Out of Africa – Austro-Melanesian History, Culture and Music

Once upon a time, one or two hundred thousand years ago or so, anatomically human beings appeared on the scene in Africa. About 60,000 years ago, there may have been as many as 5,000 people living on the planet. A number, possibly around 150, decided to cross the Red Sea… following the lead of their cousins, Homo erectus, who’d decided to look for new real estate some 2 million years earlier.

Homo Erectus
Homo erectus couple

The humans traveled along the Arabian coast and, once arriving in South Asia, decided to settle down for a while. Over thousands of years, physical differences would develop in humans that spread from this population; lighter skin allowed for the absorption of Vitamin D3 as people moved into less sunny climes. Nowadays we usually call these descendants Asians and white people. But the people that moved on through Southeast Asia to Australia don’t have a name nearly as recognized. To my ears, Australoid sounds so clunky… does the “oid” suffix ever sound good? Some of the more widely used terms in their respective cultures include the vague “black,” “negrito” and “aborigine.” I’m going to stick with Austro-Melanesian (or Australo-Melanesian) for now… If that catches on, maybe future generations will shorten it to AMs, Ausmels or something catchier. But for now, I’d merely like to focus on both the diversity and solidarity of these various peoples.


Whereas India became a post-racial fondue, two island groups between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal existed in relative isolation.

Jarawa People
Jarawa lounging at the beach

The Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Jangil, Onge, and Sentinelese probably represent the purest example of Africa’s original pioneers in Asia.

Traditionally, the music of these islands was vocal, sung either in chorus or solo. The lyrics of their songs, whether about dugong-spearing, bow-making or pig-hunting, could generally be considered work songs.


In southeast Asia, the Mani are a remnant population of the original pioneers that live in modern day Thailand. In Malaysia, the Semang are referred to as one of the nation’s groups of orang asli, or “original people.” The earliest recorded mention of the Semang in the Malay Peninsula is circa 200 BCE, although their presence obviously stretches much further back.

Mani youth
Mani girls

One of their interesting instruments includes the nose flute. It’s pretty much impossible to find any clips though… dang!

Human remains in Papua have been dated to around 50,000 years ago. After India, Papua may’ve been another major setting point for humans leaving Africa. It was from there that people branched out into Maritime Southeast Asia.

Papuans observing the Biak Massacre
Pro-independence Papuans observing the Biak Massacre
Study of Papuan music has been discouraged by the Indonesian occupation, which seeks to prevent the promotion of Papuan culture.

In Taiwan, Austronesians were long thought to be the island’s aborigines. Nowadays, it’s known that there were inhabitants much earlier, the most famous being the so-called (and now vanished or absorbed) Changping Culture.

Baxiandong - 八仙洞
The Changping culture’s best-known site is 八仙洞 (Baxiandong) in Taitung County. In 2009, a team from Academia Sinica discovered and confirmed the age of Taiwan’s oldest artifacts inside the cave.

The indigenous peoples of Australia include the Alyawarre, Anmatjera, Arrente, Cammeraygal, Dieri, Eora, Gunai, Gunivugi, Gurindji, Guugu Yimithir, Jarrakan, Kalkadoon, Kamilaroi, Kaurna, Koori Kulin, Lurtija, Maralinga Tjarutja, Murrinh-Patha, Narungga, Ngarrindjeri, Ngunnawal, Noongar, Pitjantjatjara, Spinigex, Tharawal, Tiwi, Warlpiri, Wiradjuri, Wonnarua, Wapa, Yolngu, Yorta Yorta and many others.

Arrarnta boys from Ntaria
Arrarnta boys from Ntaria

They are thought by most to have arrived in Australia between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. It is believed that first human migration to Australia was achieved when this landmass formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to Papua by a land bridge. Others may’ve crossed the Timor Sea.

Map of Aboriginal Australia

Many forms of traditional music formed across the vast continent. Bunggul developed around the Mann River and is known for its usually epic storytelling. In most cultures there are also clan songs and death wails. The best known symbol of indigenous Australian music is the didgeridoo, one of the oldest known instruments. Traditionally it was played only by men on an aerophone made from eucalyptus with a beeswax mouthpiece. Nowadays they can be made from materials like PVC and are often played by white people with dreadlocks.


The Melanesian subregion of Oceania, (from Greek: μέλας “black” and νῆσος, “islands”) includes Amplett Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, d’Entrecasteaux Islands, Fiji, Louisiade Archipelago, Maluku Islands, New Caledonia, Papua, Norfolk Island, Raja Ampat Islands, Rotuma, Schouten Islands, Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands, Torres Strait Islands, Trobriand Islands, Vanuatu and Woodlark Island.

Solomon Islander Children
Solomon Islander children

Some of the islands were settled around 33,000 years ago via boats, and in some cases, land bridges. For tens of thousands of years, they were the only game in town, until, around 4,000 years ago, the Austronesians arrived, resulting in a long period of interaction that resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture. In the case of remote Fiji, it appears that the Melanesians actually arrived after their neighbors, the Austronesians, around 2,500 years ago.

Vocal music is very common across Melanesia. Folk instruments included many kinds of drums, flutes, pipes and slit-log gongs.


The indigenous Aetas live primarily in The Philippines‘ northern Luzon Island. Their Austronesian neighbors, the Ilocano, called them pugut, meaning a sort of forest spirit. They probably arrived to the Philippines some 30,000 years ago via land bridge.

Aeta Men
Aeta men
The Aeta have a musical heritage consisting of various types of agung ensembles. Agung are gongs which provide drone without any accompanying melodic instrument.

The Micronesian subregion of Oceania includes Kiribati, the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, the Caroline Islands, Nauru and Wake Island. The islands were settled by successive waves from Melanesia and Austronesia between 3000 BCE and 1300 CE.

Kiribati dancers
Dancers from Kiribati
Their primarily vocal folk music is based around mythology and rituals and covers a range of styles believed to have been introduced in dreams and trances, rather than composed by people.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Click here to offer financial support and thank you!

One thought on “Out of Africa – Austro-Melanesian History, Culture and Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s