes build tree houses. Those who have come under Melanesian influence construct large clubhouses for the men.

Some Papuans go naked. Others cover themselves in a variety of ways, from penis covers to loin clothes and even wrap-arounds, or tapa kilts, for the men; and for the women a bunch of grass drawn between the thighs and attached to a belt, also loin clothes or tapa kilts.

The dead are wrapped in a mat and exposed on platforms, the skulls eventually being kept in the houses. Death is frequently blamed on sorcery, which is practiced much as was once done in Hawaii. Hair or fingernail clippings from the intended victim are procured, and over these death spells are cast.

Languages of the Papuans show little or no relationship among themselves. Some seem to be connected with languages of northern Australians. They lie quite outside the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages except when influenced by them.

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