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ETHNONYMS: Aloreezen


Identification. The Alorese live on the Island of Alor, in East Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia. Alor Regency includes the islands of Alor, Pantar, and Pura. Alor is noted as an area of tremendous cultural and linguistic diversity, possibly owing to its rugged terrain. Estimates of number of ethnolinguistic groups on the island vary greatly. Brouwer (1935) delineated seven primary physical-linguistic divisions on the island. Local officials distinguish thirteen "tribes" (Enga 1988), and Alorese informants speak of between forty-eight and sixty different languages on the island (Adams 1989). Today the Alorese are predominantly Christian, save for those along the coast who tend to be Muslim. Most of this Muslim coastal population originally immigrated from Timor, Flores, South Sulawesi, Java, Ambon, and other nearby islands. Indigenous Alorese residing in the mountainous interior practice either Christian or traditional religions. These autochthonous Alorese are of Papuan stock.

Location. The Island of Alor lies approximately 30 kilometers off the coast of Timor, between 8° 8 and 8°36 S and 124°49 and 125°8 E. The island is 2,884.54 square kilometers in size and the terrain is extremely mountainous, with limited coastal lowlands. The climate is tropical with a rainy season lasting from October to April.

Demography. In the mid-1980s the population of Alor Regency was estimated as 136,559. Figures are not available for the number of Alorese who have left the homeland to reside or study in the large cities of Indonesia.

Linguistic Affiliation. The languages spoken on Alor are classified as Austronesian and appear to resemble those spoken on nearby Timor. Some of these languages are also thought to be related to Papuan and East Solorese languages. Cora DuBois, who conducted the most extensive anthropological research on the island, suggests at least eight major language groups. Others have delineated seven primary language groupings on the island: Abui, Adang, Kamang, Kawel, Kelong, Kolana, and Kui-Kramang. As mentioned above, Alorese estimates of the number of mutually unintelligible languages on their island range from forty-eight to sixty. Today, as citizens of Indonesia, most Alorese speak Bahasa Indonesia in addition to their native dialect. Approximately 40 percent of the population uses the national language (Bahasa Indonesia) as their daily language. Roughly 40 percent can speak Bahasa Indonesia but uses another local language on a daily basis. Twenty percent of the population cannot speak Bahasa Indonesia.

History and Cultural Relations

Early historical records for the island are scarce. Alorese residing in the interior of the island remained relatively isolated up until Indonesian independence. For centuries these indigenous Alorese lived in autonomous and at times mutually hostile mountain villages; political organization probably did not exist beyond the village level. The coastal populations have a longer history of ties with the outside world than groups in the interior of the island. It is believed that Javanese aristocrats from the Madjapahit kingdom settled on the coast and intermarried with the local population. Once a Portuguese holding, Alor was relinquished to the Dutch in 1854. Shortly thereafter, in the late nineteenth century, several new groups began to arrive on the coast. The Dutch invasion of South Sulawesi prompted a number of Buginese and Makassarese to flee to Alor. Chinese merchants also began trading activities on the coast at this time. It was not until the arrival of the first Dutch official circa 1908 that individuals on the coast were designated "rajahs" and given title to the interior of the island. According to DuBois the impact of this new political structure on the people of the interior was minimal. Save for some trade relations with coastal peoples, highland political organization continued to be at the village level. The region was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Following that war, the region was declared a part of the new nation of Indonesia. Protestant missionaries arrived in the 1940s, followed by Catholic missionaries in subsequent decades.


Traditionally, Alorese resided in isolated mountain-top settlements; the Dutch relocated a number of these villages for administrative convenience. Villages rarely have more than 150 residents. DuBois describes a traditional Abui village as a cluster of houses around a central dance place (masang ). Generally each lineage has its own dance place, so some villages have several dance places. Fields are planted behind and between the houses. The Abui traditionally built three types of houses: large carefully constructed lineage houses where feasts are held (kadang ), regular family houses (fala ), and field shelters. Traditional houses are elevated and constructed of wood and bamboo, with thatched conical roofs. Today some villages also have cement-built homes with tin roofs. A number of villages also have a church or elementary school in the general area.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Over 80 percent of the residents of Alor Regency are agriculturalists, 6.38 percent are government workers, 3.84 percent are fishermen, and the remaining 2.5 percent are contractors, traders, or merchants. Farmers plant and harvest maize by hand in swidden fields. Alorese also grow some rice, beans, millet, and cassava. Domestic animals include pigs, goats, and chickens.

