Principal Ethnic Groups of Indonesia

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.

West Sumatra, Padang. Air manis outside Padang. A fisherman proudly presents some of the days catch, which he caught on the reef at low tide. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)
West Sumatra, Padang. Air manis outside Padang. A fisherman proudly presents some of the days catch, which he caught on the reef at low tide. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

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

Northern Sumatra
Acehnese Angkola Batak Dairi Gayo Karo
Kluet Alas Mandailing Pak-pak Simlungen Singkil Toba
Central Sumatra
Kerinci Melayu Minangkabau Rejang
Southern Sumatra
Javanese Komering Lampung
Islands southwest of Sumatra
Simeulue Nias Mentawai Enggano
Java
Javanese Sundanese
Madura
Madurese
Bali
Balinese
Nusa Tenggara
Alor Abui Kabola Kafoa Kelon Kui
Woisika Babar Flores Ende-Li’o Kedang Lamaholot
Manggarai Ngada Palu’e Riung Sikka Leti
Lombok Balinese Sasak Pantar Blagar Lama
Nedebang Tewa Roti Sawu Sumba Anakalang
Kambera Kodi Laboya Mamboru Wanukaka Weyewa
Bima Sumbawa Timor Atoni Galoli Kemak
Makasai Mambai Tetum Tukudede
Northeastern Kalimantan
Apokayan Bajau Dusun Kenyah Modang Murut
Punan Tidung
Central Kalimantan
Bakumpai Biatah Bukar Sadong Dohoi Iban Jagoi
Kahayan Kapuas(Ngaju) Katingan Kendayan Lara’ Maanyan
Mbaloh Melanau Merau Ot Danum Siang Silakau
Singgie Tunjung
Southern Kalimantan
Ancalong Banjar Dayak Kutai Lawangan Melayu
Meratus(Bukit) Ngaju Dayak Pasir Tenggarong
Northern Sulawesi
Bintauna Bola’ang Mongondow Gorontalo Kaidipang Minahasa Mongondow
Tombulu Tondano Tonsawang Tonsea Tontemboan
Central and Southern Sulawesi
Bada Balantak Balesan Bugis Bungku Dompelasa
Dondo Kaili Kasimbar Mamuju Mandar Mori
Pamona(Bare’e) Saluan Sama Tolitoli Tomini Toraja
Maluku Islands
Ambonese Aru Kola Ujir Wokam Bandanese
Biak Buru Halmahera Galela Kalabra Loloda
Modole Pagu Sahu Tehit Tobaru Tobelo
Kai Makian Seram Alune Geser Hitu
Manusela Nuaulu Sepa-Teluti Watubela Wemale Sula
Taliabo Tanimbar Ternate Tidore
Irian Jaya
Asmat Boazi Dani Dumut Ekagi Kemtuk
Kilmeri Kwerba Marind Mekwei-Gresi-Kansu Mianmin Moni
Ngali Nimboran Ok Papasena Sempan Wodani
Sentani Taikat Tanamerah Tor Uhunduni Waris
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.

Data as of November 1992

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Bjørn Grøtting

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Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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