Indonesia is essentially an equatorial country that stretches from 11° S to 4° N,a location that gives its climate a certain unity. It is a very large country, spanning from west to east more than 4,800 kilometers between 95° E and 141° E. Of its myriad islands at least 6,000 are inhabited by people we call "Indonesians." They have also been called "Maylay Islanders," "Malaysians," or "East Indians." The term "Indonesian" was invented by James Richardson Logan in his study The Languages and Ethnology of the Indian Archipelago (1857).

Although this name is applied today to any of the 195,300,000 citizens of the Indonesian nation-state (1992 estimate) and not to any one culture, there is a certain unity to the Indonesian people, which can be recognized in physical features, language, economy, and religion. (What follows, on the other hand, hardly applies to the approximately 1,600,000 Papuans on the half-island of Irian Jaya, also called Irian Barat or western New Guinea. These people, being Melanesiane, were more appropriately covered under various headings in volume 2, Oceania. See also the article on Irianese .)

Indonesians are typically short in stature (males being in the range of 1.5-1.6 meters), with wavy black hair and medium-brown complexion. As their location at the southeastern tip of Asia suggests, the present population must represent an earlier mingling of southern Mongols, Proto-Malays, Polynesians, and, in some areas, Arabs, Indians, or Chinese. All speak languages related to Malay (i.e., the Austronesian Family), except in New Guinea and the northern half of Halmahera. The economy of most Indonesian cultures is based on intensive cultivation of irrigated rice, although for many communities plantation crops or trade are also very important pursuits. Some 87 percent of Indonesians are Sunni Muslims, a widespread religious adherence that presents another unifying factor. About 9 percent are Christians, and there are some Hindus (mainly Balinese) and Buddhists (mainly some 3 million Chinese).

Indonesia has had a long history of colonial contact. After some early intercourse with the Portuguese, Spanish, and English, the entire area of Indonesia fell under Dutch colonial rule from 1627 to 1942. Throughout this very long period the Dutch were interested primarily in developing commerce and plantation crops, and did relatively little to modernize society or propagate Christianity. The Japanese invasion in 1942 ultimately led to national independence in 1949. Up to that time the country had variously been known in the literature as the Netherlands Indies, Dutch East India, the Malay Archipelago, Malaysia, or the East Indies (also Hinterindien, Insulinde, Malaiischer Archipel, or Niederländisch-Ostindien in German; Nederlandsch-Indië or Tropischen Holland in Dutch); the name "Indonesia" was favored by anthropological writers because it paralleled the names given the neighboring culture areas of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia.

The small adjoining islands of Java, Madura, and Bali, which together make up barely 7 percent of Indonesia's land area, are disproportionately prominent in the country, both politically and economically, because together they are home to more than 63 percent of the total national population, contain the national capital and the most intensive area of rice production, and are the center of the modern tourist industry.

One might very loosely categorize the cultures of Indonesia under three headings: Hinduized societies practicing rice cultivation, Islamized mercantile cultures on some coasts, and remote tribal groups that engage in a variety of economic activities. (For further details, see the to this volume.)

Several dozen distinct Indonesian cultures are discussed in separate articles in this volume. A total enumeration of such cultures would probably exceed 300, depending on the ethnolinguistic criteria employed.

See also Balinese ; Javanese ; Madurese


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