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ETHNONYMS: Atoin Meto, Atoin Pah Meto, Atoni, Dawan, Orang Timor Asli, Timorese


Identification and Location. Meto live mainly in the central mountainous part of western Timor, Indonesia, bounded to the east by Belu District and the Tetum (Tetun) people. To the west they are bounded by the sea or by Rotinese and other lowland groups around Kupang Bay and Kupang city, the capital of the Province of the Eastern Lesser Sundas (Propinsi Nusa Tenggara Timur). Meto became Indonesian citizens in 1950 when the Republic of Indonesia succeeded the Netherlands East Indies. They wholly occupy the two administrative districts of North-Central Timor and South-Central Timor and part of Kupang district. Meto also inhabit the former Portuguese enclave of Oe-cussi (which they call Ambenu). It is located on the north coast of West Timor but is administratively part of Timor Loro Sa'e (formerly Portuguese Timor until 1975; then Indonesian East Timor until 1998). Their name Meto ("dry") is short for Atoin Pah Meto (People of the Dry Land), which refers to their indigenous status on the dry land of Timor in contrast to people and things which they consider to be kase (foreign, from overseas) in origin. Some ethnographers called them Atoni for short, but Meto is now preferred. The Dutch called them "Timorese," and Indonesians of Kupang may refer to them as Orang Timor Asli (Native Timor People). Neighboring Tetum refer to Meto as Dawan, a term of uncertain etymology. Meto are found at approximately 9°00 to 10°15 S and 123°30 to 124°30 E in mountainous interior areas, and rarely by the malarial coasts with their poor soils. Timor is mountainous throughout with only modest coastal lowlands and few large 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 Meto are estimated to number about 750,000 and are the largest ethnic group in Indonesian Timor.

Linguistic Affiliation. Meto 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 lesson books were prepared by a Dutch linguist in a romanized script before World War II. The Indonesian national language (based on Malay, now the national language of Malaysia) is used in government offices, businesses, town and rural schools, the media, and some churches; a dialect, Kupang Malay, was used by traders for centuries and is still used, especially in Kupang but also in the interior.

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 Meto people. They have been distinguished linguistically from their neighbors since the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch observers in the seventeenth century. Meto were involved in the sandalwood trade for the past one or two millennia, mediated by Malays, Makassarese and later by Europeans. They were raided for slaves by outsiders. Though the Meto were relatively isolated in their mountain homes, early Chinese sources report that they had developed princedoms before European contact in the late sixteenth century.

Timor was contested between the 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 Meto interior only came under direct Netherlands-Indies government administration after 1912. West Timor and East Timor subsequently had little contact except along the border occupied mainly by Tetum people.

The bitter conflict over the independence of East Timor after 1998 only affected the Meto of the Oe-cussi enclave (which remains part of independent Timor Loro Sai) and some Meto living in towns and villages along the main road between Kupang and Kefamnanu where refugees from East Timor were settled in camps. Some Meto were harassed by members of pro-Indonesian East Timor "militias" from the camps and had food stolen, but there was no Indonesian military action in Meto areas.


Most Meto live in small dispersed settlements of twenty to forty houses in mountainous areas, though increasing numbers live along the main road that runs from Kupang to Atambua as well as on side roads. Traditional houses are beehive-shaped and made from forest products, with roofs coming near the ground; however, many Meto have adopted rectangular urban-style walled houses made from either wood or concrete and having windows, particularly in areas nearer markets and roads. Settlements are not marked by central common grounds, stone plazas, or public structures, which may be found in some other areas of eastern Indonesia. Wooden and stone churches are increasing in number.


Subsistence. Meto are primarily swidden cultivators of maize and some dry-land rice. Harvests provide only limited and local surpluses. Meto also keep orchards of bananas, betel nut, coconut, and some other palms. Coastal villagers may fish and gather salt.

Commercial Activities. Owing to poor farming conditions, Meto have been drawn into a money economy through sale of forest products (such as palm sugar and wild honey) and livestock (chickens and cattle). The latter are sold in roadside or small town markets, usually to non-Meto middlemen (such as Chinese, Rotenese, and Makassarese), and are then transported to small interior towns and to Kupang and its nearby sea port, Haengsisi. Cattle were introduced by the Dutch and now outnumber people in western Timor, contributing to ecological degradation through loss of timber for fences and consequent erosion, while providing income for owners. Some cloths woven by Meto women enter the tourist markets of Kupang and Bali, but in small numbers compared to those from Sumba or Flores Islands.