Industrial Arts. Industrial arts are relatively undeveloped on Alor. Wood carving, basketry, pottery, and ikat weaving (tying of warp threads in bundles for dyeing before putting them on a loom) are found on the island. These products do not appear to be particularly refined. There is also some metallurgy done on the eastern end of the island.

Trade. Bronze drums of Javanese origin (mokos ), gongs, and pigs play key roles in the Alorese economy. Although today a cash economy also exists, these goods remain closely tied to Alorese concepts of wealth and prestige. Particularly in villages, relationships continue to involve the ritualized exchange of these objects. Even Alorese men residing in the main town of Kalabahi speak of a man's wealth as being tied to the number of mokos he possesses. There are numerous stores in Kalabahi. There are also peddlers and several markets on the island, where goods are either bartered or purchased with cash.

Division of Labor. Women and children work in the fields and prepare the family's food. Men tend to the livestock and control and manipulate finances.

Land Tenure. Fields are individually owned. They are given to children (especially females) between the ages of ten and thirteen, although their produce is consumed by the entire family until adulthood. Boys may inherit land from their fathers.


Kin Groups and Descent. According to DuBois, kinship is reckoned bilaterally. Central to the Abui kinship system are patrilineages (hieta ) and male houses (neng fala ). Female houses (mayoa fala ) also exist, but their functions are less clearly delineated than those of the male houses. DuBois writes of six types of male house, consisting of six patrilineal descent lines and carrying an assortment of mutual obligations pertaining to marriage, death, finances, etc.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship terminology is classified as Hawaiian-type by DuBois. In the Abui language individuals are distinguished by generation and sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Today Alorese marriages are monogamous, although in the past polygyny was sometimes practiced. According to DuBois, although parents sometimes play a role in selecting spouses for their children, the Alorese have a clear concept of romantic love and most tend to choose their own mates. Although marriage with first and second cousins is prohibited, DuBois cites occasions where second cousin marriage does occur. Marriages in Alor traditionally involve a series of exchanges between affinal groups. Throughout the island, including urban Kalabahi, men speak of being unable to marry without mokos (bronze drums) to offer the bride's family. DuBois notes that other dowry and bride-price payments include gongs, pigs, rice, and maize. Ideally, residence is patrilocal, although this pattern is not always strictly observed. Today, many younger Kalabahi couples tend to aspire to neolocal residence. According to DuBois, divorce is common; the Alorese villagers she worked with averaged "two divorces apiece."

Domestic Unit. The people who cook and share meals around a hearth are considered the most basic domestic unit. The average size of this household group is five persons. In Atimelang, where DuBois conducted her research, the domestic unit ranged from one to eight persons. As a household member, one is generally expected to share in the tasks of everyday livingcooking, cleaning, farming, or contributing part of one's wages to the family.

Inheritance. Sons inherit their fathers' wealth, although according to DuBois, much of the inheritance may be dissipated in costly death feasts (1945:113).

Socialization. Children are reared by their parents, older siblings, and older adult relatives. DuBois notes that as the women are often away in the fields during the day, children are most frequently in the care of their older siblings or left to fend for themselves. Discipline is minimal: ridicule is most frequently used to discourage misbehavior, although corporal punishment may also be administered. Girls are called upon to work in the fields at an earlier age than boys. Children are not considered full-fledged members of society until they become parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Alorese society is not organized into formal, hierarchical ranks. Although age, sex, occupation, and kinship contribute to determining one's standing on Alor, wealth is the primary means of achieving prestige. Men become wealthy and prestigious through cleverly negotiating a traditional credit system involving mokos (bronze drums), pigs, and gongs. These forms of wealth (particularly mokos) are required payments for marriages, funerals, and the erection of new lineage houses, and may be loaned out for interest. The more drums, gongs, and pigs a man can amass, the more prestigious he becomes.

Political Organization. Traditionally there was no indigenous system of political organization beyond the village level. Today the head of Alor Regency is called a bupati and is appointed by the Indonesian government. A council of local representatives (DPRD) assist the bupati in decision making. The regency is divided into five smaller administrative districts called kecamatan, each overseen by a camat. These five kecamatan consist of Northwest Alor, Southwest Alor, South Alor, East Alor, and Pantar. Each kecamatan consists of several villages (desa ), each with a village head (lurah ). The Indonesian government provides the usual range of services including schools, police, health posts, tax collection, road maintenance, etc.

Social Control. Ridicule and shame are the primary means of sanction on Alor. Personal disputes were traditionally settled by "fines through challenge," whereby an offended individual could purge his shame by publicly challenging his opponents to pay an inflated price for his pig or mokos. An opponent's refusal to comply would be a shameful admission of financial defeat. According to DuBois, occasionally Alorese opponents also engaged in potlatch-like "wealth feuds" to resolve their differences. Today, when disputes cannot be resolved at the local level, the state apparatus may be called upon (police, military force, etc.).

