Times & Places


Modern Indonesia is the world’s fourth most-populous country, comprising almost 250 million inhabitants speaking more than 300 different languages. The majority (approximately 86 percent of the population) are Muslim, but sizable minorities practice Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in addition to various ancient animistic traditions. An enormous biodiversity character­izes this vast archipelago of islands, which straddles the equator for thousands of miles. This regional diversity has influenced local cultural adaptations of seafaring immigrants who settled the archi­pelago in prehistoric times.

The history of this settlement belongs to one of mankind’s greatest adventures, which began some 6,000 years ago. In the beginning it was quite modest in scale. At that time, Late Stone Age cultures had arisen on the southern Chinese mainland, the earlier nomadic tradition of local hunter- gatherers having given way to an economy based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Once these peoples became sedentary, their populations increased dramati­cally. New woodworking techniques, including the skilled use of the mortise and tenon, made possible the construction of houses erected on stilts.

In response to the pressure of population growth, some groups applied the new woodworking techniques to the building of sea­worthy boats with outriggers in which to set out in search of new lands to settle. They first sailed across the South China Sea to Taiwan. Identified as Southern Mongoloids, these people spoke a language that would evolve into more than a thousand con­temporary tongues. This language family has come to be called Austronesian, and its original speakers Austronesians.

We do not know for certain for how long Austronesian expan­sion remained limited to Taiwan—some have estimated a thousand years or so—but we do know that Austronesian is perhaps the largest language family in the world. Suddenly Austronesian peoples began migrating farther south, across the Philippines to Sulawesi. From there they traveled eastward through the Moluccas and Melanesia to the scattered islands of the as yet uninhabited Pacific, where they became the ancestors of today’s Polynesians. Another branch sailed to the west, reaching the islands of Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. Roughly 2,000 years ago, members of this second group arrived in Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, thereby completing migrations that encompassed more than half of the globe.

This vast migration took place in such a brief period of time that it has been referred to, with slight exaggeration, as the “express train to the Pacific.” Indonesia itself provides some distinct clues to what could have occasioned such a rapid dispersal. The obvious assumption would be that it was triggered by expanding popula­tions and a shortage of land, but this is surely inadequate: there are too many instances of major migrations from regions that were far from being fully developed. It appears that an ideological constant throughout the Austronesian realm was of greater significance— the notion of the emigrant who discovers new territory, establishes a community there, acquires considerable prestige, and as founder-ancestor assumes virtually godlike stature among subsequent generations. The widespread distribution of these peoples could have been motivated by just such an ambition, and it is one that touches on a central feature of the art of Indonesia: the supreme importance of ancestors.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, " Art and Its Themes in Indonesian Tribal Traditions," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 17-27.