The Melanesians are decidedly more enterprising than the Papuans. Among them fishing and trading by canoe are quite important. Certain tribes make pottery and trade it with those who do not. Although in the islands east of New Guinea, natives undertook long trading voyages in large sailing canoes, no tribal chiefs held jurisdiction over more than a few villages. Each tribe was interminably raiding neighboring tribes. The skulls of victims were painted and put on view in the large clubhouses used exclusively by men.
Magic is rampant wherever we find Melanesians. Through knowing incantations and symbolic acts, magicians are thought to have control over the growth of yams, diseases, love emotions, in fact, almost anything of importance to the people. Consequently, magicians are paid handsomely in pigs, shell money, or other desirables, either for invoking their power or for passing on their knowledge. This is about the extent of the religious practices of most Melanesians. The general absence of offerings to supernatural beings in order to gain their favor distinguishes Melanesian culture from Micronesian and particularly Polynesian.
The Melanesians, as with so many of the primitive tribes in Indonesia, are chewers of the areca nut mixed with powdered coral-lime and wrapped in a leaf from the betel plant. In Polynesia, where the Areca palm does not grow, kava drinking takes its place. The root of the kava plant, a kind of betel, is reduced to fine particles, steeped in water, the particles strained out, and the drink proffered. The kava plant, when any part of it is chewed, is peppery to the tongue and numbs it like cocaine. Kava, which is a narcotic and not an alcolohic beverage, has a soothing and refreshing effect. Some Melanesians grow taro as their staple food; others, the yam. Chickens, and particularly pigs, are important foods.
Cooperative ventures are carried out by matrilineal or patrilineal kin groups, and these clan members gather at the time of birth, puberty, marriage, or death rites of a member. Men's clubhouses reach their highest development in Oceania among the Melanesians. Dances by the men in gorgeous masks and headdresses mark festivities of secret organizations. The carving of masks, bow and stern pieces of canoes, drums, and handles of implements is superior to that in Micronesia and most of Polynesia. Tattooing appears as fully developed as in Micronesia and Polynesia. Among the Papuans, scarification is common, but tattooing rare.
Dress and ornamentation among the Melanesians differ little from those of the Papuans. Universal is the piercing of the septum of the nose and the lobes of the ears to receive ornaments. Endless variation and a great range of differences of culture within the Melanesian area make generalization even more difficult than in Micronesia or Polynesia.