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ETHNONYMS: The designation "Tetum"technically denotes an Austronesian language spoken on Timor, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands in the eastern part of the East Indian archipelago. The word has come to be used by anthropologists and other researchers to refer to those whose indigenous language it is. It does not, however, seem to be employed everywhere as a self-referencing term by Tetum speakers, whose institutions differ significantly within the linguistic population. In some regions of Timor the ethnonym by which people refer to themselves is fehan, a term that includes among its referents "lowland dweller" and "civilized people," though many Tetum-speaking peoples live in a mountainous habitat. The Atoni, the numerically dominant ethnic population in the western half of Timor, refer to them as belu or belo, a Tetum term meaning "friend," and this is the name generally applied by non-Tetum speakers in western Timor, which until 1949 was a Dutch colony, in contrast to eastern Timor, which was Portuguese. Today West Timor is part of the Republic of Indonesia. Until the year 2002, when it will probably become an independent nation-state, East Timor will be under the jurisdiction of the United Nations.

The word "Tetum" may be pronounced with or without a nasalized termination, and so it is often rendered as "Tetun" (or Tettun) or Tetu (or Teto). The Portuguese language renders the word as Tetum, a usage that appears to have won favor with the new political leaders of East Timor.


Recent field research in East Timor has not been possible for political reasons. Therefore, this article describes the ethnographic particulars of the Tetum for the most part as they existed in the period 19661975. Long-established practices have undoubtedly changed, however, as a result of Indonesian actions.

Identification and Location. From the mid-1970s, when the Indonesian army of occupation began a policy of compulsory resettlement, until September 1999, when the militias forced more than a hundred thousand villagers to leave East Timor and become refugees in West Timor, the ethnic geography has presented a confusing picture. As of the year 2000 it was not possible to delineate with any certainty the ethnolinguistic map of East Timor. In 1975, however, the Tetum-speaking population occupied two spatially separate regions, which for convenience have been referred to as "Western Tetum" and "Eastern Tetum." These are geographic designations; institutional features of social life may vary radically according to locality.

In West Timor the Western Tetum occupy most of the Belu kabupaten, with the exception of the Kamaknen kecamatan, that is, the kecamatan of Malaka Barat, Melaka Tengah, Melaka Timur, Tasifeto Barat, and Tasifeto Timur. They further extend along the northern coast into East Timor, stopping just north of the Balibo district, where they abut another ethnolinguistic group, the Ema. On the southern coast too they overlap the international frontier, occupying the districts of Fatu Mean, Fohorem, and Suai. To the north this Tetum region is separated from that of another ethnolinguistic group, the Mambai, by the River Lulik, while in the west the boundary between the Tetum and yet another ethnolinguistic group, the Bunaq, is roughly coterminous with that between the districts of Cova Lima and Bobonaro. The Western Tetum are separated from the Eastern Tetum by the Mambai ethnolinguistic group in the Suro regency. Included within the Eastern Tetum region are the areas of western Alas, Fatuberliu, and Barique; the southern parts of the Laclubar and Lacluta areas; and the western part of the Viqueque district. The eastern limit of the Eastern Tetum is roughly demarcated by the River Cuha, with Caraubalo being the easternmost Tetum suku on Timor. Less than a mile, across the River Cuha in Caraubalo, the territory of another ethnolinguistic population, the Makassai, begins.

Demography. Before 1970 the total population of Tetum speakers probably numbered more than two hundred thousand, but as a result of the demographic ravages inflicted by the Indonesian occupation, it is not possible to provide reliable statistics for the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Linguistic Affiliation. The term Tetum Terik is applied to the language as it is spoken in the two regions, although there are dialectal variations within each region. This is Tetum los, or "correct Tetum," in contrast to Tetum Praça, a hybrid mix of Tetum and Portuguese that is spoken in the capital, Dili, and throughout most of East Timor except for the eastern end of the island.

History and Cultural Relations

Insufficient information exists to state with certainty the archaeological and historical sequence before the arrival of the first Europeans at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese. Oral tradition describes a great journey made from the mainland of Southeast Asia to the Wehali region of West Timor, from which area the Tetum population dispersed, but some linguistic evidence may point to an origin in Sulawesi. This dispersion from Wehali eventually resulted in settlements in the Cuha River area, but it is not known when this occurred or what relations with neighboring populations may have provoked those movements.


