According to myth, the first Minangkabau came from the volcanic peak Marapi. In one version, the founders arrived during an immense flood, when the part of the peak above water was no larger than an egg. In another, the founders emerged directly from the crater. Their descendants spread first into the three core areas ( luhak ) in the highlands, and then into the periphery (rantau) of the homeland.
This homeland is bordered by the Batak homeland to the north, the Malay homelands of Riau and Jambi to the east, the Kerintji homeland to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the west. From the thirteenth century onward the Acehnese, whose homeland lies north of that of the Batak, were the dominant sea traders along the west coast of Sumatra. They were a major source of Islamic influence on Minangkabau culture. Minangkabau trade also extended eastward to the Malay-dominated Strait of Malacca. A series of fifth-to-sixteenth century Malay and Javanese trading empires (Melayu, Sri vijaya, Majapahit, and Malacca) strongly influenced the development of Minangkabau society and culture. These empires provided the economic context of Minangkabau emigration, and they provided the cultural inspiration for royal institutions at Pagarruyong, the seat of the Minangkabau king.
According to myth, the first king (Maharajo Dirajo) was a son of Iskandar Zulkarnain (Alexander the Great). Traditional history indicates that a Javanese prince or aristocrat named Adityavarman became the first king, but perhaps as late as the fifteenth century.
Tome Pires of Portugal was, in the sixteenth century, among the first western European travelers to mention the Minangkabau. During the seventeenth century the Dutch traded for gold and black pepper in native ports along the Minangkabau coast. The Dutch East India Company contracted with local rulers for a trade monopoly. By 1641, with the capture of Melaka town, the Dutch dominated much of the trade on the eastern coast of Sumatra as well. Nonetheless, the economy and social structure of Minangkabau society did not change significantly until the nineteenth century, after the Dutch colonial government replaced the Dutch East India Company. The Paderi Wars, a factor spurring development of administrative complexity, began early in the nineteenth century as a local expression of the Wahabi fundamentalist movement in Islam. Initially, the conflict was a Minangkabau affair between adat traditionalists and Islamic fundamentalists; but it developed into an anti-Dutch war, which prompted the development of more comprehensive colonial administration.
Colonial government modified native political structure by defining a new, more elaborate hierarchy of administrative districts and leadership positions, and by adhering strictly to inheritance of offices and ignoring traditional ancillary concerns regarding the size and prosperity of rival kin groups. New civil-service positions and schools that provided the necessary Western education for gaining these positions were opened to the Minangkabau. This produced a new type of Minangkabau elite. Broad economic changes also occurred, beginning in 1847 with the forced delivery of crops for export associated with the development of coffee plantations in the highlands, but changing at the beginning of the twentieth century to rapid expansion of commercial agriculture.