Oceania: Island Culture

Oceania encompasses more than thirty thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean, spanning from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south. To most geographers the lands that make up Oceania include Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, New Zealand, and often Australia and the Malay Archipelago. These islands are home to a wide range of cultures, and today many of the island nations recognize more than one language. For example, in Papua New Guinea alone, a part of the island region known as Melanesia, at least 846 different languages are spoken. Some of these languages are spoken by as few as fifty people.

Life in Oceania can be traced back thousands of years, but it took many years for all the islands of Oceania to be populated. Evidence of human settlement in the Philippines dates to at least 2000 B.C.E. and on the Solomon Islands to at least 1000 B.C.E. . The first settlers of Aotearoa (modern-day New Zealand), however, didn't arrive from Polynesia until 1300 C.E. Despite this long history of human life on the islands, information about these island cultures has been recorded only since European explorers began landing on the islands in the early 1500s C.E. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480–1521) sighted the Marquesas Islands and docked on the Island of Mactan in the Philippines in 1521. Portuguese navigators landed on islands in Micronesia in 1525, and Spanish explorer Don Jorge de Meneses named the largest island of Papua New Guinea "Papua" in 1526. Virtually all that we know about the customs of Oceania comes from the accounts of Europeans, for the peoples of Oceania left no written record of their early culture.

A couple dressed in clothing from one of the islands of Oceania. Reproduced by permission of © .

Seen through the eyes of European explorers, the island cultures were strange and exotic. Although practicing separate and distinct traditions, islanders led strikingly similar lives in the eyes of foreigners because of the similar environments on the islands. Small groups banded together and lived off fishing, the produce from their own farming, or hunting and gathering. Explorers often described life in the South Pacific as pleasant and idyllic. John Fearn, captain of a British whaling ship, dubbed the island of Nauru "Pleasant Island" when he visited it in 1798. The majority of information recorded was about islanders living nearest the coasts. Some groups living in the remote, rugged inland areas were largely unknown to the rest of the world until the 1970s, when further exploration introduced these groups to the westerners.

The traditional cultures on the islands of Oceania have become largely westernized. Not long after the first Europeans "discovered" the islands, European nations claimed sovereignty over particular islands. Micronesia, for instance, was under Spanish rule from 1526 until 1899, when Germany bought the islands. German administration of Micronesia lasted until 1914, when Japan claimed possession of the territory. In 1947 the United States began administering Micronesia, and this rule lasted until 1970, when Micronesia declared its independence. Other regions of Oceania were under similar European, Japanese, and later American, control.

Under foreign control, the peoples of Oceania were introduced to different lifestyles. Many left their subsistence farms, for example, where they grew just enough food to survive, and began working in European-owned mines that extracted the islands' valuable resources. Changing their way of life also encouraged indigenous, or native, people to change their clothing styles. Many adopted Western-style clothes and abandoned their traditional costume and body decoration except for ceremonial purposes.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Paastor-Roces, Marian. Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave. Quezon City, Philippines: Nikki Coseteng, 1991.

Pendergrast, Mick. Te Aho Tapu: The Sacred Thread. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Reyes, Lynda Angelica N. The Textiles of Southern Philippines: The Textile Traditions of the Bagobo, Mandaya, Bilaan from their Beginnings to the 1900s. Quezon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines Press, 1992.

Clothing of Oceania
Headwear of Oceania
Body Decorations of Oceania
Footwear of Oceania

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