Australasia is a region of Oceania (a region of tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean) that covers New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.
The Museum of International Cultures has exhibits in each region, including instruments, everyday tools, and informational boards on cultural practices.
Australia is the smallest continent (and largest island). It is the sixth largest country by population, with about 25 million people. Its climate ranges from tropical rainforest in the north-east, deserts in the center area and mountain ranges to the southwest, southeast and east. Despite the mountain ranges, Australia is considered the flattest continent. The dry, arid climate of the desert outback makes up the largest portion of Australia’s landscape.
Australia’s indigenous population were formerly hunter-gatherers with a deep reverence for nature and a complex belief system surrounding Dreamtime, which is a term anthropologists use to describe the “everywhen” and “time out of time” concepts of Australian aboriginal culture that involve both totemic symbolism and ancestral knowledge.
Because of its separation from the rest of the world, the flora and fauna of Australia (and the rest of Australasia) are unique. Almost all of marsupial animal tree, mammals who carry their young in a pouch, are only found in the Australasian region.
Australia is also known for its numerous dangerous animals, primarily due to its diversity of reptile and insect species, many of which are poisonous and fatal to humans. There are more venomous snakes in Australia than nonvenomous ones, and 21 of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world live in the region.
The digeridoo is an instrument developed by the indigenous people of Norther Australia, sometime around 1,500 years ago. It is classified as a brass instrument, but often referred to as a drone pipe or trumpet. Playing the instrument traditionally requires a technique called circular breathing, which allows players to blow continuously.
This instrument is played for primarily ceremonial purposes, although it has also been used for entertainment. It usually accompanied by ceremonial singing and dancing.
The Museum of International Cultures has a digeridoo on display so that viewers can get a look at this fascinating instrument.
The boomerang is another object commonly associated with Australia. It is designed to spin around when thrown and return to the thrower (assuming it doesn’t strike something first). It actually comes in two forms, one that was made to return to the thrower and one that was made more as a balanced throwing weapon. Hunters used it in the latter form to hunt, without expecting it to return. Returning boomerangs were likely invented as a form of sport and entertainment, which is what they are currently used for today.
Although typically thought of as an Australian weapon, boomerangs were present to lesser extents in Native American, European, and Africa. Even the returning boomerang was found in other cultures, including the Navajo people of America.
New Zealand is an island nation comprised of two major islands, the North and South islands, as well as some smaller islands.
New Zealand has a temperate climate because of its island nature, and has many mountain ranges and deep fjords due to ancient glaciation. It also has a large amount of volcanic activity, which has helped the island soil stay fertile.
Like Australia, New Zealand has been geographically isolated from other areas for a long time, which has allowed for the evolution of unique flora and fauna not seen anywhere else in the world. The only native mammal to New Zealand is bats, and, without the threat of predation, many flightless birds like the kiwi survived to the modern day.
The Maori people were a Polynesian people who settled in the New Zealand islands and developed a culture distinct from other Oceanic cultures. They were a primarily rural, agrarian society until the 1970s, when the majority of Maori people had migrated to cities in an attempt to earn income and support themselves as the increasing population made farming more and more difficult.
They have developed the distinct art of facial marking, called ta moko. Although similar, this is a separate art from tattooing. In ta moko, the face is carved by chisels rather than punctured as in a tattoo, although in both cases pigment was added to darken the area as well.
These markings were given as a sign of rank and lineage, and receiving them was an important rite of passage in Maori culture.
The Museum of International Cultures has informational displays and pictures of the art of ta moko so that viewers can learn about this important part of Maori culture.
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is an island country in the eastern half of New Guinea and Melanesia. It is one of the most culturally diverse locations in the world, with about 852 languages recorded, of which 12 have no living speakers left. Papua New Guinea is also one of the most rural countries left in the world, with only 18 percent of its population, around 7 million people, living in an urban location.
Papua New Guinea is a temperate island with dense rainforests and a strong coastal element, with a small amount of grasslands as well.
Shells as Money
Money as we understand it today has not been around for a long part of history. Many cultures developed money only recently and preferred forms of the barter system. Among those cultures that had early concepts of money, using shells as currency was common. It can be found all over the world.
However, shell money has been used by various Oceanic cultures for thousands of years. In this area, shell money is formed by beads that have been ground down to the appropriate size, generally by women. This process is long and laborious, and no more money than necessary is made. Because the process is so intensive, the value of the money does not depreciate.
In Papua New Guinea, it is still considered legal tender in many locations. The Museum of International Cultures has examples of Papua New Guinean shell money.