Living Types of Man in the Pacific Region

The Oceanic Collections of the University Museum

By: D. Sutherland Davidson.

Originally Published in 1947

View PDF

THE lack of archaeological data to show the sequence of physical types of man in the various Pacific areas from late Pleistocene times until the present is compensated in large part by the evidence of relative age indicated by the distributions of living people and by ethnological considerations. An island world has certain advantages over the continents in problems of this kind, for since the East Indies constitute a funnel through which all eastward migrations have poured, we should expect occasionally to find small groups of early types still surviving in isolated mountain valleys, and in peninsulas and islands formerly on migration routes before the development of improved watercraft changed the lanes of ocean travel. We should expect to find the early types restricted to the closely spaced islands, although in more recent times, and usually as mixed types, they may have proceeded further to the east. We can anticipate that only late peoples will be found east of the Pacific Moat, for only they could have had the proper equipment to reach the distant islands of the Pacific.

The number of physical types which can be recognized in the Pacific areas, as elsewhere in the world, depends upon the criteria selected for their determination. Peoples who change their habitat, it is now becoming clear, tend to alter their physical characteristics, and in the course of time may show important variations from their ancestral type. Such changes may not be apparent to the layman, but are obvious in the statistical records of the physical anthropologist.

The living peoples of the world are generally grouped into three major divisions: Caucasoid or “white”, Mongoloid or “brown” and Negroid or “black”, with a fourth or Australoid division sometimes added as an archaic Caucasoid. To a layman living in the United States, where extreme types of “whites”, “blacks” and “browns” are readily discernible, it may seem an easy matter to classify human beings into these three categories, but when all the peoples of the world are considered, it is found that many cannot be assigned exclusively to one or another, and therefore are considered to be of mixed ancestry. If it were possible to show that at one time all the world’s inhabitants belonged specifically to one or another of these hypothetical major divisions, and that each division was characterized by exclusively distinct characteristics, it might be possible to determine more precisely the ancestry of modern types of man. But unfortunately for such a problem, the specialized traits which serve best to distinguish the great divisions of modern man seem to have been less specialized in the past.

In no part of the world is the problem of classifying the human race more complex than in the Pacific, for aside from the question whether some of the prehistoric types, such as the Neanderthals, have contributed to the ancestry of the living peoples, we find groups classified as predominately Caucasoid, predominately Mongoloid, predominately Negroid and predominantly Australoid, with a still undetermined number of crosses which present a bewildering number of types and subtypes. Except for certain groups of Pygmies, who, in spite of long separation from each other, exhibit a remarkable degree of similarity, it would seem that there are no large groups of peoples in the Pacific who have not been derived from at least two of the major divisions of mankind, if such divisions, as usually defined, actually existed in the past are not tendencies toward which groups of mankind have been evolving under conditions of isolation in certain areas over a long period of time.

Confining our attention to the major types of people, as distinguished by their predominant characteristics, it appears that there have been at least five important migrations from Asia to the islands. In their apparent chronological order these are: Negritoids (Pygmy Negroids), Australoids, Negroids, Caucasoids and Mongoloids. Just how “pure” or how variable these types may have been when they arrived in the East Indies is not yet clear, but there is no doubt that a large percentage of each subsequently intermarried with others to produce the galaxy of physical types now present.


The first of the living types to migrate into the East Indies seems to have been the Pygmies, who are generally known in the Pacific regions as Negritos, or little blacks. In spite of the generally prevailing curiosity about these diminutive people relatively little scientific knowledge of them has been collected, although there are still many colonies available for study-albeit in all cases in areas difficult to reach. The distribution of the Pygmies is interesting and in itself informative of the antiquity. Important groups are found in Central Africa. Traces of Pygmy ancestry are discernible in the present populations of Madagascar and southern Arabia, and the suspicion that they formerly lived throughout southern Asia seems well founded. However, it is in the islands to the southeast of Asia that the most numerous appearances are still found. Various groups are present in the mountains of the Malay Peninsula as well as in the nearby Andaman Islands. Others live in the mountain valleys of many of the Philippine Islands, but the greatest concentration is found in New Guineas where they are confined to the mountain tops, particularly in the western portion of the island. Preponderantly Negritoid groups also live in the eastern half of New Guinea and in New Britain. In addition, a slight to prominent Pygmoid strain seems to be present in many of the inland Negroid tribes of New Guinea, and traces also are noticeable in the light-skinned peoples of much of the East Indies.

