CULTURE

A MELTING POT ON THE EDGE OF TWO WORLDS

A complete guide to Raja Ampat's fascinating and unique culture.


People | Language | Religion | Art

 
 

The First To Arrive

Melanesians - The Pioneers

First settled by Melanesians anywhere between 60.000 to 30.000 years ago, the ever ongoing migration movements in the archipelago have led to the development of several different ethnic groups in Raja Ampat. Although they share certain characteristics, others, like the languages are quite distinctive.

Austronesians - The Seafarers

While the people inland Papua’s main island are unmistakably Melanesian, the features among Raja Ampat’s tribes are - although clearly there - far less prominent. This is due to constant exchange with Austronesians, who arrived approximately 4.000 years ago and mixed with the Papuan population.

Migration From Biak

Most probably, seafarers from Biak - also a mix of Austronesian and early Papuan people - had reached Raja Ampat as early as 2.500 years ago. However, they did not maintain constant settlements in the archipelago. Rather they would set up camps for months and make use of the rich fishing grounds, before moving on again.


This started to change with Kurabesi, and his marital bond to a daughter of the Sultan of Tidore. As a skilled warrior of mixed origin (Raja Ampat and Biak) he helped the Sultan to conquer Raja Ampat. After the marriage the newlyweds settled in Raja Ampat, where they had four children. It was those four who later became the four kings, after which the archipelago is named up to this day.

Influence From Maluku

Halmahera and Tidore

In the North, Waigeo's proximity to Halmahera island made for an easy crossing and further mixing of cultures was inevitable. At least since the rise of the Sultanate of Tidore, there is no doubt of Maluku's presence in Raja Ampat. Back then, Maluku’s power stretched all the way to Biak island, but more about that later.

Seram and Kei

While the northern part of Raja Ampat had close ties to Halmahera and Biak, the southern islands around Misool were frequented by sailors from Seram and Kei islands. Unsurprisingly, they also started mixing with the local, Papuan-Austronesian population.  

The Melting Pot

While different parts of Raja Ampat were experiencing distinctive influences from the never ending migration, they kept on mixing among themselves.


All these unique features introduced to the archipelago by different ethnic groups turned it into a real melting pot.


A fascinating fusion of various characteristics of all the distinctive cultures was the result.

Although certain customs and features were adapted, many of the ancient characteristics of each tribe are still noticeable today. 

 
 

Etymological Introduction

Ever ongoing migration and complex cultural and linguistic exchange led to the development of six languages. For the sake of completeness we want to mention that it is not entirely clear if all of Raja Ampat's languages belong to the Austronesian family and have strong Papuan influence, or if they are relexified Papuan languages.

Currently they are classified as Halmahera Sea languages, belonging to the Austronesian language family.

All of them have heavy Papuan influence and are quite distinctive among Austronesian languages.

Unfortunately, some of the original languages are on the brink of extinction. 

The Languages Of Raja Ampat 

The first six are thought to have developed within the archipelago, while Betteo is closer related to languages found in Cenderwasih bay.​

  • Waigeo (or Ambel/Amber): Central and North Waigeo - two dialects

  • Biga: South of Misool

  • As: Originally from Gag island, nowadays only spoken on Papua’s main island

  • Maden: West Salawati

  • Matbat: Misool - five tonemes

  • Ma’ya: Waigeo, Misool, Salawati - five different dialects, three tonemes

  • Betteo: An adapted dialect from Biak, which probably arrived with seafarers from Numfoor

Linguistic Characteristics

Of more than a thousand Austronesian languages only a dozen have lexical tone. 

Ma’ya and Matbat are are to of those. Even more interestingly, both their tone and stress are lexically distinctive.

That means both the stress and the pitch of a word may affect its meaning, which is rather uncommon.


In contrast to most other languages with lexical tone, in Raja Ampat's languages stress and tone are quite independent from one another. This is a worldwide very rare characteristic.

It appears to be a remnant of the shift from Papuan languages during Austronesian migration.

Modern Languages

Bahasa Indonesia

Besides their mother tongue, almost all inhabitants of the archipelago speak Bahasa Indonesia - the common language all over Indonesia. However, local language remains the most common way of communication.

