What’s in the name?

Ethnographic Collection: Oceania

Ethnographic Collection: Oceania
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Oceania is a geographical, geopolitical and partially ethnological region. It includes Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia and the islands of Southeast Asia. The term was first used by French navigator Dumont d’Urville (1790-1842) who explored the south Pacific in the 1820s and 1830s, and who perished in one of the first major railway crashes in France.

Melanesia extends from the western end of the Pacific Ocean and includes New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Polynesia, centered in the middle of the South Pacific, encompass over 1000 islands, extending from New Zealand in the southwest to Easter Island in the far-east, and Hawaii north of the Equator. Micronesia extends through the western tropical section of the Pacific Ocean and encompasses numerous small islands south and north of the Equator, including Palau in the west and Kiribati in the east. The islands of Southeast Asia, also known as the Malay Archipelago, consist of some 25,000 islands, including Borneo, Luzon, Mindanao, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Java, Bali and Timor.

Human occupation of this region has an interesting history. Two million years ago early hominoid, Homo erectus, lived quite close, in Java. But it was only about 40-50,000 years ago when humans succeeded in moving further east. With the low sea level at the time, New Guinea and Australia formed one large continental landmass called Sahul. Crossing the sea from Southeast Asia to Sahul required oceangoing boats to sail the minimum 60 kilometers, but possibly longer, distances.

In about 35,000 BCE people were at home in the New Guinea highlands and in the valleys of Tasmania. By about 30,000 BCE they had settled in the Solomon Islands. Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia were occupied in about 3,000 BP. Samoa and Tonga were settled in about 2,700 and 2,900 BP respectively. Since then populating the Pacific islands has resulted in the world’s largest cultural complex enmeshed with the ocean and long distance sailing. Easter Island, about 7,000 kilometers from the east coast of Australia was settled by about 1,200 CE, nearly the same time as New Zealand, the last large islands occupied by humans.

Oceania is a useful term, describing a broad region on which the anthropology research and associated collections of the Australian Museum are focused.


BCE – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BCE Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life.

CE – means Common Era, and indicates the years between year one and the present in the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 CE Jesus Christ was crucified.

BP - means Before Present.


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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