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ETHNONYMS: Atoin Pah Meto, Atoin Meto, Timorese; Orang Timor Asli (in Indonesian)


Identification. Atoni live in the central mountainous part of western Timor, Indonesia, bounded to the east by the Tetum and to the west by the sea or by Rotinese and other immigrant lowland groups around Kupang Bay and Kupang City, the capital of the Province of the Eastern Lesser Sundas (Propinsi Nusa Tenggara Timur). Atoni have been Indonesian citizens since 1949, when the Republic of Indonesia succeeded the Netherlands East-Indies. Atoni wholly occupy the two administrative districts of North-Central Timor and South-Central Timor, part of Kupang District, and the former Portuguese enclave of Oe-cussi in West Timor, claimed and occupied by Indonesia since 1975 though not recognized by the United Nations. The name "Atoni" means "man, person" and is short for "Atoin Pah Meto" (People of the Dry Land) or "Atoin Meto" (Dry People) ("Atoin" being "Atoni" in metathesis). Europeans called them "Timorese," and Indonesians of Kupang may refer to them as "Orang Timor Asli" (Native Timorese) in contrast to immigrant Rotinese, Savunese, and other settlers around Kupang who come from nearby islands.

Location. Atoni are found at approximately 9 o00' to 10° 15 S and 123°30 to 124°30 E in mountainous central regions and rarely by the malarial coasts with their poor soils. Timor is mountainous throughout with only modest coastal lowlands and few river plains. The climate is marked by an intense westerly monsoon rainy season (January to April) and a long easterly monsoon dry season (May to December) when only modest localized rains may occur. Large rocky hills and some natural savannas mark the west Timor landscape.

Demography. Census counts are not accurate, but Atoni are estimated to number about 750,000 and are the largest ethnic group in western Timor.

Linguistic Affiliation. Atoni speak an Austronesian language of the Timor Group that is not mutually intelligible with languages of their neighbors on the island or nearby islands. No written language is used, although some church books were prepared before World War II by a Dutch linguist in a romanized script. The Indonesian national language is now used in town offices, businesses, town and rural schools, the media, and some churches; a related dialect, Kupang Malay, was used by traders for centuries.

History and Cultural Relations

Timor has been settled for many thousands of years, and certainly received migrants over its history, but nothing is known of the genesis of the Atoni people. They have been distinguished linguistically from their neighbors since the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch observers in the seventeenth century. Atoni were probably involved in the sandalwood trade for the past one or two millennia, mediated by Malays, Makassarese, and later Europeans. They were raided for slaves by outsiders. Though a swiddening people relatively isolated in their mountain homes, Atoni developed princedoms before European contact in the late sixteenth century. Timor was contested between Dutch and Portuguese in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they were to divide the island between them, taking west and east respectively. The Dutch remained in Kupang, however, and the Atoni interior only came under direct Netherlands-Indies government administration after 1912.


Most Atoni live in small dispersed settlements of twenty to forty houses in mountainous areas, and some live along the only main road that runs from Kupang to Atambua. Traditional houses are beehive-shaped and made from forest products, with roofs coming near the ground; many Atoni are now adopting rectangular walled houses with windows, made from either wood or concrete, particularly in areas nearer markets and the road. Settlements are not marked by central common grounds, stone plazas, or public buildings, which may be found in some other areas of eastern Indonesia. Modest wooden churches are increasing in number.


Subsistence, Commercial Activities, and Trade. Atoni are primarily swidden cultivators of maize and some dry-land rice who, because of inadequate farming conditions, have been drawn into a money economy through the sale of forest products (such as palm sugar and wild honey) and livestock (chickens and Bali cattle). The latter are sold in roadside or small town markets, usually to non-Atoni middlemen linked to small interior towns and to Kupang's export facilities. Cattle were introduced by the Dutch and now outnumber people in western Timor, contributing to ecological pressure while providing a money income for owners. Over the past 20 years some Atoni have also moved to Kupang for unskilled work.

