History Files

Far East Kingdoms




Considered in some quarters to be a continent in its own right, one largely composed of water rather than land, Oceania starts where South-East Asia ends. The territory which forms Oceania is somewhat debatable. Broadly it encompasses Australasia (Australia, New Zealand and some minor islands), Melanesia (neighbouring Australasia to the north and east, and incorporating islands between New Guinea and Tonga), Micronesia (on the northern flank of Melanesia and east of the Philippines, and incorporating thousands of islands which stretch up to Japan's Bonin Islands), and Polynesia (on the eastern flank of all three of the others, and stretching north to include Hawaii, east to Easter Island, and south-west towards New Zealand). Some authorities include New Zealand in Polynesia while the UN excludes islands which are part of other political formations, such as Hawaii for its connection to the USA.

FeatureIt was South Asia which witnessed the earliest presence of anatomically modern humans in the form of Homo sapiens - between about 70,000-60,000 BC - with small groups either remaining in what is now India from their earliest point of arrival after leaving the Near East, or migrating along the coastline to reach South-East Asia, Oceania, and East Asia by about 60,000 BC. The first humans reached Australia at some point around 50,000 BC (see feature link). That early Australian population, if it left any related communities in South-East Asia, quickly lost connection with them and they were replaced outside of Australia by populations of later South Asians and East Asians.

Early Melanesia was populated within the ten millennia after 60,000 BC, although a less approximate date is yet to be fixed (the WWF places the date as recently as 40,000 BC). Its modern population has been greatly enhanced over many more recent millennia by successive waves of arrivals, giving New Guinea and the large number of other islands one of the most complex, multi-layered populations in the world. Micronesia has a similar history of settlement by successive waves of arrivals, although probably with a much later starting date that is yet to be pinned down. The many islands of Polynesia are home to the Polynesian people, a sub-group of the Austronesians, originally East Asians who occupied Taiwan and then the coastal areas of South-East Asia before becoming seafarers of some repute from about 3000 BC.

FeatureThe system that has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one that involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

Considering the fact that the bulk of Oceania is composed of water, its overall population is higher only than than of Antarctica. It is also the only region (or continent) to cross the international date line down the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so that its easternmost territories are also technically its westernmost territories, and they exist a day behind the rest of Oceania.

Bradshaw rock art, Australia

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), from The Lapita Peoples, P V Kirch (Blackwell, 1997), and from External Links: Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940, Bronwen Douglas & Chris Ballard (ANU Press, 2008, and available via JSTOR), and Standard country or area codes for statistical use (United Nations), and Sequencing Uncovers a 9,000 Mile Walkabout, Dr Morten Rasmussen (University of Copenhagen, 2012, available to download as a PDF via Illimina), New Guinea People (archived feature, World Wildlife Fund).)

c.50,000 BC

A re-examination in 2002 of the so-called Mungo Man skeleton, which had been unearthed in Australia in 1974, produces a probable burial date of 40,000 BC, with humans having lived in the area for some ten thousand years prior to that.

Mungo Man, named for what had been the lush Lake Mungo lagoon which was teeming with fish and waterbirds until about 18,000 BC, is Australia's oldest find to date of human remains