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The Mentawai

The last indigenous people of Indonesia

Status symbol for life and beyond

The traditional Mentawai wear hardly any clothes; a simple loincloth is enough. They are by no means naked, however, because their bodies are generously adorned with tattoos. Fine black lines on their hands, legs, arms, chests and backs, as well as symbols from the surrounding plant world illustrate the character and bravery of these men and women. Even after death, when, according to their beliefs, they go on to live elsewhere.


“The spirits are among us, good and evil. The shamans help us to live in peace with them.”


The Mentawai settled about 4,000 years ago on islands bearing the same name to the West of Sumatra. There are about 65,000 people in this ethnic group, but only about a thousand of them live as semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers in the midst of tropical forests. Women and men have different tasks within the family system and the loose village community, but equal positions; hierarchies or class differences are unknown to the Mentawai. They have always had to defend their habitat and their traditional way of life with its animistic natural religion. They have had to defend themselves against various attempts at missionary work, the brutal Indonesian settlement policy, the overexploitation of nature and Islamist tendencies. The prohibition of their culture in 1950 and massive deforestation of the coastal mangrove forests of the islands over the last few decades has driven the traditional Mentawai deeper and deeper into the rainforests, where they entrench themselves in order to preserve their culture and live according to their beliefs: in harmony with nature.

Entering the rainforest

From Padang we reach Siberut, the largest of the seventy Mentawai islands, after a five-hour boat trip. The last ice age separated the archipelago from Sumatra and created a natural paradise of rainforests and mangroves. We settle into a lodge; with the foundation of the national park, the heavy deforestation of the island was stopped and the focus shifted to tourism. It’s mainly surfing tourists who come here and spend their days on the open sea.

A life determined by nature

Our journey continues into the river by traditional longboat. The rainforest reveals itself in every shade of green and a thousand strange sounds. Our guide Onzi brings us to his relatives. It’s a three-hour walk through the humid forests. Anyone who slides off the narrow wooden walkways ends up standing knee-high in mud. We, too, had the chance to experience this. Our path is lined by thorny rattan trees. It isn’t a good idea to try to grab ahold of them, jokes our guide, who walks effortlessly along the walkways. Onzi’s uncle and aunt live cut off from the next settlement in the middle of the jungle. Their traditional longhouse, called an uma, is built on stilts. Below it, they keep pigs and chickens which not only end up in a cooking pot but are also often ritually sacrificed. We are welcomed curiously and warmly, and before long we are eating roasted sago, the Mentawai’s staple food extracted from the sago palm. There is meat when the men kill something on the hunt or slaughter one of their animals. The women are responsible for collecting fruit and plants as well as fish, shellfish and crabs, which they look for in the many small brackish waters equipped with nets and a large bamboo shoot, which they carry on their backs to transport their catch.

Heavens full of monkey skulls

We are far from running water or electricity, but two large cloths hanging from the ceiling of the longhouse form our “rooms”. Our lodging is guarded by countless monkey skulls dangling from the beams of the structure. The day begins as it has ended: smoking is the first activity. We rarely meet Mentawais without a cigarette. With the cock’s crow the place comes alive, the fire is lit, the dough for the sago bread is kneaded, beaten, filled into bamboo canes and roasted. We have breakfast and below us the pigs grunt. While Onzi tells us about his father, a respected shaman, our host prepares his poison arrows. In the past they were also used to shoot at people during feuds, but nowadays they are only used for hunting.

Animism and its spirituality play a leading role in the way the natives still organize their lives and in which Mother Earth is worshipped as the source of all life. The Mentawai see the surrounding forests as the source of all their energy and the home of their gods, whom they worship through many different ceremonies.

Body adornments and badges of honor

Their tattoos are to be seen as symbols from nature and as adornments that they proudly etch into their skin. From the age of about eleven, heroic deeds and successfully completed tasks are gradually recorded on the bodies of men and women. These are codes that can be interpreted by one another. They provide information about people: their family status, hunting skills and other talents are symbolized in the tattoos. In the past, the Mentawai also filed their teeth to a point. The painful tattooing takes place during small rituals in which, traditionally, the tinted thorn of a lemon tree branch, bone splinters or sharpened pieces of bark are used to hammer the natural ink of sugar cane and soot into the skin with fast rhythmic movements. To care for the small wounds and ensure that the tattoos look their best and indeed stay in the skin forever, healing herbs are regularly applied to them. Tattoos were once the trademark of the Mentawai, whereas nowadays only the elderly bear this body adornment, as they have repeatedly been persecuted and arrested for their “primitive culture”.

Behind the scenes

maria haas - projects - The Mentawai