Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: A Small Overview

I don't have a particular structure to what I'm writing about eastern Indonesia - I'm happy to write about a set of interconnected topics and let them coalesce over time into a more comprehensive picture - so my posts don't necessarily have a consistent theme.  But the picture I've been trying to build up so far is of an ethnically, linguistically, and genetically diverse region bound together by a number of shared cultural traits, many of which derive from a common prehistoric heritage.

So let's recap a little.  By 'eastern Indonesia' what I mean is Maluku and Maluku Utara, formerly known as the 'Moluccas', and Nusa Tenggara Timur - so, the islands east of Sumbawa, south or east of Sulawesi, and not including New Guinea.  This is a geologically mixed region, containing oceanic islands, continental crust fragments, three tectonic plates, and a lot of volcanoes.  There are two monsoons, one eastern and one western, and the climate is generally dry and hot, due in part to winds coming directly from the Australian deserts.  Malaria was and is endemic.  Cloves, nutmeg, and mace are all native to Maluku, and sandalwood is a Timorese tree.  The Komodo dragon comes from the islands just to west of Flores, and is also found on Flores itself.
'Map of East Nusa Tenggara Province'.  h/t AIPD.


A map of Maluku and Maluku Utara, with the tail-end of East Timor, the Solor archipelago, Alor, Pantar, Wetar, the Bird's Head of New Guinea, and two of Sulawesi's flailing arms coming into the picture as well.  Aru is the group in the lower right; Tanimbar is slightly southwest of Aru; Seram is the long insectoid island in the middle; Buru is the blobby one slightly to the west of Seram; Halmahera is the one north of Seram and northwest of New Guinea, with the red dot beside it (indicating the island of Ternate).  h/t Wikipedia, User: Michiel1972.
A map of Indonesia with Nusa Tenggara Timur coloured green.  It is one of Indonesia's poorest provinces.

Genetically, eastern Indonesians are extremely diverse, and show the clear presence of indigenous haplogroups associated with the very first humans in the area, close relatives of the people who first colonized Australia and New Guinea (which were parts of one continent at the time, now known as Sahul).  Settlement of Australia occurred at least 45,000 years bp ('before present'), so people must have been in eastern Indonesia before that point (in addition to H. erectus).  Haplogroups associated with speakers of Austronesian languages are also present, which is unsurprising given the prevalence of these languages in the area.  These haplogroups probably arrived much more recently - c. 4,000 years bp.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who travelled widely in Indonesia, including many of the islands of the east, thought of the people there as transitory between the dark-skinned, frizzy-haired people of New Guinea and the lighter, straight-haired, Asiatic people of the western islands.  These racial categories have been superseded, of course, as has the language used to describe them, but it isn't completely unreasonable to think of people in this part of the world as a bit of a mix between a) Austronesian-speaking Holocene migrants of originally southern Chinese/Taiwanese origin and b) non-Austronesian-speaking Pleistocene migrants related to New Guineans and indigenous Australians.  Other migrants into the area include the Portuguese, Dutch, and Javanese.


File:Xanana 2011.jpg
Xanana Gusmão, current Prime Minister of East Timor, first President of East Timor, and man of Portuguese-Timorese ancestry.  h/t Agência Brasil

This part of the world, including Sulawesi, is sometimes called 'Wallacea' by naturalists, after Wallace's discovery of a line running between Borneo and Sulawesi in the north and Bali and Lombok in the south, dividing Asian wildlife, like tigers and orang hutans, in the west from Australasian wildlife, like cuscus and kangaroo in the east.  According to this classification, Maluku, Sulawesi, and Nusa Tenggara are all intermediate in their natural history - neither Asian nor Australasian, a transitory biogeographical region.  Wallace's racial classifications mirrored his natural historical ones.  It is clear that he thought particularly badly of neither 'race', although he did ascribe to race features of temperament and lifestyle that we would now attribute to culture.

