Cultures & Traditions

Founding Fathers in Southeast Moluccan Art

On Aru, Kai, and Tanimbar, the history of many patrilineal descent groups goes back to a glorious, mythical past in which the first male ancestors still acted in the guise of ani­mals. The mythical founding fathers appear to have assumed the shape of animals on Aru in particular. On other islands, this role could also be played by humans that were associated with animals because of the qualities attributed to them. This was beautifully reflected in material culture. Characteristic statues of founding fathers could generally be found on these eastern islands.

On the island of Aru, for example, totemlike figures of found­ing fathers were placed on boats before they set out to sea. Most examples of this imagery depict a seabird, dog, rooster, or snake. The three-dimensional figures, called semai or mit­mosim (both terms meaning “sacred”), were attached to the prow and stern. Furthermore, a two-dimensional version in which double images mirrored each other was often placed on a stern board; in special cases, human beings were depicted. Remarkably, these traditions continued to be practiced until quite recently. These animal figures received offerings on a regular basis, as Western missionaries did not regard them as ancestors and were therefore not threatened by their presence.

In villages on Tanimbar, and to a lesser extent on Kai, the found­ing fathers were portrayed in a comparable way. Here, the animal figures were carved on “houses of origin” of descent groups, village stairs and doorways, and stern boards of proas as clan emblems. As on Aru, roosters, dogs, and snakes were favored. Moreover, ancestors sometimes appeared as animals inside the houses of origin. The remote island of Tanimbar-Kai offers well-documented examples. Around 1980, images of founding fathers in the shape of animal figures were documented in the attics of two houses. The statues were fitted with the heads of roosters; the bodies resembled those of a human being and a bird.

Evidence collected on the islands of Kai and Tanimbar revealed, however, that not all animal figures connected to a descent group concerned the genealogical founding fathers. A clan or village could also be represented by an animal with which a mythical bond had been made. Through this bond, the animal joined the group, and its image seems to have replaced or symbolized the first male ances­tor. These types of bonds are known to have existed primarily on Tanimbar. In various cases, no kinship relation existed with the animals that made up the clan emblems.

The animals chosen to be depicted in these kinds of sculptures were closely linked to the role of the founding fathers in society. Roosters, as well as dogs and snakes, were associated with virtues such as bravery and aggression, both necessary for the ability to kill and thus build a reputation. To the descendants, therefore, the animal figures referred to a founding father as a man of highly impressive standing: an invincible headhunter and an ultimate source of power.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Life and Death in Southeast Moluccan Art," 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), 275-281.