Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Melanesia, 1600–1800 A.D.

Turtleshell mask tradition, Torres Strait Islands, before 1606–ca. 1900
Openwork carving tradition, New Ireland, before 1643–present


Encompasses present-day New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Papua (Irian Jaya), the Solomon Islands, the Torres Strait Islands, and Vanuatu

In Melanesia, the years 1600–1800 witness sporadic but increasing contact between its diverse peoples and European explorers as well as the first evidence that a number of its classic art traditions are already being practiced. In 1606, Spanish explorer Diego de Prado reports that turtleshell masks are in use in the Torres Straits Islands between Australia and New Guinea. At the headwaters of the Karawari River in New Guinea, the ancestors of the Ewa people begin to create a remarkable series of wooden figures, or aripa. Stored in caves following the death of their owners, they are the oldest known surviving examples of wood sculpture from New Guinea.

In Island Melanesia, explorers continue to make contact with its diverse arts and cultures. In 1643, Isaac Gilsemans, an artist accompanying the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, creates an image of a group of New Irelanders in a canoe with elaborately sculpted prow and stern ornaments, the earliest record of New Ireland's intricately crafted wood carving traditions. The drawings made and objects collected during the second voyage of English explorer James Cook in 1774 also offer tantalizing glimpses of the artistic traditions then flourishing in New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

    • 1500s–1600s The earliest surviving wooden images from New Guinea are carved near the headwaters of the Karawari River.

    • 1605 Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros visits Espiritu Santo and other islands in northern Vanuatu.

    • 1606 Spanish explorer Diego de Prado sails the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea and notes turtleshell masks in use on the islands.

    • 1642–43 Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman visits New Guinea and New Ireland.

    • 1699–1701 English explorer William Dampier visits New Britain and New Ireland.

    • 1770 English explorer James Cook sails along the south coast of New Guinea and reports an encounter with the local people, possibly the Asmat.

    • 1768 French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville visits Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and New Britain.

    • 1774 English explorer James Cook visits and makes the first substantial collection of artifacts from Vanuatu and New Caledonia.

    • 1792–93 French explorer Bruni d'Entrecasteaux visits New Caledonia.