Accounts of Bonerate history and traditional culture are few, and interisland variation in this area is significant. We do, however, know that in the past a combination of trading, slaving, and piracy formed the base of the economy. There are strong indices pointing to the probability that the island was never able to feed a large population solely from domestic resources. Population pressures seem always to have been somewhat relieved by the customary period men spend at sea. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were reports of some export of deer antlers and hides. But approximately 30 years ago, dogs were introduced for hunting and the deer were driven into the sea; they are now extinct. Another economic enterprise that has ceased is the growing of cotton for spinning and weaving. As late as the beginning of this century textiles were being exported from Bonerate. Bonerate materials, however, could not compete with modern factory-made textiles from Java. Orang Bonerate have a long-standing tradition and reputation for being particularly skilled builders of the local type of prahu (sailship). In earlier times, Bonerate had a stratified society with sharply defined classes: kings, queens, and their descendants; nobility; commoners; and slaves. Today, this social division is of almost no importance in everyday interaction.
For centuries and up to the present men from the South Sulawesi mainland, especially of Bugis affiliation, Butung, and Flores have settled and married at Bonerate. Immigrant men far outnumber immigrant women. The cultural impact of these relations can be observed both in ritual and everyday village life. Orang Bonerate have close, ancient, and lasting relations with Bajau people (also known as sea nomads). In earlier times this interaction may have had the character of a symbiotic relationship. At the present the relationship would more correctly be described as an ecologically based cooperation in which Bajau fetch water at Bonerate and barter fish and other sea products for cultivars grown on Bonerate.