The pattern of settlement varies with the nature of the local terrain. Perhaps the most typical (before the Indonesian resettlement policy) form of settlement was that of the knua, or hamlet, a collection of houses (uma) grouped around an open plaza. The Indonesian resettlement policy involved the compulsory establishmentin certain areasof families in concentrated encampments along main roads that gave the military convenient access to the local populations. These compulsory dispersals virtually emptied the uplands of thousands of people.


Subsistence. Corn is the staple crop, grown under dry farming methods in gardens (to'os). Rice, which also is grown in dry gardens, is the second most important cereal, but in some regions wet rice, cultivated on flat alluvial plains or on hill terraces, makes a vital contribution to subsistence. Root crops, such as yams and potatoes, and a variety of green leafy vegetables supplement the diet. Pigs are a ubiquitous source of animal protein, as are buffalo. Goats and chickens are raised everywhere. Agriculture is directly influenced by the monsoons, with the western half of the island generally being drier than the east. Approximately from November through May the rainy season dominates the landscape, and from June through October the dry season governs the annual cycle of economic and social activities.

Commercial Activities. For the most part, in the rural areas commercial activities play a relatively small role in the economy.

Industrial Arts. The main handicrafts are weaving, ceramics, basketry, mat making, and metalworking.

Trade. In the Portuguese period markets flourished in most administrative centers in East Timor, with women over-whelmingly being the sellers of the agricultural produce their families grew. Until at least the late 1960s barter was used among the Timorese.

Division of Labor. Both sexes work in the gardens, with men responsible for the heavy labor of making fences. Men are also the house builders and metalworkers. Women carry out domestic duties, including fetching water and cleaning clothes, and are the potters and weavers.

Land Tenure. Land is owned by local descent groups whose rights are vested in clans whose claims are sanctioned in myths. Families within the landowning descent group have the right to cultivate any land not worked by other families. Many families, however, cultivate land owned by other descent groups, in which case they have the status of tenants.


Kin Groups and Descent. Throughout most of the Tetum-speaking regions a system of matrilineal descent and matrilocality prevails. One of several exceptions is the area immediately west of the Cuha, where the regime is one of patrilineal descent with postmarital residence in or near the husband's father's household. In the northern part of the West Tetum region a child belongs to its mother's descent group (uma) from birth. If the child's father's descent group (the child's father's mother's uma) delivers the bulk of the bride-price for the child's mother, the child becomes a member of its father's mother's uma and the child's mother resides in the locality of the father's uma. Even in this case the child's mother's brother must help the child financially, and when the child is older, he has the right to cultivate some of his mother's brother's land. At the highest level of segmentation descent groups are named and totemic and would conventionally be designated as clans. Each has its own myth of origin and self-defining customs. Rights and duties of various social, economic, and political importance are ascribed to each segmentary unit, from the clan down to the minimal lineage group.

Kinship Terminology. Lineal terminologies are virtually universal, but whereas they are nonprescriptive in the Cuha and Wehali areas, elsewhere they are mainly prescriptive, as is the case among the northern peoples in the West Tetum region, who employ a two-section system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Asymmetric alliance is a defining trait of Timorese social organization and, when incorporated into a matrilineal/matrilocal regime, confers some distinction on the Tetum-speaking population since this particular coordination of affinity and kinship regime is rare. The alliance groups are normally lineages or sublineages, typically of the same rank. Among the northern and central Tetum, the wife-taking group is called the fetosawa and the wife-giving group is called the umamane. Each category of group has a varying number of affinal partners with whom its alliance (fetosawa-umamane) typically endures for generations. In at least two regions asymmetric alliance is not practiced. One is among the patrilineal/patrilocal peoples immediately west of the Cuha; the other is among the matrilineal/matrilocal populations of the Wehali area, in West Timor. Several forms of marriage coexist with asymmetric alliance and have differing socioeconomic entailments. Bride-wealth is typically a factor determining which mode of marriage is contracted. In the fetosawa-umamane bride-wealth includes symbolically masculine gifts consisting of buffalo, horses, golden disks, silver disks, and money. This set is countered by "feminine gifts" of pigs, cloth, domestic artifacts, and the person of the bride. Gifts of the same "masculine" and "feminine" nature are exchanged between wife givers and wife takers on occasions when they conjointly celebrate rites of passage.

