Melanesian Ethnicity

An Island World Reaching from New Guinea to Fiji

Discover more about your ethnicity with AncestryDNA. By comparing your genetic signature to the DNA of people from the Melanesian region, AncestryDNA can give you a clearer picture of your ethnic origins.

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Papuan (from Papua New Guinea or Bougainville), Fijian, Aboriginal Australian

The story of your ethnicity lives in your DNA.

Melanesian History

Including the continent of Australia, New Guinea and the island chains of the Bismarck and Solomon Archipelagos, the Melanesian region is home to some of the worlds' best-preserved primitive societies. The ancient populations of Melanesia remained mostly separated from the rest of the world for tens of thousands of years. A combination of geographical isolation, rugged terrain and few crops and animals suitable for domestication led to the perpetuation of ancient technology and culture.

The First Settlers

The Melanesia region includes Papua New Guinea, Australia and the island chains to the east including Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. The word “Melanesian” is more of a geographical name than a description of an ethnic group, so its meaning in this context is somewhat vague. But, in general, the indigenous population of the region can be broken down into pre-Austronesian (including Papuans and Aboriginal Australians) and Austronesian.

As early as 50,000 years ago, the first modern humans made the narrow sea crossing from Southeast Asia to the Melanesia region after following the southern coastal route out of Africa. About 25,000 years ago, at the height of the last glacial period, Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea were part of the same landmass, called Sahul. They were separated about 10,000 years ago, when melting glaciers caused the sea level to rise.

Papua New Guinea is one of the few places in the world where agriculture was developed locally, rather than being imported from elsewhere. But the wild plants available to the indigenous inhabitants did not lend themselves to intense cultivation. The main crop grown by the Papuans, prior to the arrival of sweet potatoes, was taro. Papua New Guinea is also home to more than 850 distinct languages, making it one of the most diverse countries in the world. Australia also once had hundreds of unique indigenous languages, particularly in the tropical northern regions, although most are now extinct.

Although the Aboriginal Australians aren't technically considered Melanesian, the groups that initially populated Papua New Guinea and Australia probably arrived from Southeast Asia at roughly the same time. There was some interaction among the Melanesians, Australians and other islanders in the area, but the Aboriginal Australians did not adopt agriculture to the same extent as most other Melanesians (possibly due to their harsher climate). With the exception of some tribes along the coast that relied more heavily on fishing, most Aboriginal tribes remained semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers until the arrival of Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Your ethnicity reveals the places where your family story began.

Austronesian influence

A second wave of settlers, the Austronesians, arrived much later, around 3,500 to 3,000 years ago. Most scholars believe that their homeland was the island of Formosa, or modern-day Taiwan, off the east coast of China. Accomplished sailors, the Neolithic Austronesians settled the north coast of Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomon Islands, bringing domesticated chickens, pigs and a few additional crops. They are probably the ancestors of the Lapita culture, which reached as far east as Tonga, most likely giving rise to the Polynesian culture that spread throughout the Pacific Ocean.


Additional Genetic Facts about the Melanesia Region

The Denisovans were “archaic humans,” similar to the Neanderthals, who lived in Siberia and Asia more than 40,000 years ago. There was a significant amount of interbreeding among Denisovans, Neanderthals and modern humans. In fact, it is possible that all non-African humans possess a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. Similarly, Denisovans may have interbred with modern humans, but the Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians may be among the only existing populations to possess Denisovan DNA. The ultimate fate of the Denisovans is unknown. It is possible that they were killed off by modern humans, or that they were outcompeted and assimilated.

Among the interesting characteristics of Melanesian and Aboriginal Australian populations is the evolution of blond hair, which is believed to have developed independently of the blond hair seen in Europeans.

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