Industrial Arts. Atoni produce fine woven cloths for male and female dress, together with basketry and ropes in great varieties for daily and ceremonial use. They do not work metal and must import both tools and the silver and gold jewelry that they value. Woodworking is now limited to house and some furniture construction. Wooden utensils made in the past are no longer found, nor is wooden statuary (except in some funeral contexts).

Division of Labor. Men and women engage in a variety of planting and harvesting activities in fields, orchards, and gardens, and both can be found in markets selling produce. Men mainly build and repair swidden fences and corrals, manage cattle, and hunt, while women tend small animals, gather wild plants, and have primary responsibility for the children.

Land Tenure. Atoni are primarily swidden cultivators of maize and rice fields who have rights of usufruct on land over which clans and territorial groups hold long-term rights. Orchards are held by the families of the planters and may be inherited. Land is not, in general, a commodity. The nuclear family is the primary farming unit, working its own plot alone or with some near kin.


Kin Groups and Descent. Atoni belong to named, exogamous patrilineal descent groups, or "name groups" (kanaf ), which may be extensive in size and widely distributed within a territory but which are not corporate. Localized lineages of the same "name group" (some of which may in fact use different names) are the cooperative units for ritual, economic, legal, or marriage activities. Atoni place importance on continuing affinal alliance ties between lineages that stand in complementary relationships as wife givers and wife takers.

Kinship Terminology. Atoni have a Dravidian type of kinship terminology that clearly distinguishes affines from agnates in Ego's generation and the first ascending and descending generations. In the second ascending and descending generations, agnates and affines are merged terminologically in many Atoni areas, though in some areas the distinction is maintained. Consistent with an Atoni ideal of symmetrical marriage exchange, mother's brother's daughters and father's sister's daughters are called by the same term.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage, an ideal and norm that marks adult status, is viewed as establishing or maintaining alliances between local lineages. Marriages may be arranged to continue old alliances, or an individual may choose a spouse and their marriage will then establish new alliances. In either case, parents and lineage-mates are involved because marriage establishes continuing relationships between wife givers and wife takers that are important in daily and ritual life. Bride-wealth is paid over time and goods are exchanged between affinal allies at subsequent life-cycle ceremonies. The amounts and the duration of payments vary in different Atoni territories and, within the same territory, by social status as well as by the type of alliance made. In general, marriages to persons more closely related through previous marriages, or to persons from the same or nearby villages, require lower payments than marriages to more distant persons. Postmarital residence is normally virilocal, though it may be temporarily uxorilocaL Divorce and remarriage are possible though not frequent and may entail bride-wealth repayment depending upon determination of fault.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is normally a nuclear family of about five persons (extended families are uncommon), and occasionally includes "borrowed children" from other families or widows/widowers. Widowed or divorced persons, however, often live alone or with a child or grandchild in a separate domestic unit, usually near close relatives.

Inheritance. Atoni may distinguish between inherited property, which remains within a patrilineage and normally goes to sons, and property acquired in a marriage, which may be inherited by a spouse and/or male and female children. The former category, not extensive, may involve heirlooms or orchard land. The latter may include orchards, livestock, or money. There is pressure to keep property within patrilineages or close affinal groups.

Socialization. Children are socialized mainly within the nuclear-family-based domestic unit or by mother's brothers (the primary wife givers), and they participate in the work of the parents. Gender differences are marked early in life. Both parents socialize and educate young children through public verbal and physical affection and discipline. Corporal punishment of children by parents, of younger siblings by older siblings, and of females by males is considered acceptable. As children grow toward adolescence, they must show public deference to all elders, including parents, although they may be closer to their mother's brothers and father's sisters than to other elders. There are no initiation rites nowadays outside church christening ceremonies, although warfare played a role in that regard in the past for young males. From 1970 to 1990, school education expanded considerably for young people.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Formerly Atoni had noble, commoner, and slave classes, but society is increasingly egalitarian. Slavery was abolished by the Dutch and princedoms were eliminated by the Indonesian government in the 1970s, though former noble families may still have more access to resources than do commoners. Society is rooted in clan membership and affinal relationships between clans, and village leadership is often passed down in patrilines (as was true in the princedoms). There are no other formal groups in village society, though churches form the basis for social interaction in many villages.