There are several native language families:
  • Alor-Pantar languages, spoken, unsurprisingly, on Alor and Pantar, east of Flores and north of Timor;
  • Halmahera languages, spoken, equally unsurprisingly, on the fascinating island of Halmahera in North Maluku, and possibly related to some of the languages of the Bird's Head of New Guinea;
  • the various non-Austronesian languages of East Timor, which have been claimed to be related to other Papuan languages but which show no conclusive connections to anything other than themselves;
  • and the Austronesian languages, easily the widest-spread and most-spoken family in Indonesia, and in fact the widest-spread language family in the pre-modern world.
The Austronesian languages of eastern Indonesia are of the Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian (CEMP) sub-family, although there have been influences from Malay - resulting in countless variations, including Ambon Malay and Larantuka Malay - in addition to Portuguese, Dutch, and modern Indonesian.  CEMP languages are found from Sumba and Flores in the west of Nusa Tenggara Timur through to Rapa Nui, aka 'Easter Island', all the way across the Pacific.  The Oceanic languages, those spoken in the wider Pacific, are a sub-family of CEMP, and for this reason it is productive to compare Oceanic (i.e., Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian) social structure, religion, and so on with their eastern Indonesian counterparts, as they diverged relatively recently.

It was probably Austronesian speakers who introduced grain agriculture based on dry rice and millet to the area about four thousand years ago, along with a cluster of different ideas and technologies including (but certainly not limited to) headhunting, blowguns, trunk-tip metaphors for superiority/precedence, botanical metaphors for kinship, houses built on piles, the concept of semangat/mana, ancestor-focused religious belief, an obsession with origins, single outrigger canoes (later given double outriggers in Indonesia, but not in Oceania), poetic parallelism, cotton textiles, and possibly a kind of unilateral cross-cousin marriage.  These people were not metal users, however.

Whether they introduced the bow and arrow or not is uncertain, although there is some overlap in technology between Taiwan and New Guinea, areas unconnected barring the Austronesian heritage.  In particular, the use of long self bows with bunches of flightless arrows in both areas, and throughout the Pacific, is suggestive of Austronesian introduction of the weapon to New Guinea (along with headhunting, Austronesian loanwords, and perhaps some crops).  The organic nature of Neolithic archery equipment in a bamboo- and hardwood-filled environments means that there probably won't be any archaeological evidence in either direction.  In any case, it is known that Austronesian-Papuan interaction was bi-directional, with Papuan loanwords in Oceanic languages and also plenty of Papuan DNA in Oceanic peoples' genomes (especially malaria resistance in the form of inherited thalassemia deletions).
A warrior from Flores with a long self bow and flightless arrows.  h/t Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.

Eastern Indonesians have probably been trading their products widely for thousands of years, possibly bringing cloves to the Near East in the Bronze Age.  Bronze drums associated with the Dongson culture of northern Vietnam have been found in Maluku, probably dating to around the time of Augustus, indicating some regional contacts extending all the way to the southeast Asian mainland by (or probably before) this time.  It was possibly through these contacts that metallurgy entered eastern Indonesia, some ascribing it to a new wave of migrants - which seems incredibly unlikely, given the linguistic and genetic situation.  More likely is that it was an idea that spread, not a group of people.  Similarly, I have seen it claimed that Tetum speakers migrated to Timor about six hundred years ago (see this book), but in reality the linguistic facts militate against this view; Tetum is an established member of the Timor-Babar family, and its ancestor was probably on the island long before six hundred years ago.


A tiny Dong Son drum in the Hanoi Museum; I have a photo of a similar drum from the Ashmolean, but when I asked if I could put it on the web I was told that I couldn't.  h/t Wikipedia, User: Gryffindor.

Arabs came to Maluku possibly as early as the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries; east Javanese traders and soldiers definitely got there at this time, although they probably overstated their influence in the texts they wrote (cf Desawarnana).  The trade with outsiders led to the relatively early development of Ternate and Tidore, islands on the east coast of Halmahera and speaking non-Austronesian languages, into fully-fledged kingdoms, with Islam gaining some hold in each polity (see the work of Leonard Andaya for more on this).


