Mentawai island is one line with Nias and located further South, near West Sumatra, and reside Pagai, Sipora, and Siberut islands. Physically they are the same as Nias people, and speak a variation of Melayu-Polinesian language. Since the location of the islands is aside from the sea traffic, actually until today the development is not significant yet. They have already learnt Christian by missionaries since 18th centuries, so until now almost 98% of them are Christian and Catholic. This culture is interesting for anthropologist to explore the simple life where nature still regulates their everyday life.

The oldest record about Mentawai population was made in 1796 recorded 11.090, in 1930 recorded 17.900 and 1966 recorded 20.000. The Mentawai consist of 4 main islands, the Siberut, Sipora, Pagai Utara and Pagai Selatan. Mentawai islands are covered by dense forest with mountain in the middle of the islands stretches from north to south as it all islands are connected. Record until 1980 still found all island had premier forest even up to the beach. All beaches covered by dense coconut trees, and no one of the village was visible from the sea or from the air. All villages are located near the river’s estuary, yet still 5kms deep in;and from the beach. Each village has an average of 150 people, while at Pagai Utara and Siberut islands can be found a village with 500 residents.


They live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the coastal and rainforest environments of the islands. The main clothing for men is a loincloth and they are adorned with necklaces and flowers in their hair and ears. Women wear the same thing except they wear a piece of cloth wound around the waist. Women wear small sleeveless vests and they sharpen their teeth with a chisel for aesthetic reasons to make their teeth look like a shark’s. Tattooing is done with a needle and wood, which is hammered on the needle. Men hunt wild pigs, deer, and primates. Women and children gather wild yams and other wild food. Women hunt small animals. The Mentawai keep pigs, dogs, monkeys, and sometimes chickens as pets.

In the past a village was consist of one big house built on stilt and enclosed by small houses as the house of families, which were also on stilt. On the surrounding of the village was cultivated their fruits trees. They also cultivated land under big trees in the forest. The big house called Uma with the size 25 x 10 meters on strong poles 1,5m high including in all house total height can reach 10m. To reach the room is used wooden steps directly contact to from and side terrace. The terrace enclosed all Uma. The door from front area bring one to wide room with gallery to the back on which sides are smaller rooms for sleeping. Front room is considered a holy place. The function of Uma as until today still can be found is the place for organizing traditional ritual for the numbers whom still have blood relation, and at the front room are preserved various valuable traditional heirs, in anthropology known as fetish. Some materials are considered as charms beside also arms and human skeletons. This front room is also used by guest who need to overnight during their trip. According to the record this type of house with its original function has started to disappeared during 1920, especially in Pagai Selatan island, yet the Uma can still be seen in some villages, and functioned only as meeting places, school, and also ever as church. The former smaller stilt houses also become more and more disappeared or only used as meeting places. It is lucky that some of these houses can still be seen until today.


The main subsistence of the Mentawai is simple farming be clearing the land from small and medium trees, burn the cut plantation for fertilizer. The main cultivation is yam (Colocasea esculenta), Taro (dioscoren Alata), rice, banana, papaya, sugar cane, vegetable, and medicaments. The Mentawai introduces rice since around 1930s, quiet in contrary with the rest of Asian ethnics who have been cultivating rice since farming revolution. Clearing the land is the assignment of men, while for the treatment of growing is taken over by women. The exclusive work done by men is hunting of pigs, deer, birds, monkey and others using bows. It is know that before Christian religious reaching the island, youths and girls of 16-20 years among members of Uma, this ritual called Rimata. Rimata was also the 4 persons who was respected as the leader who take care of family heirs, and various social activities of an Uma. When a Mentawai is dead all his heritages were divided among his children, but if her did not have child it will be distributed for his brothers and sisters. For the women when she got married with a man and bring her children from her previous marriage, these children would not got the heritage, as they would be given by their father or mother which during the marriage was separated from husband’s wealth.

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Record in 1966 mentioned that 55% Christian, 34% Catholic and 11% Moslem. Although foreign religions have been accepted in Mentawai, yet original concept of ritual is continued, until now. The Mentawai has the concept of life and after here. The spirit that bring human to alife is called “Simagere”. When human being is dead his/her spirit left the body and live around human place. This spirit is called “Sabulungan”, The spirit that make human being to be strong and powerful is called “Kere”, while the spirit that protect houses called “Kira”, Evil spirits that can trouble human being is called “Sanitu”. The Mentawai also introduce magician who was consulted for medicament called “Sikeree”.

