For centuries the many thousands of islands and mountainous terrain have separated groups of people in the Indonesian archipelago from each other. The result of this is huge variations in culture and languages across the nation. The exact number is not clear, but approximately 300 ethnic groups live here, which speak 365 languages and a large number of dialects.
Most people descend from Malay origin, spread into Indonesia during many thousand years. The darker Melanesians in East Indonesia (Irian Jaya) is the other major group. The many groups were not “Indonesian” before 1949, when the border around the archipelago was drawn, but despite all this diversity, Indonesia is surprisingly unified. Much because of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, which makes communication possible between the many groups. A majority of the inhabitants today identify themselves with their nation, flag and language.
A third group is the Chinese, which is a minority, but nevertheless have had a larger impact in the country than most other ethnic groups. In Indonesia the concept of ethnic minorities is often discussed not in numerical but in religious terms. Although the major ethnic groups claimed adherence to one of the major world religions (agama) recognized by the Pancasila ideology– Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism–there were millions of other Indonesians in the early 1980s who engaged in forms of religious or cultural practices that fell outside these categories. These practices were sometimes labeled animist or kafir (pagan). In general, these Indonesians tended to live in the more remote, sparsely populated islands of the archipelago. Following the massacre of tens of thousands associated with the 1965 coup attempt, religious affiliation became an even more intense political issue among minority groups.
Principal Ethnic Groups by Island, 1983
|Islands southwest of Sumatra|
|Central and Southern Sulawesi|
|Yotafa (Tobati)||Saberi (Isirawa)|
The major islands and island groups in this list are arranged geographically, generally from west to east. The category of Coastal Malays, which includes various groups listed in this table, are people found in northern and southern Sumatra, and the coast of Kalimantan. Ethnic Chinese are found in all major cities throughout Indonesia
Source: Based on information from Stephen A. Wurm and Shiro Hattori (eds.), Language Atlas of the Pacific Area, Canberra, 1981-83, 38-45; Frank M. LeBar (eds.), Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, New Haven, 1972-75, various pages; and Indonesia, Department of Education and Culture, Directorate of History and Traditional Values, Petu suku bangsa di Indonesia (Geographic Distribution of Ethnic Groups in Indonesia), Jakarta, 1991, various pages.
Library of Congress, Country Studies
Data as of November 1992