Lesson 1 (First Part)

Population Settlements in East Timor and Indonesia

ET / Indonesia Course: Lesson 1 (I)


1.1.1 - A Great Diversity of Peoples and Cultures

One of the things that would more surprise the linguist or anthropologist that toured around East Timor in 1974 or 1975, would be the diversity of languages and dialects spoken, as well as the variety of physical types and cultural traditions present in the island. The anthropologist António de Almeida, who by the end of 1974 was finishing another mission related to the construction of the East Timorese linguistic map, registered the existence of more than thirty languages and local dialects, with six different origins. In his later maps he signalled villages (small centres populated by one family or one clan) and knuas or sucos (small village groups where one tribe lived) with less than one hundred people that, among themselves, spoke one language completely different from the languages of the neighbouring communities.

These facts tell a lot, by themselves, not only about the ethnic and cultural diversity of the different Timorese peoples, but also about the reduced degree of alien influences that affected the less culturally influenced population of the interior of the territory, who kept alive and almost untouched their millenary ancestral traditions.

The compilation of stories, orally transmitted from generation to generation by the narrators of each tribe would certainly offer many useful information about the origins and the evolution of each of those tribes. Unfortunately, this work is almost non-existent, apart from exceptional cases, and today, after the human and cultural plundering provoked by the Indonesian invasion and occupation, the accomplishment of this work has been made almost impossible.

1.1.2 - 1st Wave - Vedo-Australóide

From the few anthropologist and linguistic studies that exist, it seems plausible to conclude, with some degree of security, that the first wave of people that arrived and settled in Timor, constituting the first population substrate, were of the Vedo-Australóide type, similar to the Vedas from Ceylon (or Sri-Lanka) in the Southeast coast of India. They are characterised by a very dark complexion and beautiful straight, very dark hair, anthracite colour. It is presumed that they arrived to Timor approximately 40 000 to 20 000 years before Christ, during the last glacial period (end of the 4th glaciation), during which the accumulation of icy cold water in the coolest zones (polar zones and many of today's mild climate regions) caused the receding of the sea level in approximately sixty meters. This abridgement made many of the present islands of the archipelago, namely Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan (Borneo) become connected to the Asian Continent. Moreover, it greatly diminished the distance between the island of Timor and both Australia and the neighbouring island bloc.

Taking in account that the pirogue was invented about 7 000 years before Christ, it is plausible to admit that the maritime dislocations were carried out in rafts.

The Atoni of Timor, predominant in the Western part of the island and scarce in the Eastern part, seem to have had a similar origin to the Vedas of Ceylon, just as the aborigines in Australia.

By 20 000 a.C., agriculture wasn't yet a regular practice. Human beings, grouped in small clans or tribes, wondered in search of sylvestral fruits, leaves or eatable roots (that they did not sow nor plant), looking for fish and hunted animals, with no permanent settlements nor significant assets to carry with them, apart from sharpened sticks, scrapers, axes or spears. If we take this into account then one can understand how come so many excursions took place in a planet, after all small, even for those who moved walking, day after day, year after year, or for those who moved in rafts driven by the wind...by the hunger and by the misfortunes of the war...

1.1.3 - 2nd Wave - Melanesian

A second wave, of Melanesian people, similar to those that can be found today in Papua New-Guinea, in Vanuatu and Saloman Islands, brought to the territory the oval axe civilisation.

The languages of Fataluco, Macaçai and Búnac, spoken in East Timor, were also introduced in the territory by this so called Melanesians, since they predominate in today's Melanesia.

It is conceivable that the Melanesian tribes that populated Timor came from the West (on their way to Melanesia), and not from the East. It should be noted, however, that Papuásia (Papua New Guinea) was populated approximately forty to thirty thousand years ago, it was one of the regions of the world where agriculture was put into practice sooner, around 9 000 to 7 000 years before Christ, and it is a region where remnants of contemporary irrigation channels, barely more recent than those of Mesopotamia, can be found. Nonetheless, the lands in the island of Papua were vast and spontaneously productive, plus the population density was never very high. Therefore the demographic pressures for emigration were always not significant, if existent at all. When the Melanesian people started coming from the West (probably from China or Formosa), around 3 000 before Christ, the primitive inhabitants, of Vedo-Australoide type, migrated to the interior, and thus no significant miscegenation occurred. This is why more than a thousand different languages and dialects are spoken in Papua!... The prodigality of the land and of the climate on the one hand, making almost every dislocation unnecessary since everything needed for survival was close, and the wilderness of the jungle on the other, which made penetration difficult, both contributed for the isolationism of the small communities, self-sufficient and with very specific languages and cultures, even more than in Timor.