The basic concept of Sikerei is almost the same as other ethnics of the world, that using the stranger’s soul as the cause of the disease or assumption that the patient has offended their fasting had been intimate relation, beside also girls had been in intimate relation with her youth in her village. Sometimes a girl gives birth a child without formal marriage, which then the child will be cared by her parents. A formal marriage would then be reached if the couple advised their wish to their parents. In addition, friends, and neighbor will be informed of the marriage. It was not recorded, that following a marriage if was a special ritual or traditional ceremony such as in Nias. When a couple has reached their 40s, usually the husbands build a new house to upgrade his status in the society. With his new status, he then becomes a busy man to fulfill traditional activities in the village, doing very strict fasting season, which is called “Punen”. The fasting limited man in meals, economic activities, and intimate relation. With his new status he would also add more burden to take care of his sons, daughters and even grandchildren. His new house would be completed with charms, relics, and other family heirs. In Mentawai word, this new status of a family was called to have been reaching “Lalep”. Where a husband was respected by their society.

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When Christianity reached the island, changes happened and the meaning of “Penen” becomes holiday. On Siberut island until today can still be seen a ritual of initiation for children or members between 12-15 years to become full member of the Uma. This will bring the equal right and obligation for the members that got initiation ceremony. Normally the feast is big followed by skin tattoo age the leader of.

On 25 October 2010 a massive 7.2 Richter scale quake devastated the lowland of Mentawai islands namely North Pagai island, Sipora and South Pagai island. The quake triggered a 12 meters high tsunami swept some villages left only land, damaged 25.426 houses, flattened six hamlets and forced 4,500 residents to evacuate to temporary shelters, according to report until 1 November 2010 300 people died and about 100 more were missing. The quake happened at 21.00 when all people at home and some might sleep already. The tsunami came only 10 minutes after the quake. The disaster is only 1 year after the massive quake strict West Sumatra killing 1000 persons in 30 September 2009, deadly quake and tsunami of Aceh in 26 December 2004, and Nias lethal quake in 28 March 2005 killing more than 8.000 people.

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Social Structure


Mentawai people are patrilineal and social life in a tribe called ‘uma’. Traditional social structures are together, they lived in a big long house called the ‘uma’ in the tribal lands. All food, forest products, and jobs are divided into a uma.

Patrilineal groups consisted of families who live in narrow places along the great rivers. Although there has been a marriage relationship between uma groups living in the same river valley, but the political units have never formed because of this incident.

The social structure was also to be egalitarian, that each member has grown in uma same position except “sikerei” (or shaman), which has precedence because it can cure disease and lead religious ceremonies.


Uma traditionally has the highest authority in Siberut. During the New Order regime uma function of social organization to function but less so since the reform era uma begin again encouraged by the formation of several Village Traditional Council. Since regional autonomy planned rolling lowest government unit “laggai”.


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Traditional Culture


According to traditional religion Mentawai (Arat Sabulungan) all living things and everything in nature has a spirit or soul (simagre). Spirit can separate from the body and roaming freely. If the harmony between spirit and body are not maintained, then the spirit will leave and can cause disease. The concept of trust is valid in the daily life of people everyday activities that are inconsistent with customary and beliefs it can disrupt the balance and harmony of spirit in nature.

Religious ceremony known as punen, puliaijat or lia should be done in conjunction with human activities so as to reduce interference. The ceremony was led by the sikerei who can communicate with the spirit and souls are not visible to ordinary people. Spirit beings who are still living and the dead will be given a presentation that provided by many members of the tribe. Custom house (uma) decorated, pork is served and held dances (turuk) to please the spirit so that they will restore harmony. During the events are held, then the system is taboo or tabu (kekei) must be running and there were various restrictions on various daily activities.

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Traditional beliefs and taboos in particular that is the social control of people and regulate forest use are wise and prudent in thousands of years. However, now these cultures fade away. The population grew rapidly and natural resources are exploited without regard to the traditional rules that affect the decline in carrying capacity of the environment, which was a focus for the life of the Mentawai people.

In doing hunting, making canoes, penetrated / open land to farm or build a uma ririskiky then usually performed jointly by all members of the uma and the division of labor is divided over the sexes. Each family in a uma bring food (chicken, sago, etc.) which is then collected and eaten together by all members of the uma after completed the activity / ceremony.

Food staples of the Siberut are sago (Metroxylon sago), banana, and taro. Other foods such as fruits, honey, and mixed mushrooms from the forest or planted in the fields. Protein sources such as deer, monkeys and birds obtained by using the arrows to hunt and fish fished from pond or river.

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After a Mentawaian dies, the family will show tribute by carving the shape of their foot into a durian tree. The Sikeri believe that if someone were to break off the bark of the foot and bring it to the relatives’ house, that will certainly die. It is a great shame for an enemy to spoil the grave.

4 responses to “THE MENTAWAI PEOPLE

  1. Thank you for the article – very well written and comprehensive to help me understand more about cultural diversity in Indonesia. I usually read about Indonesian cultures in – maybe you’ll like it too 🙂 thanks!


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