Dutch

A remnant from colonial time is Dutch. Although it is disappearing, some of the elders, who grew up in colonial times, still understand and speak Dutch today. However, we reckon it will be gone within a decade.


English

English is, with some exceptions of course, not very common. Especially outside the tourist areas, it is rare to find someone who speaks, or even understands, a bit of English.

 
 

Christianity

In the north of Raja Ampat the absence of muslim remnants indicates that, although once closely tied to the Sultanate of Tidore, Islam could never quite get a foothold on and around Waigeo. 

All of that changed with the arrival of Missionaries in the 19th century. Even more so with the migrating people from Biak, who had been introduced to christianity as early as the 18th century.


Until today, the majority of the population on Waigeo, Batanta and the surrounding islands is protestant. 

Islam

Contrary to the north, parts of Misool and Salawati tend to be traditionally more influenced by arrivals from Seram.

While northern Raja Ampat predominantly follows Christian believes, in the South Islam is more present. 

With recent migration movements within Indonesia, the population of larger settlements has exploded. Waisai and other important places, now have a majority of muslim inhabitants. 

Ancient Believes

Although people are quite faithful to their modern religion, many of the believes from ancient, animistic religions still live on today. In Raja Ampat, believing in one thing does not foreclose believing in something else too. 

For the many people of Raja Ampat the mysterious world of ghosts and spirits is just as present as the world we can see and feel every day. These remnants of several millennia old religions show no sign of fading into oblivion. 

Spirits And Witchcraft

There are countless natural spirits and ghosts people in Raja Ampat believe in. This may be anything, from the souls of living things or ancestors, to the power of nature itself, in various forms and sizes, visible and invisible.


Further, many believe in “Suangi” - a lose translation would probably be some sort of a witcher - which can have different powers. Anything from shapeshifting - turning themselves into animals or worse, to flying and killing people with a simple look has been heard of.


Yet another example is the story of the dugongs, which are believed to be the descendants of a specific family. We could go on and on with numerous tales and myths here, but we won't.

We want to make a different point here. 

While to many these stories might seem ridiculous, to the people of Raja Ampat they appear very, very real. Visitors are sometimes to fast with prejudices, especially when it comes to religion. It's just to easy to wave these stories aside as simple superstitions, but think about it this way:

Simple Superstition Or Is There More To It?

Every believe or religion will evolve to suit the people and the environment it's in.


Raja Ampat's people have an extraordinarily strong connection to nature. It makes a lot more sense to use ghost and spirits for the strange things that can happen in a world of intimidatingly dense jungles.

Our piece of advice:

If locals tell you about their world of spirits it is a sign of trust - they are opening up to you. However critical you are, don't make fun of it, this would be rude.  Take your time, be considerate and listen. Who knows, at the end of the day you might enjoy the myths just as much as we do. 

Remember, there is a spark of truth in every tale, and if they make for nothing else, they are still captivating stories.

 
 

Handicrafts Rather Than Abstract Art

Artistic craftwork can be found all over the islands. From the dug-out boats to the stilt houses, handicraft is common among almost all locals. 

The skills are passed down from generation to generation. Young boys start to help the family build or repair houses as soon as they can climb, while the girls can often be seen weaving “Senat” - a traditional mat. 

An artistic touch is usually applied to the traditional dresses, made from palm leaves or tree bark and body paint is common during ceremonial occasions. Although abstract art is not traditionally widespread, there are some exceptions:

Ancient Caves And The Art They Hide

Numerous sights with ancient rock paintings can be found scattered over the archipelago.

A hotspot is Misool, with some caves covered in pictures of animals, people and even abstract concepts, like spirits.


Many of the artworks show remarkable similarity to Aboriginal paintings found in Australia. Since the primordial Melanesian inhabitants are closely related to Aborigines, it is not surprising to find resemblance in both, art and believe.

Music And Dance

Raja Ampat has various traditional songs and dances.

For example, the “Bintaki” - a dance inspired by the fishermen’s movements - is  one. Another one is the “Wor”, which was introduced by Biak people during their migration and traditionally is performed to greet visiting nobles. 

The dominant instruments for traditional music are flutes and drums in various sizes. While both are still used for festivities, they have been replaced in everyday use. Nowadays guitar and ukulele are very popular among the people of Raja Ampat.

 

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