Oceania is one of the most delicate continents. Inhabited over 60.000 years ago, only 8,525,989 square kilometers of the 100 million square kilometer of the continent is covered with land. Because of its island-based structure the areas of Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia have developed themselves very independently resulting in unique cultures that differ immensely from each other as from the rest of the world.
To understand even a slight bit of Oceania, one must remember that the continent got inhabited by mankind over 60.000 years ago and that the first movements were made over land bridges that still existed during the last ice age. And while settlements were made in Australia, New Zealand and other larger islands in the centuries after that, the final migrations to islands such as Easter Island were only finished around 400 and done by sailing vessels that could cover large oceans and navigate through reefs unlike later European ships. Because of these boats, the people of Oceania did in fact have contact with each other through trade and islands were not isolated as was believed by Europeans for a long time. Archaeological discoveries of remains of canoes, as well as anthropological research on languages and biological research on DNA show that islands had a lot of contact with each other.
When you look at modern Oceania however, it can be noticed that most of the existing literary traditions are those that colonists brought in from Europe. With the English language being the most dominant current language, followed by Spanish and Portuguese, and the ongoing practices of forced assimiliation in some countries many ancient traditions have gone extinct. Such an example has been the stories behind the great statues, or moai, of Easter Island.
But not all has been lost. When it comes to the ancient storytelling ways the sub-continents of Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia all show similar paths as the rest of the world with cave paintings dating back between over 17.000 years and 2500 years old, and traditional oral storytelling. One of the oral storytelling traditions of which a relatively large collection remains are the Songlines, also known as Dreaming tracks, that were told and sung by the indigenous tribes of Australia to pass on knowledge about the ancestors and spiritual believes. While many of the tales once told have been lost due to colonisation, some have been remembered and are now passed down to a newer generation.
The Dreaming tracks show an important theme in original literary traditions of Oceania, which is the existence of mana. The existence of this force, that is believed to be concentrated in objects or people, includes the power of creativity and as mana is a supernatural force it is often connected to supernatural or spiritual sources. As many oral stories consist of tales of divine nature, and because of the importance of mana for literary and creative purposes, the literary traditions of Oceania were observed to have three different levels: professional priest-poets, freelance wandering poets, and amateur family storytellers. The first one got their mana and with it their stories through divine intervention, where the second one got it through training and skill. The amateur inherited the stories by remembering and repetition. And while this classification of artists as professional, freelance, or amateur seems to emphasize the significance of individual talent in both Oceanic oral and written literature, there are very little names of storytellers remembered. Which seems to mean that stories were communal property, to be shared in rituals as well as in the households. So while the colonists seemed to have believed that there were no literary traditions, or even a shared history, the opposite is true. The only difference is that the stories of Oceania take place in a different world, and come from a different source than what Europeans knew and took with them.
To read about other continents, and find out about different countries, return to Read Around the World.