Until recently there was no evidence that the Negritos had migrated south of New Guinea, but races have now been found in the aboriginal population of Queensland. At the moment, it cannot be asserted that the Pygmies occupied Australia prior to the arrival of the Australians, for some of the latter may have acquired the Negritiod strain in New Guinea. Nevertheless, since there are indications in the same part of Queensland that the Tasmanian language has contributed to the local Australian dialects, there are some grounds for suspecting that Tasmanian-speaking Negritos formerly inhabited the continent and Tasmania as well.

Thus throughout the area of closely spaced islands there is abundant evidence that the Pygmies formerly occupied the entire region at least as far as New Ireland, and there are suggestions that they may have extended their migration to Australia and Tasmania. It is only in the most inaccessible refuge localities that they still remain in relatively pure form, but the presence of their strain in the surrounding populations attest the long encroachment by their neighbors on their former territories.

Although all Pygmies are sufficiently alike to be considred a type, they nevertheless exhibit important variations. Their most distinctive characterstics, of course, is their diminutive stature, which everywhere is less than five feet, with some groups averaging only four feet, six inches. Their hair is consistently black and woolly, but their skin color varies from a light tan to black. Most Pygmies seem to be broadheading or mediumheaded, but longheadedness is found in some groups both in Africa and the Pacific. Generally speaking, Pygmies are much more alike than are Europeans.

The concentration of Negrito groups and Negritoid strains in the area of closely spaced islands is an important consideration. No typical Pygmies have been reported east of New Ireland, although mixed populations showing some Pygmoid ancestry are present in Bougainville in the Solomons and probably elsewhere in Melanesia. Since in seems plausible to suspect that the Pygmies, from the time of their migration until long after they had been overtaken by later peoples, were not equipped for travel over rough waters, the most likely explanation of these mixed appearances is that inter-marriage took place before the islands to the east of New Ireland were colonized.

The period when the Pygmies migrated out of Asia is a matter of conjecture. Skeletal remains to demonstrate their antiquity have not yet been recovered, either in the islands or in Asia, nor have archaeological deposits identifiable as theirs been found in any locality. On the other hand, distributional evidence, their survival only in refuge areas and their absorption by later peoples who surrounded them, indicate that they are an ancient hunting people in Africa, southern Asia, the East Indies and New Guinea. It is particularly in the latter island that distributional evidence indicates that their migration preceded that of the Australoids.

A drawn chart of human types
Chronological Order of Human Types in the Pacific Regions Schematically Arranged


The Australoids, as previously mentioned, are considered to be archaic Caucasoids. At one time they apparently were more widely distributed than the Pygmies, for traces of them are found not only in southern but also in northern parts of the Old World, and they seem to have contributed to the ancestry of some of the earliest American Indians who migrated from northeastern Asia. Like the Pygmies, Australoids are found today only in refuge areas: the mountains of Ceylon (Veddahs), northern Japan (Ainu), southern India (Pre-Dravidians), Malay Peninsula (Sakai), Australia (Australians) and, until 1876, Tasmania (Tasmanians). Indications of mixed Australoid ancestry appear in various localities in Eurasia, but are most prominent in the East Indies, principally in the easternmost Sunda Islands, New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland, New Hanover, and New Caledonia. With the exception of New Caledonia, these appearances are confined to the area of closely spaced islands.

We have noted that the Australoids, as shown by the Wadjak finds, inhabited Java in Late Pleistocene or Early Recent times and it is quite possible that they reached Australia before the end of the Pleistocene.

The Australoids show greater variability than do the Pygmies. There is considerable range in stature; skin color varies from white in the Ainu to dark chocolate or black in the Australian; the hair form usually is wavy; the quantity of facial and body hair is generally pronounced; and the degree of prognathism is variable. How much of this variability in the living representatives should be attributed to intermarriage with other peoples is uncertain.

The Tasmanians, although predominantly Australoid, show an unmistakably Negroid strain. Since no ancient skeletal remains have yet been found in the island, it is impossible to determine how closely the historic aborigines resembled the earliest inhabitants. However, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Tasmania has been occupied for many thousands of years, and there is no doubt that the Tasmanians, at least in so far as their Australoid ancestry is concerned, passed through Australia to reach their island. The Negroid strain in the Tasmanians has always been puzzling, for, until the Negritoid element in the aborigines of Queensland was discovered, there was no evidence that the Negritos had migrated south of New Guinea. The facts now suggest that the Pygmies may have occupied Australia and Tasmania early in the last Glacial Period and intermarried with later Australoids to produce the Tasmanian type in Australia and Tasmania, or intermarried with Australoids in New Guinea and reached the continent and Tasmania as fully developed Tasmanians.

