An Indonesian tribe living in total isolation from the world
West Sumatra, Indonesia.
In the heart of the Siberut rainforest, the largest island of the four municipalities belonging to the archipelago of the Mentawai islands, there is one of the oldest and best-preserved indigenous cultures in the world.
White beaches, sea waves worthy of being ridden by the most experienced surfers and above all a rich range of biodiversity that has given the island the title of UNESCO biosphere reserve.
The archipelago broke away from the rest of Sumatra some 500,000 years ago and it was only around 1930 that the Mentawai indigenous population was discovered. The remote location has not allowed the immense flow of modernity and external influences that are increasing daily, especially within the oldest local populations.
Mentawai, according to the most expert anthropologists, are classified as Proto-Malaysians, the southern people who, along with a series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BC, settled in Malaysia and Indonesia. Maritime and fishing experts and with great agricultural skills, they still continue to proudly preserve their roots. In fact, they respect their traditional practices, they live without any type of contact between them and with a very strong spiritual and earthly relationship with the forest, with a belief system that connects harmony with everything around them.
A very important element that accentuates their connection with nature is the tattoo. The art of the titi (drawings) was inherited from the ancestors and is a real autobiography. Tattoos are a very important symbol in Mentawai culture; members begin tattooing from childhood and continue throughout their lives. They have multiple meanings but on the whole, the titi tend to reflect: the maturity and the state of consciousness of the person, the clan to which one belongs, to indicate to the adversaries to be strong warriors or in other cases, especially in those concerning shamans, they serve to invoke the protection of the spirits of nature.
Having this strong natural connection, they live in small settlements scattered along the coasts or directly on the main rivers that branch off throughout the equatorial forest. They leave the villages to move to smaller houses that are located in remote areas, where only they manage to find their way, among improvised paths in muddy mud and sago trunks fallen here and there.
They live in Uma or single-family homes. They are the center of social life and every member of the village is able to contribute to meetings on issues that may affect the community. The houses are real wooden and bamboo stilts with palm roofs that host the whole family and neighboring clans, composed of between 30 and 80 members, on the large veranda. The Mentawai, having no comfort whatsoever, use all that nature gives them, reaching zero and eco-sustainable impact. The trunks are carved with the machete so that they can serve as stairs to access the Uma or to go down the banks of the river, a meeting point where they can wash, play and use that same water for the daily common uses that “ordinary” life provides.
Another curious aspect is that when they pass from youth to adulthood, Mentawai begin to ignore their age. They are neither aware of the weather nor do they care because they do not feel the need for it. When you can face life and all the aspects that distinguish it then you are an adult instead when the body begins to show suffering, disease, and weakness it is a symptom of the onset of old age. Mentawai believe that health, in fact, depends on the harmony we have with ourselves and with the nature around us. Illness is a total or partial loss of one’s soul caused by angering a spirit. As for death, however, when one of them dies, they imprint the footprints of the deceased on the wall of the house, reminding the family which members have passed away.
Having not undergone religious influences from Buddhism, Christianity or Islamism, they follow Animism. Shamans chase away and invoke spirits using only forest plants, plants with mystical properties; in fact, they must know all types of plants, all their properties in order to exploit their spiritual and medicinal charge in such a way as to act as a link with the Hereafter and with the spirits.
While mixing different toxic plants they invoke the spirits of the forest through ceremonies: the killing of an animal is always preceded by the request for permission to the spirit itself, whose skulls and pens after being consumed are hung on the roofs of the huts so that the spirit remains to protect the home. For some ceremonies, shamans hunt monkeys but not gibbons, considered sacred, precious and untouchable. Shamans claim that their screams indicate areas where the spirits of other men dwell and the scream is synonymous with a warning. To maintain the state of happiness of the spirits, shamans must follow a series of behavioral codes from which they cannot escape; for example, before a hunting trip, men cannot sleep or bathe and only have to eat fruit because otherwise, they would lose energy and ability.
They follow the principle of taking only the bare essentials to survive from the forest since the forest satisfies all their needs. In the jungle, they breed pigs and chickens especially near the village and in the marshy areas. Depending on the season, they also collect a lot of fruit including bananas, tapioca, rambutan, and durians; especially the latter, present for most of the year, are collected in large quantities and shared among the members of the village.
The hunting of animals is reserved for men while the fishing for women, the fruit picking instead attracts everyone. The Mentawai climb trees that can reach 50 meters in height, carving cracks in the trunks with the machete and then with the help of a bamboo stick they drop all the durians on the ground and then collect them later.
Furthermore, they do not grow rice but other plants compatible with the muddy soil that distinguishes the surroundings of their homes: the Sago, their main food, is a starch extracted from the marrow of the palm.
Since the forest gives them everything they need, they don’t eat a lot of game so when it comes to killing an animal, shamans respect it: if you respect an animal like any living being, especially during a transition, adorning it with flowers and leaves, washing it with water and stroking it, the animal will not feel pain, will have a peaceful death without problems and all negativity will be chased away. The soul (ket sat), of any living and non-living being, is an entity that must be treated well. If not, the soul is encouraged to roam freely around the body.
Lauru, or the membrane that covers the chicken intestine, has powerful divining meanings for them: through the branches of the veins, you can see the future. From the impending climate change to the right time to go hunting or even the conditions of the access “roads” that go from one house to another.
Another element that derives from nature are traditional clothes such as sarong for women (from banana leaves) and baiko for men (from the baiko tree). Together with the necklaces, the colored bracelets and the tropical flowers in their hair, they are clear distinctive elements of the Mentawai culture.
Despite countless attempts by the government, especially in recent decades, to introduce them into society and therefore, in controlled and modern villages, snatching them from their indigenous life, they do not lose hope. Tradition matters more than the law. Even if the clans have declined, they continue to live inside the jungle, in areas where only they can and manage to penetrate and orient themselves. A place where mental strength and the surrounding nature coexist harmoniously.
Although industrialized civilization is for them the biggest problem to face in an attempt to preserve their customs, they trust in the future generation so that children continue to learn about indigenous life, the life that only the jungle can give them. A “primitive” life in which they can continue to remain themselves, respecting nature on an equal footing with man, using only the bare minimum and recognizing that all this is fading away.
It is important to preserve a culture that is still rooted as much as possible instead of contaminating it, as only modernity is managing to do with all the primitive tribes in the world.