The Indonesian Melting Pot – The Question of Race

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Toward the end of the 19th century, however, Europeans investigating Indonesia’s peoples and cultures 

Began to focus almost exclusively on questions of sociocultural evolution and typology. It was perhaps inevitable, given the nature of the investigations and the intellectual tenor of the times, that such questions came to be seen largely in term of the rather nebulous concept of race.

Anyone travelling widely in Indonesia is soon made aware of the enormous physical differences exhibitied by peoples from one ned of the archipelago to the other – differences in pigmentation, hair type, stature and physiognomy, among other thing. To explain this observable range of racial types, scholars began by postulating a wave theory of racial migrations to the archipelago. According to this theory, various Indonesia groups arrived from the Asian mainland in a series of discrete but massive migratory waves, each separated by a period of several centuries.

The first wave of migrants, it was thought were the primitive dark-skinned, wiry-haired negritos – peoples of pygmy stature who today inhabit remote forest enclaves on the Malay peninsula, in the Andaman Island north of Sumatera and on several of the Philippine Island. Because of their resemblance to the Pygmies of north-central Africa, it has commonly been sugested that the negritos somehow migrated the lenght of the Eurasian continent eons ago.

The second wave, too, were thought to have arrived possibly from Africa pr perhaps India. These peoples – dark-skinned with woolly or kinky hair, pronounced browridges and broad, flat noses – were dubbed the “Australoids,” and are the native inhabitants of new Guinea, Melanesia and Australia. They traditionally lived in semi-settled villages in remote areas, where they hunted and gathered but also raised crops and animals and produced a variety of handicrafts, including pottery and vegetable-fibre cloths.

The third wave, termed “proto-Malays,” were thought to have migrated from China via Indochina. They are essentially “Mongolians” – light-skinned people with almond-shaped eyes, who somehow acquired an admixture of certain Australoid features, such as curly hair and brown skin. Examples often cited include the Batak and Kubu tribes of Sumatera, the Badui and Tenggeress of Java, the Aga tribes of Bali, the Dayaks of Borneo, the Toalans and Torajans of Sulawesi and several people of the eastern archipelago. Most of these groups still inhabit highland or remote inland regions, though they are by no means primitive.

They have long possessed highly sophisticated ritual and material cultures, including elaborate religious rites and sacrificial feasts, dance, music, textiles, carpentry, metalworking, traditions of strotytelling and sometimes also the use of writing.

The last wave, the “deutero-Malay,” were describes as pure Mongoloids, hence related to and much resembling the Chinese. These peoples today inhabit the plains and coastal region of all the major island, and many developed large hierarchical kingdoms, attaining a level of pre-modern civilazition comparable to that found anywhere in the world. Examples of so-called deutero-Malay groups, who today constitute a majority of Indonesians, include teh Acehnese, Minangkabau and Malays of Sumatera; the Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese and Madurese of Java, Madura and Bali; the Sasaks of Lombok, and the Makassarese and Buginese of Sulawesi. As these Mongoliods arrived, they are said to have forced all earlier groups to move on to marginal mountain fastnesses, dense upriver jungles and dry eastern island – and to have monopolized the best agricultural land and the most strategic river estuaries for themselves.

One virtue of this now-rejected theory, is that it does  at least attempt to connect the great variety of physical traits to the similarly broad range of cultural types found in Indonesia. Yet in fact tehse two concepts – “race” and “culture” – do not correlate as easily as previously believed. The basic problem is that no one know exactly what is meant by the term “race.” As ideal types they are find, but in prsctice of course sharp racial boundaries do not exist, and distinguishing features have a way of dissolving into meaningless abstarctions. It is now clear that in Indonesia, as elsewhere, physical apprearence does not correlate in any systematic fashion with language or culture.

In fact the real picture is very much more complex than this. First of all, the existence of Homo erectus (Java Man) fossils in Indonesia, million years old remains of one of modern man’s earliest ancestors – suggest that the so-called negritos and Australoid type people, with theirs sun screening skin pigmentattion, actually evolved partially or wholly in the tropical rain forest of Southeast Asia, just as the light skinned Mongoloid tyopes evolved in the cold, temperate regions of East and Central Asia. Of course during the last Ice Ages, when land bridges linked the major island of the Sunda shelf to the mainland. These peoples circulated freely and even crossed the oceans, populating Australia by about 50,000 years ago. There can be no doubt that Mongoloid-type peoples did migrate to the region much later, but the question is how.

They wave theory of co-ordinated,  coherent mass movements seems unlikely for a number of reasons. In a fragmented region like the Indonesians archipelago, village and tribal groups have always been constantly on the move, at least in historic times, dissoling and absorbing each other as they go. It is more realistic there-fore to conceive of a situation in which small groups of Mongoloid hunters, gatherers and shifting cultivators percolated into the region slowly – absorbing and replacing the original Australoid inhabitants over a period of many millennia. The end result can best be described as a clinal gradation of physical types, with more remote mountains or jungle areas, particularly moving eastward in Indonesia. Support for this complex, multi-dimensional conception of Indonesian ethnic origins has come from comparative linguistic studies.

–> Read Aslso : The Indonesian Melting Pot – The Indonesia Babel

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