The Australian type, at least in so far as certain features of the skull are concerned, seems to be quite ancient. The Wadjak skulls in Java and the Keilor skull in Victoria show some primitive characteristics but nevertheless are considered to be definitely Australian. There is some variability in the modern aborigines but it is relatively slight, the consistency being quite remarkable for a people spread over an entire continent. Whether the Australians have absorbed an earlier population of Pygmies is a moot question, for there is no supporting evidence aside from the Negritoid strain in Queensland. However, the data are few for most parts of the continent and presumably a very long time has elapsed since such intermarriage possibly began. If the predecessors of the Australians were the preponderantly Australoid Tasmanians, very little of a Negritoid strain in the latter might be detectable in the present aborigines.

The Australoid population of New Guinea and adjacent islands has now been submerged by the dominant Negroids, who arrived at much later time, but some scattered appearance are found in New Guinea. In New Britain, New Ireland and Hew Hanover are the strongly Australoid To people who look very much like Melanesians but resemble the Australians in their cranial features.

The only peoples in the remainder of Melanesia who are markedly Australoid are those in northern New Caledonia at the southern tip of Melanesia. Like the To people, they long since have intermarried with the Negroids, presumably to New Guinea, New Britain or New Ireland, to become culturally and linguistically typically Melanesian before they migrated southward and crossed the Pacific Moat.


The negroids of the Pacific, sometimes called Oceanic Negroes, or more commonly Papuans and Melanesians, constitute the typical inhabitants of Melanesia. They also are an important but declining element in some of the islands to the west of New Guinea into which the Indonesians have been expanding from some time. In some of these latter islands Australoid and Negritoid elements also are present.

How long ago the Negroids migrated from Asia is uncertain, but is can be presumed that they dominated the East Indies for at least a few thousand years before the Indonesians arrived, possibly not before the second half of the third millennium B.C. The only archaeological evidence of antiquity comes from the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and French Indo-China, where Negroid skeletal fragments have been found associated with Late Palaeolotihic or Proto-Neolithic cultures. Since the chronological relationships and dating of these cultures have not yet been determined, we do not know whether they are relatively ancient or relatively recent. Nevertheless, the indication that the Negroids entered the East Indies as Palaeolithic hunters, like the Negritos and Australoids, is consistent with other considerations, for it seems likely that the succeeding Indonesians were responsible for the introduction of most Neolithic traits.

When the Negroids first occupied the East Indies, they presumably found it in the possession of Australoids and Pygmies, with whom they proceeded to intermarry. Similarly, from island to island until they reached New Ireland they must have met and absorbed or otherwise eliminated the same types of predecessors. The process of absorbing the latter is still going on in New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland, the easternmost areas originally occupied by these early peoples. The earliest Negroids apparently spoke “Papuan” languages, for such tongues are invariably associated with inland Negroids, or mixed inlanders with predominantly Negroid characteristics, although some Pygmies in New Guinea seem to have acquired “Papuan” from their Negroid neighbors.

How for eastward the earliest Negroids migrated is not clear. For some unknown reason they did not follow the Australoids into Australia and it may be that they, like their predecessors with similar simple hunting cultures, also were halted on the eastern shore of New Ireland. We may suppose that considerable time elapsed during the migration from the Malay Peninsula to New Ireland. At the moment, it is impossible to determine whether New Ireland had been reached by “Papuan” speaking Negroids at the time the Indonesians were beginning to arrive in the East Indies.

When the strongly Caucasoid Indonesians migrated into the East Indies we may surmise that the dominant type in the islands had become Negroid and the principal languages “Papuan”. There are many reasons for believing that the newcomers spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and brought with them, or subsequently acquired from Asia, domesticated animals, cultivated plants and the outrigger canoe. Just what transpired in the East Indies after their arrival is not clear, but a safe guess would be that the newcomers, as elsewhere in the world, proceeded to intermarry with the local populations and impose upon them a new culture and language. At any rate, the facts from New Guinea indicate that a later wave of Negroid peoples with a Malayo-Polynesian language, plants and animals and the all-important outrigger canoe, left the East Indies and proceeded to wrest from their “Papuan” speaking predecessors the coastal areas of northern New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland. In time they continued into the Solomons, crossed the Pacific Moat to Santa Cruz and arrived eventually, and possibly since the beginning of the Christian Era, in New Caledonia on the south and in Fiji on the east. During this long and probably frequently interrupted migration, some of the earlier “Papuan” speaking Negroids and mixed Negroids probably adopted the new cultural elements and, in outrigger canoes of their own, migrated along the Solomon Islands either at the same time the Melanesian speakers were moving or possibly even slight in advance of them.

