Melanesians are the dominant inhabitants of Melanesia. Most speak one of the many Papuan languages, though a few groups such as the Motu and Fijians speak Austronesian languages. The Melanesians appear to have occupied islands from Eastern Indonesia to as far east as the main islands in the Solomon Islands, including Makira and possibly the smaller islands farther to the east.
Austronesian languages and cultural traits were introduced along the north and south-east coasts of New Guinea and in some of the islands north and east of New Guinea by migrating Austronesians, probably starting around 4,000 years ago. This was followed by long periods of interaction that resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture.
It was once postulated that from this area a very small group of people (speaking an Austronesian language) departed thence to the east and became the forebears of the Polynesian people. This theory was, however, contradicted by a study published by Temple University finding that Polynesians and Micronesians have little genetic relation to Melanesians; instead, they found significant distinctions between groups living within the Melanesian islands. Genome scans show Polynesians have little genetic relationship to Melanesians.
Some recent studies suggest that all humans outside of Africa have inherited some genes from Neanderthals, and that Melanesians are the only known modern humans whose prehistoric ancestors interbred with the Denisova hominin, sharing 4%–6% of their genome with this ancient cousin of the Neanderthal.
Blond hair is exceptionally rare outside Europe, but evolved independently in Melanesiawhere Melanesians of some islands are one of the few non-European peoples, and the only dark-skinned group, to have blond hair. This has been traced to an allele of TYRP1 unique to these people, and is not the same gene that causes blond hair in Europe.
Predominantly Melanesian areas include the Moluccas of Eastern Indonesia, the New Guinea and surrounding islands, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. The region New Caledonia and nearby Loyalty Islands for most of its history has had a majority Melanesian population, but its proportion has dropped to slightly below half in the face of immigration over the last century to present time. The largest and most populous Melanesian country is Papua New Guinea. The largest city in Melanesia is Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea with about 300,000 people, mostly of Melanesian ancestry.
- Dunn, Michael, Angela Terrill, Ger Reesink, Robert A. Foley, Stephen C. Levinson (2005). "Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History". Science 309 (5743): 2072–2075. doi:10.1126/science.1114615. PMID 16179483.
- Spriggs, Matthew (1997). The Island Melanesians. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-16727-7.
- Kayser, Manfred, Silke Brauer, Gunter Weiss, Peter A. Underhill, Lutz Rower, Wulf Schiefenhövel and Mark Stoneking (2000). "The Melanesian Origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes". Current Biology 10 (20): 1237–1246. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(00)00734-X. PMID 11069104.
- Friedlaender, Jonathan (2008-01-17). "Genome scan shows Polynesians have little genetic relationship to Melanesians" (Press release). Temple University.
- Friedlaender, Jonathan; Friedlaender JS, Friedlaender FR, Reed FA, Kidd KK, Kidd JR, et al. (2008-01-18). "The Genetic Structure of Pacific Islanders". Public Library of Science (Philadelphia, PA 19122: Temple University). PLoS Genet (4(1): e19 doi=10.1371/journal.pgen.0040019). Retrieved 2008-01-18.
- M. Kayser, S. Brauer, G. Weiss, P.A. Underhill, L. Roewer, W. Schiefenhövel, and M. Stoneking, "Melanesian origin of Polynesian Y chromosomes," Current Biology, vol. 10, no. 20, pages 1237-1246 (19 Oct. 2000). See also correction in: Current Biology, vol. 11, no. 2, pages 141-142 (23 Jan. 2001).
- Carl Zimmer (22 December 2010). "Denisovans Were Neanderthals' Cousins, DNA Analysis Reveals". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 December 2010.
- Sindya N. Bhanoo (3 May 2012). "Another Genetic Quirk of the Solomon Islands: Blond Hair". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2012.