1.1.4 - 3rd Wave - Proto-Malay

A third wave, called Proto-Malay, arrived at Timor approximately in 2500 before Christ. It was constituted by populations that came from Southern China and from the North of Indochina, populations which, according to Teodoro de Matos, were either 'a spurious arm of the white race' or 'a badly differentiated arm of the yellow race'. These populations migrated to all the Insulindia under the demographic pressure of Mongol populations that came from the centre of Asia.

With them they took the civilisation of the 'flat axe' or 'quadrangular axe', a Neolithic civilisation, more advanced than the 'oval axe' civilisation, that they also took to the majority of the islands that constitute today's Indonesia,

1.1.5 - 4th Wave - Deutero -Malay

Sarasin, Teodoro de Matos and others believe that, more recently (approximately 500 a.C.), a new racial type, called Deutero-Malay, a result of the crossing of Proto-Malays with a migration wave with typically Mongoloid characteristics, became the dominant type in Indonesia, though also present in East Timor. There are no doubts in what concerns the presence of this racial type in the main Indonesian islands. Regarding Timor, however, not all the opinions converge.

1.1.5 - Similarities and Differences between Timor and the rest of Indonesia

Lambers and others consider that the Deutero-Malay element, that dominates in the island of Java and in the coastal zones of Sumatra and Borneo, is not (or better, it wasn't before the Indonesian invasion) present in Timor.

This last migration seems to be related with the diffusion of the "Dong-Song civilisation", the diffusion of the bronze and other metals in the archipelago.

It seems, therefore, that excluding West Papua, fraudulently integrated in Indonesia in the sixties, and which possessed a Vedo-Australoide and Melanesian autochthon population (even though very much diversified), most of the islands that constitute Indonesia possess a predominantly Malay population, most of which is Deutero-Malay, but also Proto-Malay. The eldest elements, of Melanesian and Vedo-Australoide type are considered to remain, though in a much fewer number and often, after, being pushed to the interior of the more populated islands.

In the case of Timor the older groups, of Vedo-Australoide type, are believed to be present in a much larger number in West Timor, whereas the existence of a significant presence of Deutero-Malay populations is very doubtful, except recently, as a result of the Indonesian occupation.

To this information it must be added that the island of Java, itself, seems to have been one of the cradles of Humanity. Hence, and opposite to Timor, which remained uninhabited up till 40 000 a.C., one can find evidence of far much older autochthon elements, in Java, with an ethnic importance that became completely diluted after many millenniums.


1.2.1 - Insulindia, in the maritime route that links China to India

Insulindia, midpoint of two great and very important civilisation centres - the Chinese and the Indian, - soon entered the maritime commercial routes that were established between them.

Everything points to the fact that, ever since the 2nd century before Christ, Chinese merchants commercialised with coastal populations in the island of Java, and possibly in Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra. Numerous Chinese vessels from that time were found in the coastal zone of Java, confirming it.

Soon after, maritime communications with India are believed to have been established, in the 1st century a.C., as Malay sailors from the archipelago noticed that the winds of the monsoons changed direction twice a year, blowing from Northeast when the sun has its zenith in the southern hemisphere, and from Southeast, when the sun is in the Northern Hemisphere.

Due to this alternation, the Malay sailors learnt to navigate from Southeast Asia to the South of India during (our) 'winter', and to do the opposite during 'summer'. This discovery spread rapidly, being known and used by many other populations, from the Hindus to the Arabs of the South, to the Chinese and eventually even to the Romans themselves.

In these trips between Insulindia and India, the Chinese merchants took with them not only their chinaware and typical silk, but also spices and other products from the Indonesian archipelago.

In the opposite direction, and using the same maritime routes, driven by the monsoons, the Indian and Arab navigators entered this international commerce, that took them to Malaya, Sumatra, the island of Java, Borneo (or Kalimantan), Celebes (or Sulawesi), etc.

The Arab merchants were then in charge of the transportation, from India to the Middle East, of the Chinese products and the spices from Insulindia, products which Rome, at her apogee, consumed abundantly. In the 2nd century of the Christian era, this commerce between the Roman Empire, in the West, and the Chinese Empire, in the East, was intense. And although the terrestrial routes were used for some products (namely silk) others, like spices, chinaware and lacados, in one way, and gold and silver Roman coins in the other way, were transported mainly through the maritime routes. Of course that commerce with the islands that today constitute Indonesia could only occur via the maritime routes, reason why they are here specifically referred to.

Although the island of Timor was, from very early times, visited by Chinese merchants, mainly searching for the white sandal, of exceptional quality, that grew spontaneously in the island, Timor was kept almost completely aside from the main commercial routes.

Hence, the Hindu influence, first, in the beginning of the Christian era, and the Buddhist influence, afterwards, from the 5th century onwards (which were the dominant imprints of the kingdoms and empires in Sumatra or the island of Java), did not leave any significant impression in Timor.

