Oceania – sea of islands
In this exhibition, Oceania refers to the approximately 25,000 islands of the Central and South Pacific Ocean, where about 22 million people live. Other definitions of Oceania include Australia. However, because Australia’s history of human settlement is different from that of the islands to the east, it is not included here.
Cartography by Terralink © 2010 Terralink International Limited
About 200 years ago, Danish–French geographer Conrad Malte-Brun came up with the name ‘Oceania’ to identify the region into which Europeans were increasingly venturing. The name captured the European imagination, embodying a long-standing fascination with this vast and still mysterious world.
European scholars have used various other names to categorise the islands of Oceania, as outlined below. Pacific scholars, however, tend to emphasise the inter-island connections that exist right across the region. For Pacific people, the sea is something that links, rather than isolates, the islands of their ocean homeland.
Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia
In the 1830s, French explorer Dumont d’Urville suggested classifying Oceania’s islands into three groups:
- Melanesia (named for the dark skin colour of its people) – Papua New Guinea and the islands extending east as far as Fiji
- Micronesia – the comparatively tiny islands north of Melanesia and east of the Philippines
- Polynesia – the vast triangle of islands bound by Hawai‘i to the north, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east, and Aotearoa New Zealand to the south-west.
Many scholars have since rejected these groupings, which overlook the region’s settlement history.
Near Oceania, Remote Oceania
Some scholars today use ‘Near Oceania’ and ‘Remote Oceania’ to conceptualise the Pacific region. These terms stem from the region’s migration history.
Near Oceania refers to Papua New Guinea and its adjacent islands, which were first settled more than 40,000 years ago. Remote Oceania refers to the islands further out to sea. These islands began to be settled around 3,000 years ago, when seafarers developed the knowledge and technology to voyage across the open ocean.