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Melanesia is a large cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean located to the north and northeast of the continent of Australia. The name was first used by Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1832 to describe a group of islands with distinct geographical and cultural commonalities that set them apart from the other Pacific island supergroups, Micronesia (to the north) and Polynesia (to the east). Melanesia consists of over 10,000 islands belonging to over a dozen countries distributed over an area about the size of Australia. The most prominent islands and island groups that are considered part of Melanesia are the Bismarck Archipelago, Fiji, Maluku Islands, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Norfolk Island, Solomon Islands, Torres Strait Islands, and Vanuatu.
The largest island in Melanesia is New Guinea, which is the second largest island in the world (after Greenland) with an area of 785,753 square km (303,381 sq mi). This rainforest-covered island is home to over 7.1 million people, the majority of them Papuans, an ethnic group that is descended from people that came to the island as early as 40,000 BCE. This is one of the earliest known examples of human habitation outside of Africa. At the time of migration, sea levels in the area would have been lower, meaning that these early peoples would have had to traverse less ocean to make it from the mainland to New Guinea.
The entire area making up Melanesia is characterized by a high variety of flora and fauna, much of which is endemic. Being located east of the Wallace Line, the life of Melanesia has more in common with Australia than it does with Asia. Though Melanesia makes up less than one-half of one percent (0.5%) of the world's land area, 5-10% of the species on the planet can be found there, a similar ratio to larger areas Australia and the United States. Large parts of Melanesia, especially New Guinea, are unexplored by scientists and anthropologists. New species are discovered there regularly, and as many as 44 uncontacted tribal groups are believed to exist in the rainforests on the island.
Much of Melanesia is made up of newly stabilizing and growing island nations, many of them just recently achieving greater autonomy and independence from Europe and the western world. Vanuatu, an archipelago nestled between the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia, is one of the world's newest nations, established only in 1980. The Solomon Islands is another new country, part of the British Commonwealth, that has suffered ethnic unrest in recent years. New Caledonia, to the south, is a large island administered by France but with an unusual legal status within the Republic. An independence movement is brewing there, similar to the independence movement which led to autonomy for Vanuatu in 1980.