A brief overview on

Raja Ampat's

Warm Hearted People and
their Captivating Culture

Raja Ampat is home to a few different tribes, all with their own distinct culture and language. What all of them have in common is their sincere and welcoming attitude towards visitors.

The Melting Pot

A fascinating fusion of distinct characteristics from numerous cultures.

While different parts of Raja Ampat were experiencing distinctive influences from the never ending migration, the tribes kept on mixing among themselves. Although certain customs and features were watered down, many of the ancient characteristics of each tribe are still noticeable today. All these unique features introduced by different ethnic groups turned the archipelago into a real melting pot.

The First to Arrive

Melanesians

The Pioneers

Papua was first settled by Melanesians anywhere between 60.000 to 30.000 years ago. When exactly the ever ongoing migration movements reached Raja Ampat is not exactly clear, but there are a few hints:

Considering that Misool and Salawati had been connected to Papua's main island during the last ice age, some Melanesians almost certainly reached these parts of the archipelago. Another strong indicator are the distinctive rock paintings found in the area.

Austronesians

The Seafarers

While people in Papua's highlands are unmistakably Melanesian, these features are, although clearly evident, less prominent among the tribes on the north-western coast and the surrounding islands.

This is largely due to the Austronesian influence. The Austronesians — the world's greatest seafarers — had established loose trade routes to Papua more than 4.000 years ago. Some of them settled along the coast and mixed with the local populations.

Migration from Biak

Sailing Papua's Coast

Most probably, seafarers from Biak — a Papuan tribe with significant Austronesian influence — had reached Raja Ampat as early as 2.500 years ago. However, they did not maintain constant settlements in the archipelago until relatively recently. Rather they would set up camps for months and make use of the rich fishing grounds, before moving on again.

Allegiance to Tidore

Biak's people were skilled sailors and fierce warriors. Around 800 These traits were soon noticed by the quickly expanding sultanate of Tidore, which allowed the tribe to maintain control over Papua's coast in return for a tax. While deliviring their contribution to Tidore, Biak's sailors would regularly pass through Raja Ampat and it's a reasonable assumption, that some would even settle in the archipelago.

Kurabesi & the Four Kings

According to the legend, Kurabesi was born in Raja Ampat, but raised in Biak. As a skilled commander and warrior he assisted the sultan of Tidore in defeating the rivalling sultanate of ternate. In return, Tidore's sultan allowed him to marry his daughter and the newlyweds settled in Raja Ampat. They had four children, who later were to become the four kings, after which the archipelago is named up to this day.

Moluccan Influence

Halmahera & Tidore

In the North, Waigeo's proximity to Halmahera island made for an easy crossing and further mixing of cultures was inevitable. At least since the rise of the sultanate of Tidore, there is no doubt of Moluccan presence in Raja Ampat. Tidore's power and influence stretched all the way to Biak island.

Ambon & Seram

While the northern part of Raja Ampat had close ties to Halmahera and Biak, the southern islands around Misool were frequented by sailors from Ambon and especially Seram. Unsurprisingly, they also started to settle and mix with the local, Papuan-Austronesian population.

Indigenous Languages

Etymological Introduction

Ever ongoing migration as well as complex cultural and linguistic exchange led to the development of six distinct languages in Raja Ampat.

For the sake of completeness we want to mention that it is not entirely clear whether all of the languages belong to the Austronesian language family and have strong Papuan influence, or if they are relexified Papuan languages.

Currently they are classified as Halmahera Sea languages, belonging to the Austronesian language family. All of them have heavy Papuan influence and are quite distinctive among Austronesian languages.

Unfortunately, some of the original languages are on the brink of extinction.

Raja Ampat's Languages

Although relatively little has been documented, here is an overview on the languages and dialects spoken in Raja Ampat:

  • Ambel (or Waigeo/Amber)
  • As
  • Batta
  • Beteo (or Betew/Beser)
  • Biga
  • Maden (Salawati)
  • Matbat
  • Ma'ya

For more details check out Laura Arnold's work on Raja Ampat's languages.

Other Languages

Bahasa Indonesia

Besides their mother tongue, all inhabitants of the archipelago speak Bahasa Indonesia — the common language all over Indonesia, derived from a Malay dialect. Although their local language remains the most common way of communication among adults, children now use Bahasa Indonesia more and more.