Political Organization. Until the early 1970s, Atoni were subjects of many self-governing princedoms. After 1912 these were organized by the Netherlands-Indies government into three districts, headed by Dutch administrators. After 1950 these districts (kabupaten ) were headed by Indonesians. In the 1970s the princedoms became subdistricts (kecamatan ) of the Indonesian state bureaucracy, some headed by former princes, others not. Elected headmen now serve the government, though many are from leading local patrilines of the past. At the village level, informal dual headmen may be found, one to deal with government matters and another to handle customary issues. Recognized clan elders from the past princedoms may serve informal leadership roles within the subdistricts as well.

Social Control. Conflict may arise over inheritance, marriage, and other domestic disputes, theft of orchard products and animals, or personal offenses. Disputes are settled primarily at village level between agnates and affines of those concerned, or by customary village heads, with compensation being the primary means of settlement. In the past princes were ultimate courts of appeal, and now problems may be carried to local Indonesian subdistrict authorities. Moral or ritual missteps and infractions are believed to be punished by ancestors, by curses supported by transcendental justice, and, among Christians, by God.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity (Catholic in North-Central Timor and Protestant in South-Central Timor and Kupang Districts) has spread rapidly during the past two decades. Previously most Atoni followed traditional beliefs in Lords of the Sky and Earth, ancestral rewards and punishments, ghosts, and spirits of places and things. Magical complexes associated with warfare and headhunting are now gone, and certain other institutions are fading, such as sacred houses of clans, sacred clan regalia, and propitiatory stones and posts. Belief in ancestral power, spirits, transcendental justice, and the power in life-cycle rituals remain, however, and traditional beliefs and Christianity are combined in complex ways.

Religious Practitioners. Specialists in the supernatural (mnane or meo ) still may divine sources of affliction privately, propitiate Lords of the Sky and Earth, and deal with spirits regarding illness, sorcery, and other afflictions, while Christian leaders seek to integrate Christian belief into Atoni daily life and also assist people in dealing with afflictions. Officiants who propitiated for the princedom's welfare and triumph in war no longer practice, and masters of clan ritual are less important.

Ceremonies. Apart from ubiquitous Christian home and church services to deal with the life cycle and affliction, public ceremonies involving agnates and affines focus on marriage and death (which bring together these basic social groupings and include village mates). Less public local lineage ceremonies still concern birth and agriculture (planting and harvesting), though these too are more marked by Christian prayer.

Arts. Dances and gong-and-drum music associated with traditional religious ritual have declined with the advance of Christianity and the reduction of patronage once received from princes, as has the formalized and poetic speaking ritual, important to nobles. Material arts are few, other than fine tie-dye weaving by women and ornamental basketry made by both sexes.

Medicine. Illness may have natural or supernatural causes. Herbal medicines for the former are widely known. Some Atoni have medicine for the latter, but there are recognized specialists (mnane or meo) who deal with the supernatural Birth is natural, aided by knowledgeable women, not specialists. Biomedical facilities are limited to some towns and rural health posts, and thus are not easily accessible to most Atoni.

Death and the Afterlife. Atoni funeral ritual separates the deceased from living agnates and ensures that the spirit joins ancestors and does not wander on earth. Funerals require that the wife-giving affines of the deceasedwho are responsible for an Atoni's soul throughout his/her lifetimelead a cortege (and carry the front of the coffin) from the house of the deceased to the burial ground. Death is the major lifecycle ritual and calls for attendance by many agnates, affines, and hamlet mates, and the exchange of formal gifts. In the past, funerals, marriages, and annual tribute offerings of princes were the major ceremonial events binding the subjects of a princedom together. Today Christian ceremonial plays an increasing part in Atoni funerals.


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