1.2.2 - The great Hindu-Buddhist empires of 'Indonesia' did not include East Timor

It is curious to note that, in spite of the nearness of China, it was from India that came the main cultural and religious influence, which determined the evolution of Insulindia and even the evolution of the majority of the different peoples in Indochina.

Indeed, two of the greatest empires of Insulindia are characterised by the deep Hindu, or Hindu-Buddhist, religious and cultural influence: - Shrivijaya and Majapahit.

The former, Shrivijaya, in the island of Sumatra, had its apogee between the 7th (672 a.C.) and 10th century, apogee that then decreased until the 13th century. It included a great part of Malaya, almost the totality of Sumatra, the Eastern half of Java and the Western extreme of Borneo (or Kalimantan). Though several Indonesian official publications, posterior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, argue that the island of Timor belonged to the Shrivijaya empire, such an assertion lacks any foundation. Not even the island of Bali, much further to the West, and even the Eastern part of Java, were under the control of this empire, where the Hindu and Buddhist religions had a very important influence. It is in this period (late 8th century) that the biggest Buddhist temple of the world is built, in Borobudur, in the island of Java.

The empire of Shrivijaya kept relations with important kingdoms in India, carried out victorious fights against Cambodia, and controlled a significant part of the Sea of the South of China.

Its fame arrived to the Arab world, to which this empire supplied tin, ivory, camphor and, mainly, valuable spices and wood.

If one remembers that since the 1st century before Christ, Malay peoples from Sumatra travelled regularly till India, and that the island of Madagascar, in the African Eastern Coast, was populated, approximately from the year 500 after Christ onwards, by Malay peoples, it is easily conceivable that there were commercial contacts from Shrivijaya with Timor. But this is completely different from a political (or even economical) domination of East Timor or any part of its territory.

The main opposition to the power of Shrivijaya seems to have emerged from the Javanese kingdoms, that persistently prevented this empire from extending its domain to the Eastern zone of this central Indonesian island.

Based in Singhasari (nowadays Malang, in the Eastern part of the island of Java) the semi-legendary King Angrok managed to form, in the 13th century, an ephemeral, typically Javanese empire, in opposition to the Hindu-Buddhist influence, prevalent in Shrivijaya.

Meanwhile, the Mongol empire of China - whose commercial interests in the region had increased, mainly from the 8th century d.C. onwards - decides, in the 2nd half of the 13th century, to go ahead with several military expeditions towards Burma and Vietnam. Being the dominant power in the Far East, the emperor of China got used to receive gifts from kings and emperors of the region, mainly Sumatra and other Indonesian islands, in demonstration of a feeble vassalage, more theoretical than real.

However, in 1292, one year after his ambassador Marco Polo visited the Southeast coast of Sumatra, before going to Ceylon, the Mongol emperor of China, Qubilai Can, decides to send an enormous fleet to the island of Java, so as to strengthen his power in the region. Nonetheless, the expedition was a total disaster, a big part of the Chinese troops were defeated and the rest turned tail retreating, leaving many dead but also many Chinese survivors. These, though they ended up marrying Javanese women, kept their ways and culture, creating an ethnic minority culturally distinct, whose importance in the commercial and financial sectors increased as the centuries went by.

In the sequence of the great victory over the Mongols, a new empire emerged, this time based in the island of Java, itself strongly influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist religions. It is the empire of Majapahit or Madjapahit, which is commonly believed to have emerged in the year 1293. The apogee of this empire is situated in the middle of the 14th century, during the period in which Gadjah Mada was its Prime Minister (from 1331 to 1364).

In the words of George Vinius, the extension of this empire bounded Java, Bali and one connecting 'corridor' to Malaca.

Nonetheless, one heroic poem from those days, the Nagarakertagama, quotes a long list of Majapahit's vassal states, from whom the empire received many tributes. In this list, the names of Seram and Timor are present, fact utilised by the Indonesian authorities to justify the 'return' of Timor to the Indonesian Nation, to which it had belonged before.

Apart from the doubt raised by the words of the 16th century Portuguese writer , Tomé Pires, who in the Eastern Suma says that, to the East, 'every island from Java is called Timor, because in the language of the country Timor means 'East'. Just as they said, the islands of the 'East', one must remember that the vassalage, if existent, would be, just as in the cases of several 'Indonesian kingdoms towards China, more theoretical than real'.

Meilink-Roelofsz mentions that in about 1415 the power of Majapahit extended from almost the entire island of Sumatra till the Mollucas, having Malaca as a vassal sate. But he excludes the islands of Timor and even Flores, accepting as probable only the submission of Sumbawa (or Soembawa), much nearer from Java ('Majapahit is also reputed to have extended its influence Eastwards to cover Bali and perhaps Soembawa too).

