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The Problem of Depopulation in Melanesia*


This discussion of the problem of depopulation in Melanesia
limits itself to oudine form and brief treatment. Moreover, it is
unwise to be dogmatic about the relative importance of the factors
invQlved. Depopulation, wherever it occurs, is a phenomenon of
complex derivation and of wide societal relationships, which vary
accQrding to locus and are in some cases evanescent. The problem is
one that involves practically all phases and activities of native life
and is the most vital social dilemma that Melanesia faces at the
present time. Many conflicting opinions exist and nearly every fieldworker
in anthropology has found new evidence that is contradictory
to accepted theories. The tendency is to overemphasize the
importance of such material.

This essay will attempt, therefore, to examine the data concerning
depopulation in Melanesia and to consider how these data have
been presented by others, with the aim of clarifying the problem
rather than of seeking more than tentative conclusions.
In defining Melanesia it should be stated that the designation
is both geographical and ethnic. Generally, the term Melanesia is
applied to the region of the southwest Pacific north of 200 south
latitude and west of 1 80 longitude (see map). This would
include the great island of New Guinea and most of the surrounding
islands, especially the archipelagoes to the east and north-the
D'Entrecasteaux, Calvados chain, Louisiades, Trobriands; New
Britain, New Ireland and the vast Bismarck Archipelago; the
Solomons farther on, the New Hebrides and intervening islands.

This large area extends over some 2,100 miles of longitude and
1,200 of latitude. The islands themselves cover roughly 355,000
square miles and present considerable, often radical, variations of
climatic and environmental conditions, particularly on the big,
mountainous islands like New Guinea, New Britain, Bougainville,
*The field observation, upon which this paper is based were made during
1927-30 whes the author was a member of, later leader of, the Whitney South Sea

Expedition for the American Museum of Natural History. This paper was read
before the Anthropology Club of Yale University, November 1

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