A rather gorgeous photo of Ternate.  h/t a_rabin

The Portuguese first arrived in 1512, after Afonso d'Alboquerque's conquest of Melaka in 1511.  The Portuguese expedition was led by Antonio de Abreu, and he may have been the first European to visit eastern Indonesia (assuming Ludovico de Varthema was not telling the truth about his voyages, which he might well have been).  De Abreu used Malay pilots, indicating that the routes to the eastern archipelago were well-established and known in the western islands.  The Europeans - and all the others, including the Arabs and Javanese - wanted control of the spice trade, and the Portuguese expedition began a four-century-long European attempt to control the economy of eastern Indonesia.


A slightly different view of Ternate, c. 1720.

After battles with England (whose first overseas colonies, besides Ireland, were Ai and Run in the Banda Islands) and Portugal, it was the Dutch who took control of Maluku and, by the close of the nineteenth century, all of Nusa Tenggara except East Timor.  The Portuguese colonies in Flores, West Timor, and the Solor archipelago were sold to the Dutch about a century and a half ago to generate cash flow for the Portuguese government.  East Timor, including the enclave of Oecussi-Ambenu, remained Portuguese until quasi-independence in 1974 and the Indonesian invasion in 1975.  It is now independent.

The Portuguese presence was responsible for a number of intriguing historical developments in the area, including the rise of the so-called 'Topasses', or 'black Portuguese'.  These were people whose cultural, linguistic, and genetic antecedents were a fusion of native Indonesian and Portuguese people.  They were a force to be reckoned with around the Sawu Sea until the eighteenth century, and they fought with the Dutch, other local groups, and even the Portuguese government, in an attempt to wrest control of the sandalwood trade.  The Dutch defeat of the Topasses under Gaspar da Costa at the battle of Penfui in November 1749 put an end to Topass power in the region, but it is notable that some Timorese rajas still have Portuguese surnames - including de Hornay and da Costa, those most strongly associated with the Topasses.

The recent history is complicated and boils down to there being several religions (Catholicism, Islam, and Protestantism, in addition to native beliefs) and two states (Indonesia and Timor Leste) in the area.  In most areas, the Dutch took nominal control only in the early years, and campaigns against headhunting and paganism began in earnest only in the early twentieth century, using superior European technology to 'pacify' headhunting communities and assert Dutch control.  In some places, including Larantuka in East Flores, Catholicism was established long ago by the Portuguese and the area remains devoutly Christian; on other islands, including Ambon and Roti, Dutch Protestantism has had a long and enduring presence, with the Bible in Malay elevated to the status of high literature.

In general, ethnographic information is sparse when compared to the Pacific, the Americas, or the rest of the Asia; there are plenty of unrecorded groups and unstudied languages, and there are only a few dedicated professional ethnographers working on eastern Indonesia.  There are too few archaeologists, as well, and the linguistic picture that I've presented above is contested (a little, at least).  As I said in my last post, however, life is generally on the up in eastern Indonesia, with life expectancy, literacy, gender equality, and other positive things all on the rise.  I hope that the fascinating cultural diversity of the region isn't lost as economic development kicks in.

The most striking thing about it, as can be told from any ethnographic work on eastern Indonesia, is the tenacity of patterns of behaviour that arrived in the area in prehistory.  They continue to influence modern life in the region in profound ways, and ethnographers often find that the most productive approach to the region is one informed by comparative Austronesian ethnology.  In any case, hopefully, by writing these posts, I can stir up some enthusiasm for studying eastern Indonesia academically.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I wonder if the black and white photo of an ethnic warrior from the Tropenmuseum, labeled as Flores, in actually a warrior from Alor instead. I have seen photos of similar looking warriors that were attributed to Alor and also came from the Tropenmuseum. See the Alor section of ikat.us for a photo of similar warriors from the Tropenmuseum taken around 1900 and attributed to Alor.

    Best regards, MAC

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