Peoples & Societies

The Timorese

The cultural diversity of Timor is most pronounced on East Timor. Here, besides the Northern and Southern Tetun, at least ten different groups can be identified. Of these, the Mambai, Kemak, Fataluku, Galoli, and Makassae are best known. In addition, a third Tetun-speaking community known as the Eastern Tetun resides in the southeast. The situation in West Timor is somewhat simpler. Alongside the Tetun groups of the Belu region, the Atoni are domi­nant here. Numbering around 750,000 people, they represent about half of the population of West Timor. Besides its abundance of spoken languages (at least fourteen are currently used), Timor is remark­able because it features Austronesian as well as non-Austronesian languages. These languages belong to completely separate linguistic families and indicate previous mass migrations.

Besides language, a considerable number of differences exist among the various groups. Until recently, this was most noticeable in regional architecture. The dwellings of the Atoni, for example, historically resembled a kind of beehive with earthen floors, while the houses made by the Northern Tetun were built on poles and had an oblong shape. In other aspects, such as kinship, the dif­ferences still persist today. Basic contrasts between the Northern and Southern Tetun clearly reveal this: the Northern Tetun are characterized by patrilineal descent and patrilocal settlement after marriage, whereas the Southern Tetun are governed by matrilineal descent and matrilocality.

Despite these differences, cultural similarities have always played a key role in the way Timor is regarded by the outside world. For instance, the tradition of a sovereign princedom, governed by a ruler who resided in a ritual center, was historically a very promi­nent characteristic. This feature, together with ethnolinguistic boundaries, was a decisive factor in shaping the social environment of most Timorese. Additionally, a strict division in classes charac­terized many Timorese societies; a community typically consisted of aristocracy as well as commoners and slaves.

Important similarities also existed among various groups on the spiritual level and in worldview. Until the arrival of Western missionaries, many basic shared beliefs were widespread in Timor. For example, it was generally believed that a cosmic dichotomy existed between heaven and earth. Heaven was associated with a male deity, while the earth was linked to a female counterpart. Alongside belief in these gods, great reverence for ancestors and spirits (associated with the landscape) was traditionally commonplace everywhere, as were various kinds of totemism.Totemism is a system of belief in which humans are said to have a connection or a kinship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or plant. The totem is thought to interact with a given kin group or an individual and to serve as its emblem or symbol. Many families or clans, until recently, sustained a bond with a particular type of animal that had a protective role.

The extent to which the art forms of Timorese cultures are simi­lar or different has never been properly researched. To date, only fragmented examinations have been undertaken regarding tradi­tional Timorese art, the development of which has not previously been recorded in a systematic way.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Traditional Art in Timorese Princedoms," 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), 245-251.