Domestic Unit. The household consists of the father, the mother, unmarried children, and quite often various relatives, who may include widowed parents, unmarried sisters of the parents, and sons-in-law.

Inheritance. Relative age plays a part in inheritance. Elder children tend to take precedence over younger siblings, with the youngest sibling's portion being the smallest.

Socialization. Mothers undertake a more constant nurturing role in the upbringing of children than do fathers. Older female siblings share this task with their mothers. Discipline is the responsibility of both parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The ranking system, which is defined by rights and duties and is administered through the system of descent, consists of four ranks. At the top of the hierarchy is the rank of royalty. Immediately below royalty are the aristocrats, then commoners, and at the bottom of the hierarchy individuals descended from slaves. In the 1960s this system of ranking was still integrated into the political organization.

Political Organization. Interference by the Indonesian and Portuguese administrations greatly distorted and weakened the viability of traditional Timorese polities. The political organization in East Timor thus illustrates the syncretic structure of both alien and indigenous political systems. For administrative convenience the Portuguese colonial government amalgamated the knua into nonindigenous units called povoação (villages). A number of these villages formed a suku (also known as fukun), or princedom, based on an indigenous unit of the same name. A number of suku formed a posto (post), another Portuguese innovation but one that at times corresponded to a defunct indigenous unit known as the reino (kingdom). A number of postos formed a concelho (regency), ten of which in 1966 constituted the Province of Portuguese Timor, as East Timor was then called.

Social Control. The head of each of these units reported to the head of the unit immediately above it, with the exception of the governor of Timor, who reported to the government in Lisbon. Only at the levels of knua and suku were there indigenous heads. Leadership of the knua rested in the hands of an older man (katuas) who had the respect of its members. The level of the suku, until 1976 at least, epitomized the syncretic character of the political structure. The Portuguese administration had created an office formally designated chefe de suku or "suku chief" to administer the suku, and the incumbentinvariably a Timoresewould report to the official in charge of the posto, the chefe de posto. The more traditional designation, liurai, was also employed as a honorific alternative to chefe de posto, but this usage was a misnomer. More correctly, the term liurai (raja in West Timor) identified the "king," a position absent for many decades from Timorese polities. Independently of the office of chefe de suku was a system of governance that in its dual structure was characteristically Timorese, since it consisted of a pair of rulers whose titles could vary from locality to locality. In the suku of Caraubalo, in Viqueque Concelho, the actual titles were makair fukun and dato wain. Although the incumbents of both offices were male, their symbolic connotations were distinguished by gender, with the former being associated with masculine qualities and the latter with female qualities. Both officials, even in the early 1970s, continuedwith help from an informal council of elders (katuas)to influence the course of life at the level of the suku. Liurais, in the past and to a large extent in the late 1960s, were of the royal rank, but in general incumbency in any of the other political offices was open to men of any rank except the descendants of slaves.

Conflict Under the Portuguese administration conflicts not involving homicide between members of the same segment of a descent group were resolved by the head of that segment with the assistance of elders. Conflicts between members of different descent groups within the same suku were resolved by either the traditional pair of suku heads or by the chefe de suku. When a conflict involved members of different sukus, the chefe de posto would resolve the issue. Homicides were dealt with by the administrator of the concelho. Under the Indonesian regime the extent to which descent groups and sukus had the authority to enforce traditional customs is unclear, but Indonesian control was considerably more intrusive than that of the European predecessors; in the case of resettlements, for example, no resistance by the Timorese was tolerated.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In sharp contrast to the diverse systems of descent and affinity, belief and ritual among the different Tetum populations have more similarities than differences. Tetum people in most areas refer to a celestial masculine deity called maromak, but he does not figure prominently in their rituals, at least not among the eastern population. Less clearly defined in some localities is a female deity who is identified with the earth. These deities are contrasted in complementary fashion as father sky and mother earth. Other spiritual agencies include the souls of the recently deceased, ancestral ghosts, and several categories of nature spirits. Souls of the recently deceased are klamar maté, and are entirely malevolent. The injury they can impose on the kin of the dead person is affected by rituals, mostly taboos, including prohibition of remarriage by the widowed person within a specified period. More ambivalent are ancestral ghosts (maté bian ), who appear to human beings in their hamlets. These were once klamar maté, though when and in what manner the transformation occurs is not known. Ghosts exercise a powerful influence on their living kin that may be malignant or beneficial. In principle, beneficence is characteristically attributed to their behavior, which most typically confers health and fertility. To acquire these life-sustaining qualities kin carry out rituals of sacrifice and observe food taboos. The neglect of these prescriptions and prohibitions invites punitive sanctions, as do other faults, whether of omission or commission.