English

English is, with some exceptions of course, not very common. Especially outside the tourist areas it is rare to find someone who speaks — or even understands — a bit of English. However, the locals are quite open and welcoming, usually they will find a way to communicate, albeit mostly using gestures.

Dutch

A remnant from colonial time is Dutch. Although it is disappearing, some of the elders, who grew up in colonial times, still understand and speak Dutch today. This has led to quite a few funny encounters in the past. However, we reckon it will be gone within a decade.

Boy Praying in Raja Ampat

Modern Religion

Christianity

North Raja Ampat

In north Raja Ampat the vast majority of people follow Christian believes. The protestant church of Indonesia has the strongest presence here, although there are a few other forms dof Christianity gaining popularity recently. A few exceptions can be found in Mayalibit Bay with its four muslim villages.

Christianity arrived in Raja Ampat in the early 20th century, when most of coastal Papua converted, too.

Islam

South Raja Ampat

While north Raja Ampat predominantly follows Christian believes, in the south Islam has a strong presence. Especially around Misool, where the population has been influenced by nearby Seram island, the vast majority is muslim. Migration movements within Indonesia tend lead to Islamisation.

In Waisai for example, the majority of inhabitants is not Papuan and has migrated there within the last decade.

Although a religious north-south divide clearly exists in Raja Ampat, there are exceptions to the rule: christian communities are present in Misool and there are muslim villages around Waigeo. Religious conflict virtually doesn't exist in Raja Ampat.

Traditional Burrial Sites in Raja Ampat

Ancient Animism

Although people are quite faithful to their modern religion, many of the believes from ancient, animistic religions still live on today. In Raja Ampat, believing in one thing does not foreclose believing in something else too. These remnants of several millennia old religions show no sign of fading into oblivion.

Visitors are sometimes too fast with prejudices, especially when it comes to believes. It's easy to wave these stories aside as simple superstitions, but think about it this way: While many of the tales might seem ridiculous, to the people of Raja Ampat they are very, very real. For many the mysterious world of ghosts and spirits is just as present as the world we can see and feel every day.

Spirits & Witchcraft

North Raja Ampat

There are countless spirits and ghosts people in Raja Ampat believe in. This may be anything, from the souls of living things or ancestors, to the power of nature itself, in various forms and sizes, visible and invisible.

Further, many believe in Suangi — loosely translated some sort of witchers — who can have different powers. Anything from shapeshifting to flying and killing people with a simple look has been heard of.

Yet another example is the story of the dugongs, which are believed to be the descendants of a specific family. There is an endless number of fascinating stories and tales.

Simple Superstition?

Or is there more to it . . .

Every believe or religion will evolve to suit the people and the environment it's in.

Raja Ampat's people have an extraordinarily strong connection to nature. It makes sense believing in ghosts and spirits to describe the strange things that can happen in a world of intimidatingly dense jungles.

Our piece of advice: If locals tell you about their world of spirits it is a sign of trust — they are opening up to you. However critical you are, don't make fun of it, this would be rude. Take your time, be considerate and listen. Who knows, at the end of the day you might enjoy the myths just as much as we do.

Handicrafts

Rather Than Abstract Art

Artistic craftwork can be found all over the islands. From the dug-out boats to the stilt houses, handicraft is common among almost all locals. The skills are passed down from generation to generation.

Young boys start practicing their wood carving skills with the machete as soon as they can walk, while the girls can often be seen weaving Senat — a traditional mat. An artistic touch is usually applied to the traditional dresses, made from palm leaves or tree bark and body paint is common during ceremonial occasions.

Although abstract art is not traditionally widespread, there are some exceptions:

Ancient Caves

And The Art They Hide

Numerous sights with ancient rock paintings can be found scattered over the archipelago. A hotspot is Misool, with some caves covered in pictures of animals, people and even abstract concepts, like spirits.

Many of the artworks show remarkable similarity to Aboriginal paintings found in Australia. Since the primordial Melanesian inhabitants are closely related to Aborigines, it is not surprising to find resemblance in both, art and believe.

Music & Dance

Rather Than Abstract Art

Raja Ampat has various traditional songs and dances. For example, the “Bintaki” - a dance inspired by the fishermen’s movements - is one. Another one is the “Wor”, which was introduced by Biak people during their migration and traditionally is performed to greet visiting nobles.

The dominant instruments for traditional music are flutes and drums in various sizes. While both are still used for festivities, they have been replaced in everyday use. Nowadays guitar and ukulele are very popular among the people of Raja Ampat.