Headband of woven coconut fiber to which is attached a large disk of pearl shell overlaid with a carved sheet of sea turtle shell depicting faces and fishhooks.
Fig. 5. Headband, Marquesas Islands.
Museum Object Number: P3282
Image Number: 112

Until recently, as already notes, it was customary to divide the Oceanic Negroids into Papuans and Melanesians and to regard each as a distinctive physical type. It is now apparent that although there are no essential differences between the two, there are many localized variations, attributable in large part to intermarriages with other peoples. Both groups are characterized by frizzly hair, but wavy hair sometimes appears among the Melanesians. Skin color generally varies between medium and dark chocolate, but light brown is found among some Melanesians. The Melanesians also are less inclined to have sloping foreheads, prominent noses and protruding browridges. These various traits suggest Indonesian influences among the Melanesians and Australoid influences among the Papuans, but since the “Papuan” or “Melanesian” is not to look at their physiques but to ascertain what language they speak.

In more recent times, additional strains have been acquired by the Melanesian-speaking Negroids. The Polynesians have contributed an important element to the population of southern New Caledonia and to some of the eastern Melanesians, and have become the dominant strain in eastern Fiji. Localized Polynesian and occasionally Micronesian elements are present along the northern and northeastern borders of Melanesia.


Probably sometime in the third millennium B.C. the East Indies were invaded by another people now variously known as Indonesians, Primitive Malays or Proto-Malayans. The physical characteristics of these newcomers at the time of their migration have not been accurately defined, but it is generally believed that there was considerable variation and mixed ancestry derived from Caucasoids and, to a lesser extent, from Mongoloids and Negroids. The question of their affinities cannot be settled without abundant archaeological evidence, for some of the Mongoloid features in the modern populations undoubtedly have been acquired from the Mongoloid Malayans, who followed them into the islands, and some of the Negroid traits presumably have been derived from their Negroid predecessors.

Whether the very earliest Indonesians with their Malayo-Polynesian language brought Neolithic culture, with plants, animals and the outrigger canoe, is uncertain, for some Proto-Malayans even today seem to be as reliant on hunting as are the Pygmies. However, if there was an original wave of hunting Indonesians, it seems to have been followed by others bringing a sedentary Neolithic culture and the outrigger canoe. These culture traits and the new language presumably were adopted by some of the East Indian Negroids who became the Melanesians and migrated eastward. The Negroids who remained in the west probably were completely absorbed by the expanding Indonesians.

From the basic Indonesian type have developed the modern Indonesians or Proto-Malayans and the Polynesians and Micronesians. These three peoples vary in many respects, but seem to have more in common with each other than with any other living groups.


The Malayans are the last major people to enter the East Indies. Predominantly Mongoloid, but probably with some Negroid and Caucasoid affinities, they proceeded to occupy the coastal areas of the western islands, and the interiors of some, from Sumatra and Java to the Philippines, intermarrying with the mixed Indonesians to absorb them in some areas and to produce intermediate types in others. The Malayans now constitute the dominant type in western Indonesia, for they include the populous Javanese and most of the population of the Philippines. They have not migrated to the eastern islands of the East Indies, which still are populated by Indonesians. The Malayan migration probably reached its peak during the first millennium B.C.


Sometime subsequent to the Malayan expansion, some of the Indonesians of the central East Indies, possibly joined by peoples displaced in the western islands, seem to have become quite reliant on fishing, and began to venture further into the open sea to their north. As a result they discovered the Pelew Islands. This experience apparently encouraged them to explore a wider radius of ocean and to discover and initiate the colonization of western Micronesia. It is generally believed that the homeland of these seafarers, the ancestors of the Polynesians, was in the area of Halmahera and Celebes. This question cannot be settled conclusively until the archaeology of this area is investigated in detail, but from a geographical viewpoint these islands seem a likely base from which timid fisherman venturing farther and farther to sea would come upon the few but distant islands leading to the Pelews.

The time of this initial Polynesian movement is uncertain. There are reason for believing that these people did not reach the area now known as Polynesia until sometime in the first half of the first millennium A.D., and it seems likely that several centuries were previously spent in discovering and occupying what is now Micronesia. This consideration suggests that the original exodus from Halmahera may have taken place toward the end of the first millennium B.C.

Althought the modern Polynesians in the different islands vary in some respects from one another, they are essentially on people, primarly Caucasoid but with frequently strong Monogoloid and occasionally pronounced Negroid characteristics of variable intensity. These differences could be the result of their composite Indonesian ancestry, with subsequent inbreeding of small groups in the different Polynesian Islands. It is also possible that Melanesian Negroids, met in eastern Melanesia and possibly taken to western Polynesia, are partly responsible for the Negroid appearances.


