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Near Oceania is a region, the part of Oceania that most linguists and scientists consider as one of the natural division of this continent — the other one is Remote Oceania — that includes Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
The great nineteenth-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace explored the Malay archipelago (what we today call Indonesia), drawing the attention to fundamental biological differences between the Australia-New Guinea region and Southeast Asia. The boundary between the Asian and Australian faunal regions consists of a zone of smaller islands bearing the name of Wallacea, in honor of the great co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection.
Wallace speculated that the key to understanding this differences would lie in "now-submerged lands, uniting islands to continents" (1895). New Guinea, Tasmania, the Aru Islands, and some smaller islands near Australia appear on a modern map as separate land, yet were we to siphon off the world's oceans to a depth of only 130 metres below the sea level, all these would suddenly be joined to the greater Australian land mass. This, indeed, is just what happened at several intervals during the Pleistocene. Biogeographers call this enlarged Greater Australian continent Sahul (Ballard, 1993) or Meganesia. On the western side of Wallacea, the vast Sunda shelf was also exposed as dry land, greatly expanding the Southeast Asian mainland to include the Greater Sundas (see Sundaland). Nonetheless, the islands of Wallacea (primarily Sulawesi, Ambon, Ceram, Halmahera and the Lesser Sundas) always remained an island world, imposing a barrier to the dispersal of terrestrial vertebrates, including early hominids.
To the north and east of New Guinea, the islands of Near Oceania (the Bismarcks and the Solomons) were likewise never connected to Sahul by dry land, for deep-water trenches also separate these from the Australian shelf.
It seems that human colonization of this region was most likely effected during the interval between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, although some researchers would push the possible dates earlier. But the key point is that even when the oceans were at their lowest levels, there were always significant open-water gaps between the islands of Wallacea, and therefore, the arrival of humans into Sahul, necessitated over-water transport. This was also the case of the expansion of humans beyond New Guinea into the archipelagoes of Near Oceania. Herein lies one of the most exciting and intriguing aspects of Pacific prehistory: that we are likely dealing with the earliest purposive voyaging in the history of humankind.
- The settlement of Manus — in the Admiralty Islands — may represent a real threshold in voyaging ability as it is the only island settled in the Pleistocene beyond the range of one-way intervisibilty. Voyaging to Manus involved a blind crossing of some 60-90 km in a 200-300 km voyage, when no land would have been visible whether coming from the north coast of Sahul or New Hanover at the northern end of New Ireland. These would have been tense hours or days on board that first voyage and the name of Pleistocene Columbus who led this crew will never been known. The target arcs for Manus are 15° from New Hanover, 17° from Mussau and 28° from New Guinea. (Matthew Spriggs, The Island Melanesians, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
See also: East Melanesian Islands
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