Found in the Indonesian archipelago is truly astounding, for living here are over 100 distinct ethic groups. each with its own cultural identity, who to gether speak a total of more than 300 mutually unintelligible languages! These figure are in fact rather consevative estimates, developed by Dutch scholars during the 1930s on the basis of highly incomplete data, and lively detabes continue to rage as to just how Indonesia cultural units ought to be defined.
A number of questions are often posed; how can each group best be characterized; in what ways are they related to one another; and where did they com from. Yet even after decade of work and hundreds of studies, the picture is still far from complete. Score of ethnic groups and languages have yet to be investigated in detail.
Ethnographic survey were first undertaken in Indonesia by colonial missionaries and administrators during the 18th and 19th centuries, as part of much broader investigations. Confronted at the time with such a profusion of hitherto undocummented peoples, places and thing, these pionnering Europeans began by recording any and everything that came to their attention. The result is a series of invaluable book, encyclopaedic in their breadth, that still make for absorbing reading today.
Francois Valentyn’s compedious Oud en Nieuw Ost-Indien (1926), for example, is chock-filed with anecdotes, oddities and perceptive observations recorded during the author’s many years as a missionary in the Moluccas. William Marsden History of Sumatera (1783), compiled while Marsden was employed at the tiny English outpost bengkulu on Sumatera’s southwest coast, contains a similarly broad range of delighful tidbits concerning the geography, wildlife and people of that enormously varied island. And Sir Stamford Rafles’ monumental History of Jaya (1817) the product of years and work by a team of scribes, taxidermists and artists in the author’s personal employ-contains the first detailed look at that island’s elaborate civilization, including such fascinating trivia as the traditional Javanese receipt for fermented shrimp-paste (trasi).
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