Since the Polynesians were the colonizers of Micronesia, their physical type prevailed originally in this area and is still dominant in the eastern Micronesian Islands. The western islands, however, since long before the arrival of Europeans, have been infiltrated by a mixed but predominately Mongoloid people, also from the East Indies, and their strain has become increasingly typical in the modern mixed population. Thus the eastern and western Micronesians are not exactly the same, but the differences are not sufficiently great to warrant separate classifications.

The chronological order of the prehistoric and modern types of man is arranged schematically for the various Pacific regions in the chart on page 35.


The process of modifying the physical composition of the Pacific Islanders by the introduction of new strains has not ended. In all regions where early and late types live side by side, intermarriage and absorption of one by the other continues in varying tempo. But no longer are there voluntary migrations eastward, for freedom to move has now either been restricted by the governments of foreigners or limited by them to certain peoples. In some areas government policy has encouraged or forced the introduction of new types who over the course of time will repeat the process of absorbing or replacing their predecessors, or joining with them in the development of new types.

The most numerous of the recent arrivals are the Europeans, most of whom have gone to Australia and New Zealand where there now are about 7,400,000 and 1,600,000 respectively. The Tasmanians have been completely replaced, and the Australian aborigines have dwindled in a century and a half from 300,000 to 50,000 and are still decreasing. The 25,000 half-castes in Australia represent such a small percentage of the population that in a few generations their aboriginal strain will be undetectable. In New Zealand the Maori and part-Maori are now increasing, but since they number only about five per cent of the population, the ultimate disappearance of their Polynesian strain seems certain.

Elsewhere in the Pacific the Europeans are numerically or proportionately few. In the Hawaiian Islands they comprise twenty-five per cent of the inhabitants, but the total population is only about 450,000. Before the war 275,000 Europeans lived in the East Indies and 20,000 in the Philippines, but constituted only a fraction of one per cent of the dense populations in these areas. In New Caledonia 18,000 French now represent about three-tenths of the inhabitants. In all other islands the percentage of Europeans is negligible.

A rattan mask in the shape of a fish head with long protrusion.
Fig. 6. Dance mask made of rattan, Sepik River, New Guinea. (height 31 “)
Image Number: 21286

Second to the Europeans, but far more numerous if Australia and New Zealand are excluded, are the Chinese. Most of the Chinese are found in the East Indies and the Malay Peninsula, where more than 2,000,000 have come with government encouragement to work the mines and plantations. In Java they constitute slightly more than one per cent of the population, in the Philippines somewhat less than one per cent, and in Borneo about ten per cent. Like the Europeans, a negligible number of Chinese merchants are scattered throughout the Pacific.

The third strain in importance is the Japanese, although this type numbers only about 300,000 all told. About 30,000 have settled in the Philippines, where they comprise less than one-fifth of one per cent of the population. Most Japanese migrants heeded the call either of the sugar planters and settled in Hawaii, or of the Japanese government and moved to Micronesia. In the latter area they now form about forty-five percent of the population and outnumber the Micronesians ten to one in the Marianas and about three to one in the Carolines and Pelews.

A few other strains have come to the Pacific, but they are of importance only in local areas. Filipinos, Koreans and Porto Ricans have migrated to Hawaii, and Arabians have settled in the East Indies. The British Indians taken to Fiji by the sugar planters now number over 100,000, only slightly less than the native Fijians. In New Caledonia about one- fifth of the population has been derived from the French colonies in Asia.

The presence of these new peoples in the Pacific is too recent to have resulted in the development of new mixed types in great numbers. In many localities they form solid blocks and have not yet intermarried to any extent with the native population. In areas such as the East Indies it would seem that the newcomers are numerically too few to affect appreciably the native types, and that in the course of time they will be completely absorbed, especially since both the Chinese and Malayans are already preponderantly Mongoloid. However, in other areas such as Australia, New Zealand, parts of Micronesia and Hawaii, the new peoples already predominate and ultimately will conceal all evidence of aboriginal strains.

What additional types of people will find their way into the Pacific in the future cannot be predicted, but it seems safe to say that others will come from time to time to establish military and economic bastions of foreign nations, without the approval of the native inhabitants, and to add still other strains to the already complex ancestry of the islanders.

Cite This Article

Davidson., D. Sutherland. "Living Types of Man in the Pacific Region." Museum Bulletin XII, no. 3-4 (June, 1947): 24-37. Accessed July 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to