The past inside the present: A glimpse into the deep history of Waigeo by Laura Arnold

The Raja Ampat archipelago 

Today’s blog post is written by Laura Arnold, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a recipient of an FEL Grant in 2017.  

Waigeo is the northernmost island in the beautiful Raja Ampat archipelago, just off the Bird’s Head of New Guinea. Nowadays famous as a diving hotspot, the archipelago has long been a place of movement and contact between different population groups, lying as it does at the crossroads between insular Southeast Asia to the west, and Melanesia to the east. Today, Raja Ampat is home to several tribes, including the Maˈya, the Matbat, the Ambel, and the Biak. I’ve just finished a project documenting the language of the Ambel  –the Foundation for Endangered Languages  funded the printing of a trilingual dictionary (Ambel-Indonesian-English), based on material in the documentary corpus, for presentation to the Ambel community. My primary aims in recording the corpus were to collect linguistic data in order to analyse Ambel; and to create a permanent record of the language, should it become extinct. However, in this post I’ll show that the cultural information and oral history contained in the corpus provide important details that allow us to draw back the proverbial curtain, and peer into the deep history of Raja Ampat, specifically Waigeo. There’s nothing concrete – but there are lots of tantalising glimpses.

Me with Bapak Martinus Wakaf (my main Ambel teacher) and his family

According to tradition, the Biak migrated to Raja Ampat around 500 years ago, from Cenderawasih Bay on the other side of the Bird’s Head. The other tribes, however, have been around for much longer. But not forever – at least, not in their current form. All of the languages spoken in Raja Ampat today belong to the Austronesian language family, the second largest language family in the world by number of languages. The Austronesian homeland is thought to have been Taiwan; Austronesian speakers began migrating from Taiwan through the Philippines and insular Southeast Asia some 5,000 years ago, eventually settling as far afield as Madagascar in the west, and Easter Island in the east.

Austronesian speakers first turned up in Raja Ampat around 3,500 years ago. When they arrived, they came into contact with whoever was already living in the archipelago – speakers of so-called ‘Papuan’ languages, a term used to refer to the non-Austronesian languages spoken on and around New Guinea. New Guinea was first colonised by humans at least 45,000 years ago, if not earlier – some of the Papuan languages spoken in the region today are perhaps descendants of the languages spoken by the original migrants. Papuan languages are incredibly heterogenous: today, there are over 800 languages belonging to around 60 distinct language families, with many isolates.

No Papuan languages, however, are spoken in Raja Ampat today. But evidence shows that there once were – and that, over time, the Papuans shifted to use the language of the Austronesian incomers. This evidence comes in the form of features found in the present-day languages of Raja Ampat that are more typical of Papuan than of Austronesian languages – remnants of the original languages of the archipelago that were transplanted into the Austronesian languages when the Papuans switched from their own language to another. One example of this is the presence of tone in Maˈya, Matbat, and Ambel – the use of pitch to distinguish different words. For example, in Ambel, there’s a contrast between the following two words (accents are used to mark syllables with High tone):

yun, meaning ‘I know’, which has rising pitch; and

yún ‘I pick [something] up’, which has falling pitch.

Tone is very rare in Austronesian languages, but fairly common in Papuan languages – so the presence of tone in the languages of Raja Ampat is thought to have been caused by contact with a now-extinct Papuan substrate. This linguistic evidence suggests that contact between the Austronesians and Papuans in Raja Ampat was generally stable, involving intermarriage between the groups, and lasted for a long time – long enough, at least, for a feature such as tone to be integrated into Maˈya, Matbat, and Ambel.

Besides the linguistic evidence, the Ambel corpus contains many other clues about the identity and culture of the pre-Austronesian groups of Waigeo, as well as the relationship between the Austronesian incomers and the Papuan residents. This is what I’ll be talking about for the rest of the post.

Apelina Awom and others, on the way to the recording of the Bintaki ritual

Two of the most exciting recordings in the Ambel corpus are of a reenactment of the Bintaki ritual , and a dance and song associated with the ritual. The Bintaki is a traditional fish-poisoning ritual, performed in the Ambel settlement of Darumbab on the north coast of Waigeo. There hasn’t been an ‘authentic’ performance of the Bintaki for several decades, and the elements of the ritual are nowadays remembered only by a single man, Alec Sosir. During my time with the Ambel, I was lucky enough for Alec to arrange a stylised performance of the ritual, so that I could record it.

In an authentic Bintaki performance, the male participants spend the whole night pounding the bark of a bintakí tree, an icthyotoxin, into a river. One of the chief participants is the bintaya, who is symbolically married to the bintakí tree during the ritual. While the men mash the bark into the water, they sing a song – ayo bintaki, kiyaaa yeee, ayo bintaya, yaaa… The women and children of the village are not allowed near the river while the men are pounding and singing, as it’s believed their presence will disrupt the ritual, and the fish will not die. At the break of dawn, a conch shell bugle sounds to signify the end of the ritual, and the bintaya beats the river with a branch from the bintakí tree. At this point, the women and children come to join the men at the river, to help collect the stunned fish. The fish are taken back to the village, and a big feast is held.