Conflict. Conflict occurs primarily over debts and exchange transactions. Large-scale warfare was extremely rare on Alor. Head-hunting raids to avenge the death of a kinsman (and to provide him with a "spouse") were suppressed in the early 1920s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The majority of contemporary Alorese has converted to Christianity (precise statistics are not available), although some Alorese adhere to their traditional beliefs. Residents of coastal communities on Alor, in contrast, are predominantly Muslim. The Atimelangers studied by DuBois believed that each individual had two souls. One soul journeyed to the "village below" if the death was natural, and the other soul went to the "village above" if the death was violent. The second soul was thought to linger and potentially cause trouble; funerals were designed to placate it and send it on its way. DuBois notes that there is no consistent theory as to where this second soul ends up. In addition to one's two souls, each individual inherited a number of supernaturals bilaterally from his or her parents. There were also lineage or village guardian spirits (ulenai ). These spirits were connected to the village's wealth and crops and were represented by large crocodile-like carvings. In addition, there were "Good Beings," supernaturals who take human form and have the power to revive the dead and to travel through water and air. Malignant spirits (kari, loku ), in the form of female and male witches, were also thought to exist. These evil spirits gained control over people by seducing them; while one slept, the evil spirit was said to step over and urinate on the victim and then proceed to eat his or her liver. DuBois comments that relationships to supernaturals tended to be casual and expedient. People generally ignored these relationships unless some misfortune occurred or a favor (such as harvest success) was desired. At the time of her work, for instance, the Atimelang village guardian spirit had not received a sacrifice or carving in sixteen years. She also states that, aside from funerals, Atimelangers did not appear to devote a lot of energy to the dead. She saw no permanent shrines; those that were made were temporary and of haphazard construction.

Religious Practitioners. The Atimelangers studied by DuBois and Nicolspeyer did not appear to have a large array of religious practitioners. "Water-Lords" (je-adua ) oversaw harvest rituals, and seers (timang, ), assisted by spirits, performed curing rites.

Ceremonies. Death feasts, rites assuring crops, and sacrifices for the village guardian spirit were the primary rituals in Atimelang. Other spirits were periodically "fed" as well.

Arts. In the Atimelang area, the village guardian spirit is represented by a crocodile-like wood carving. There are also spirit-familiar carvings and "spirit boat" carvings. DuBois notes that the carvings she saw were "crude," made only for sacrificial purposes. Moreover, she states that other Atimelang arts were also relatively unelaborated; basketry design was of the simplest sort, and the mythology was "confused and unstructured" (DuBois 1944:134-135).

Medicine. In addition to Western-style doctors, seers are consulted for various ailments. DuBois speaks of long-delayed death feasts held by parents who fear their children's illnesses were brought on by annoyed spirits. Atimelangers also had "medicines" designed for a number of female concerns (reducing menstrual flow, inducing barrenness, and delaying conception).

Death and Afterlife. According to DuBois, when someone of standing dies, the Atimelangers devote a great deal of energy to the funeral feasts, which entail elaborate financial obligations. Family members incur considerable debts at this time, in the form of mokos, gongs, and pigs. It is believed that one of the souls of the deceased lingers until the conclusion of the final memorial death feast, which might not be held for several years. Until this final feast, the soul may proceed to some unclear destination. As mentioned earlier, DuBois notes that the Atimelangers do not have a well-defined concept of the afterlife.


Adams, Kathleen M. (1989). "Preliminary Survey of Alor." Report submitted to Hewlett-Mellon Fund, Beloit College, Wisconsin.

Brouwer (1935). Bijdrage tot de anthropologie der Aloreilanden. Amsterdam: Uitgeversmaatschappij Holland.

Dubois, Cora (1940). "How They Pay Debts in Alor." Asia, September, pp. 483-486.

DuBois, Cora (1944). The People of Alor: A Social Psychological Study of an East Indian Island. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2d ed. 1960. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

DuBois, Cora (1945). "The Alorese." In Psychological Frontiers of Society, edited by Abram Kardiner, 101-258. New York: Columbia University Press.

Enga, A. H. (1988). The Guidebook for Touring in Kabupaten Alor. Kalabahi: Alor.

Indonesia. Biro Pusat Statistik (1981). Penduduk Nusa Tenggara Timor (Results of the 1980 Census). Jakarta.

Nicolspeyer (1940). De Sociale Structuur van een Aloreesche Beevolkingsgroep. Ryswick: V. A. Kramers.