Apart from that, the suzerainty, when existent, should be, almost always, as much theoretical and irrelevant as China's over some kingdoms of Insulindia.

Whatever the case, the effective power of Majapahit began to decline after a century, approximately, following both the quarrels amongst Hindu princes and the progressive propagation of Islam in Malaya, in the Northeast of Sumatra and in the Northern coast of the island of Java. The growing power of Malaca, in the meantime converted to the new Muslim religion, and its competition in world commerce of the time, also contributed to diminish the importance of the Javanese harbours, weakening, thereby, the Majapahit power. Its definite downfall, however, is ulterior to the arrival of the Europeans, in the year 1520.

1.2.3 - Islam, that in the 15th century starts to spread in Insulindia, also did not penetrate in East Timor

Still before the arrival of the European navigators to the islands of the archipelago - following the conquest of Malaca, in 1511, by Afonso de Albuquerque - it should be registered, for its enormous importance for Indonesia, the slow penetration of Islam.

From the 12th century onwards some Arab missionaries are reported to have been in the North of Sumatra. However, only after the conversion of the king of Malaca, in 1409, would the Achèh Kingdom convert to Islam, in the year 1416, in the Northeast of the island of Sumatra, becoming the first big Muslim Kingdom of the archipelago (after Samudra, by the end of the 13th century).

In the beginning of the century, when the Portuguese arrived to Insulindia, taking with them the catholic religion, a great part of Sumatra was already converted to Islam. The sultanate of Demaak, in the island of Java, had become, already, a centre of the propagation of Faith in Allah (mainly through the theatre).

In 1475 Islam starts to penetrate the Philippines. At the end of the 15th century it is the time of the King of South Kalimantan (Borneo) to become converted to the new religion, the same happening in 1495, to the King of Ternate, in the Mollucas. In 1526 the Kings of Bantam and of Jakarta, in the island of Java, were also converted, while in the interior of this and other islands a great part of the populations remained animist.

Due to its geographical location, away from the great commercial routes between China and India, between the islands with the spices and Malaya, Timor remained aside from the religious and cultural evolution that marked the islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali, Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi (Celebes), the Philippines and the islands of Molucas themselves.

The island of Timor was, nonetheless, visited by Chinese traders from the very early days, and later, by Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim merchants. Apparently, the traders did not settle in the island, remaining there only the necessary time to close their businesses - mainly the purchase of sandal and its bargain for Chinese or Western products - and to arrange for their transportation.

1.2.4 - Timor when the Portuguese arrived

Hence, when the first Portuguese navigators, merchants and missionaries arrived to Timor, they found populations that practised agriculture, knew metallurgy and used the iron, but they ignored the writing and kept faithful to their traditional animist practices.

The sandal business (and in some cases, the slaves business), will have contributed to the establishment of vaster kingdoms or small empires, just as Waiwiku-Wehale or Behale, established in the South-Balu plain.

Schulte Nordholt considers that, 'based not as much in conquest, but in ideas of spiritual precedence and in one complex alliance net, the influence of Wehale will have extended to more than two thirds of the island... Wehale, located in what is today called Indonesian Timor, was originally Tetum (Belunês), but its empire included smaller kingdoms from different ethnic groups, the Dawan or Atoni, the Bunaq, the Famak and others'.

The same author mentions three emperors that would be under the dependence of the Waiwiku-Wehale empire: - the South Belu liuriai, the Sonba'i (emperor of the majority of the Atoni region, in Western Timor), and the liuriai of Suai-Camenasse (of the Eastern Timor Belu region). Other authors consider that the kingdoms of Timor constituted, then, two groups: Servião, in the West, and Behale or Belos, to the East.

This was probably the situation that the Portuguese found, when they arrived to Timor, in approximately 1515.

According to Afonso de Castro the Timorese 'had settled in cultivable lands;; the tribe had transformed itself in village and the village had established relations with neighbouring ones, becoming a state, but with all the elements that constitute a Nation'.

The populations of Timor, much diverse in languages and cultures, had nonetheless, a social structure relatively similar. This, very much stratified, had the king or liuriai at the top of the hierarchy, datos (or nobles) directing the fate of the sucos or groups of small population agglomerates, and then several classes of population, with the slaves at the basis of the pyramid. Witch-doctors, quack salvers and story tellers (the living libraries of the tribes) performed a relevant role. And because neither Hinduism, nor Christianity, nor Islam had penetrated Timor, the women occupied, in many cases, a place of considerable weight, enjoying a freedom that would be the envy of the European women of those times. This in spite of the practice of polygamy and the significance of the barlaque, institution that regulated the marriages and that dominated all the social and economic relations inside and between tribes.

Oporto, 24th October, 1994

A. Barbedo de Magalhães