The Bintaki ritual (Alec Sosir holds the drum on the left)

There are many differences between an ‘authentic’ version of the ritual, and the one I was able to record – for example, the recorded ritual doesn’t last all night, as an authentic one would (more like ten minutes in the middle of the day); both men and women are participants; and no fish were actually killed in the recording. However, despite these differences, there are a couple of clues from the recording that point to an ancient origin of the Bintaki.

The first clue comes from the mythological history of the ritual. According to oral tradition, the Ambel only learnt the Bintaki several generations ago. Two Ambel men were out in the forest one night, going about their business, and happened across a group of evil kábyo spirits. These kábyo were doing something very strange: beating a drum and singing a song, standing on a platform over the river and thrashing the water with long sticks. The men stopped and watched the spirits all night long. In the morning, they saw that the fish in the river were dazed, and that the kábyo could pick them up effortlessly. The men returned to their village, and told everyone what they had seen. They had memorised the song that the kábyo were singing, and taught it to the other Ambel.

The Bintaki dance

Which brings us to the second clue: the words of the Bintaki song. The origin and meaning of this song is obscure. Some words are found in present-day Ambel (for example, koránu, an archaic word for ‘king’ or ‘ruler’), but most are not. Alec was able to give the gist of what some of the lines mean (the first lines, for instance, salute the bintakí tree, the bintaya, and the ritual equipment) – but for the others, even he does not know. It’s my suspicion that the kábyo that the Ambel men watched were actually a pre-Austronesian population group, and that the song that the Ambel men learnt was sung in a Papuan language, spoken by the earlier inhabitants of Waigeo. The hunt is currently on to see if there are any similarities between the words in the Bintaki song, and any of the Papuan languages spoken nearby – if there were, this might help us to identify some of the pre-Austronesian inhabitants of Waigeo.

The kábyo in fact turn up in many other Ambel myths and folktales. Several of the narratives in the corpus tell stories about the interactions  between humans and the kábyo , and they play an important role in some of the clan histories (for example, in the history of the dispersal of the Kein clan). While they are spirits, the kábyo only ever manifest in human form in these narratives: typically, they take the shape of one of the Ambel villagers, and then lure other people away from the village in order to kill and eat them. If these stories of the kábyo really are memories of an earlier population group on Waigeo, this suggests that they were aggressive, and possibly cannibalistic – and that relations between the Ambel and the kábyo group were antagonistic, at least some of the time.

Matius Kein tells the history of the Kein clan

Another curious hint about the pre-Austronesian inhabitants of Waigeo comes in the form of the stories one occasionally hears about the ‘little black people’ who are said to live in the interior of the island, the orang gi (‘Gi People’ in the local variety of Malay – the gi element is probably related to the Ambel word for betel nut, gíy). The orang gi are the subject of much discussion in Thomas Schultze-Wistrum’s 2003 documentary Waigeo: Insel der Magier (currently available on YouTube in German; a French version was also made), which focusses on the syncretism between Christian and pre-Christian beliefs in Lupintol, a nearby Maˈya village on Waigeo. In this documentary, the orang gi are said to be a group of spirit-like people who live in the interior of Waigeo. When quizzed, most of the Ambel I asked said that the orang gi were the stuff of fairy tales. Others, however, claimed to know people who had seen the orang gi. The accounts of the orang gi are all similar: they are said to be very short, with very dark skin.

Again, while there is no direct evidence, I suspect that the stories of these orang gi refer to a now-disappeared population group who once lived on Waigeo. The orang gi appear to have been distinct from the group remembered as the kábyo – both in terms of their physical characteristics (recall that, in stories of the kábyo, they are often said to manifest as Ambel villagers, suggesting they are quite similar physicaly to the Ambel themselves); and their shadowy and shy, rather than aggressive temperament. In fact, the physical characteristics described for the orang gi are reminiscent of the Negrito populations found throughout South and Southeast Asia – for example, the Semang of Malaysia  and the Aeta of the Philippines. Could the stories of the orang gi have developed from reminiscences about a now-extinct Negrito group on Waigeo?

Individually, these speculations don’t amount to much. But taken together, they suggest interesting future avenues for research. Note, for example, how the linguistic and the cultural data don’t quite match up – while the linguistic data suggest that contact between the Austronesians and Papuans was friendly, the stories about the kábyo eating human flesh suggest a more antagonistic relationship. Future work may shed some more light on some of the speculations discussed here – in particular, a proposed archaeological project involving Dr Daud Tanudirjo from Universitas Gadjah Mada might turn up something more concrete. Research looking at the population genetics of the archipelago would also be very welcome, to determine the extent to which the Austronesians and Papuans intermarried. For the time being, however, the information I’ve talked about here shows how important it is for a documentation to include as much cultural detail as possible. Without the information contained in the Ambel corpus, at this stage we couldn’t begin to make even these tentative speculations. Ayo bintaki, kiyaaa yeee…

Laura would like to thank Dylan Gaffney for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.