Ethnography and society before World War II
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Melanesia is a region of very great ethnic and linguistic diversity. Most estimates place the number of indigenous languages, for instance, at 700 or 800 at least, spoken by some 3.5 million people. Yet it is possible, at the risk of some simplifications, to sketch certain broad characteristics of pre-colonial Melanesian societies. Their economies were typically based on root-crop horticulture supplemented by pig husbandry, and many Melanesian peoples also traded extensively in both subsistence and luxury goods, often over long distances. They often had elaborate prestige economies and gift-exchange systems, in which special high-status valuables made from precious materials such as shell, feathers or boars’ tusks were employed in †bridewealth payments, peace-making and other ceremonial transactions.