The various categories of nature spirits can be classified into fertility spirits and locality spirits. Fertility spirits are known by the generic term klamar, and there are distinct sub-categories of spirits that control the fertility of plants and livestock. Locality spirits, or rai nain ("lords of the land") and w'e na'in ("lords of the water"), display the same ambivalent behavior toward human beings characteristic of ghosts. They may confer blessings such as wealth, fertility, and agreeable sex on individuals (male or female) who attract their attention, or they may contrive to bring death to the hapless. Superficially, the effect of their intrusion into human affairs may appear to resemble that of ghosts, but the advent of locality spirits, who are associated with the wilderness rather than the hamlet, derives from their whims, according to which they may bless or curse. Unlike ancestral ghosts or nature spirits, locality spirits are central figures in many fabulous stories (aiknananoik).

Another category of spirit is the buan, a term that might be best translated as "witch" since it refers to a living entity that is partly human and partly spirit and as such is as much at home in the hamlet as it is in the forest. Malevolent by nature, it offers no benefits to the people it bewitches. There is also a spirit responsible for ensuring a supply of rain, but in localities where rituals are performed to it this spirit seems to be a manifestation of a prominent ancestral ghost rather than a distinct class of elemental.

Religious Practitioners. Descent groups have certain individuals who tend to take the lead when ceremonies such as rainmaking are performed, and some communities have shamanic figures (matan do'ok) whose functions include curing and divination.

Ceremonies. Although details vary from region to region, in addition to the rituals mentioned above, communities in many regions perform rites of passage at birth, marriage, and death.

Arts. The favorite form of artistic expression in which both sexes indulge is dancing, of which there are several stylized categories. Storytelling was very popular before the expansion of literacy.

Medicine. Various plants were formerly used as cures, and betel spittle was a ubiquitous treatment for a variety of ailments.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs in an afterlife are vague, but some individuals say that at death the souls of the dead start a process of migration to the underworld. After they are established there, they eventually become ancestral ghosts.

For other cultures in Indonesia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 5, East and Southeast Asia.


Hicks, David (1976, rev. ed. 1988). Tetum Ghosts and Kin. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

(1984). A Maternal Religion: The Role of Women in Tetum Myth and Ritual. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies.


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The label "Tetum" (Belu, Teto, Tetun) refers to the more than 300,000 speakers of the Tetum language on the island of Timor in Indonesia. The people call themselves "Tetum" or "Tetun," and are referred to as "Belu" by the neighboring Atoni. The traditional Tetum territory is located in south-central Timor. While the Tetum are often described as a single culture, there are numerous subgroups that differ in some ways from each other. One classification scheme differentiated among the Eastern, Southern, and Northern Tetum, with the last two sometimes lumped as the Western Tetum. Tetum is an Austronesian language and either the primary language or the second "official" language in south-central Timor.

The Tetum are swidden fanners; the main crop varies according to location. The people of the hills cultivate rice and breed buffalo, the latter being consumed only during major rituals. The people of the coastal plains cultivate maize and breed pigs that are eaten regularly. Each household maintains its own garden and raises chickens to supplement the diet. There is little hunting and fishing. A weekly market provides a social meeting place and allows the people to trade produce and wares. The Tetum traditionally make iron tools, textiles, rope, baskets, containers, and mats. They express themselves artistically through carving, weaving, engraving, and dyeing cloth.

Groups in the east generally have patrilineal descent, whereas matrilineal descent is the norm among those in the west. Although lineages are localized, the members of a given phratry or clan are dispersed among a number of villages. Tetum have a variety of marital arrangements, including bride-price, bride-service, marriage to form alliances, and concubinage. Traditionally there were four social classes: royalty, aristocrats, commoners, and slaves. Political organization centered on princedoms, which formed kingdoms. Catholicism has become the primary religion, although traditional beliefs and ceremonies survive.

See also Atoni


Hicks, David (1972). "Eastern Tetum." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar, 98-103. New Haven: HRAF Press.

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"Tetum." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 23 Aug. 2017 <>.

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