Industrial Arts. Meto produce fine tie-dye (ikat ) woven cloths on backstrap looms for men's and women's formal and daily attire. They also make baskets and mats 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 limited to house construction and some furniture making. Utensils made in the past from palms are no longer found, nor is wooden statuary (except in some funeral contexts).

Trade. There is little trade in corn or rice, but villagers carry the products of their vegetable gardens and orchards, as well beef, pork, and chicken, to small town markets where they sell them. Some coastal people sell fish and salt and buy garden and orchard products from uplanders.

Division of Labor. Men and women engage in a variety of planting and harvesting activities in fields, orchards, gardens, and ponds, and both can be found in markets selling produce. Men mainly build and repair swidden fences and corrals, manage cattle, hunt, and do sea fishing, and some Meto men go to Kupang town for largely unskilled work. Women tend small animals, gather wild plants, and have primary responsibility for the children. Women are the weavers and men and women do basketry.

Land Tenure. Meto are primarily swidden cultivators of maize and rice 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 plots alone or with some near kin.


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

Kinship Terminology. Meto have a Dravidian type kinship terminology that clearly distinguishes affines from agnates in a person's own generation and in the first ascending and descending generations. In the second ascending and descending generations, agnates and affines are merged terminologically in many Meto areas, though in some areas the distinction is maintained. Consistent with a Meto ideal of symmetrical marriage exchange, young men refer to their mother's brother's daughters and father's sister's daughters by the same term which means "wife way."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage marks adult status and also establishes or maintains alliances between local lineages. Marriages may be arranged to continue old alliances, or an individual may choose a spouse, in which case the marriage will establish new alliances. Either way, 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 Meto 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. A married couple's residence is normally virilocal, though it may be temporarily uxorilocal until a stage of bride-wealth is paid. 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 which occasionally adds "borrowed children" from other families or widows or 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. Meto 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. The levirate, or widow inheritance, may also be practiced.

Socialization. Children are socialized mainly within the nuclear family 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, even necessary. As children approach adolescence, they must show public deference to all elders including parents, although they may be openly closer to their mother's brothers, father's sisters, and grandparents than to other elders. There are no initiation rites outside church christening ceremonies, although warfare played a role in that regard in the past for young males. From 1970 onwards, elementary and some secondary school education expanded considerably for Meto young people, but is still less than for Rotenese or Savunese.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Formerly Meto had noble, commoner, and slave classes, but the society has become increasingly more egalitarian. The Dutch abolished slavery in colonial times and the Indonesian government eliminated princedoms in the late 1960s, though former noble families are still accorded respect and may have greater access to power and 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 which form a basis for social interaction except for churches.

Political Organization. Until the early 1970s, Meto were subjects of ten 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 sub-districts (kecamatan ) of the Indonesian state bureaucracy, some headed by former princes or their descendents, others not. In the early twenty-first century elected village headmen serve the government, some of whom are from leading local patrilines of the past. At the local level, informal dual headmen may be found, one to deal with government matters and another to handle customary internal issues. Recognized clan elders from the past princedoms may serve informal leadership roles within the sub-districts as well. Under government reforms in the period 19982001 more local fiscal and other autonomies have been granted to district governments, but Meto areas benefit little in this regard, owing to their poverty.

Social Control. Disputes are settled primarily at village level between agnates and affines of those concerned or by customary village heads or elders, with compensation being the primary means of settlement. The national court system is rarely used. Prisons may be looked upon as unjust because they remove a miscreant from the scrutiny and daily control by his agnates who paid his fine and the agnates of the victim who received the fine. In the past, princes were ultimate courts of appeal, and now problems may be carried to Indonesian sub-district authorities or Meto elders. Moral or ritual missteps and infractions, which are frequently blamed for personal or group problems or suffering, are believed to result from punishments by ancestors, from curses supported by transcendental justice, and from God.

Conflict. Conflict between individual, villages, or districts may arise over inheritance, marriage, and other domestic disputes, theft of orchard products and animals, or personal offenses. In the past similar reasons could lead to conflicts between princes of large princedoms or sub-princedoms, as could conflict over trade in such things as sandalwood and the desire to acquire new subjects and the tribute they could bring. Princedoms had specific clans responsible for managing such conflicts, and the title of "warrior" brought honor, as did the taking of heads. "Head swords" and warrior regalia are still valuable possessions in some family lines, and may be worn at celebrations of national holidays when warrior dances may be performed. Dutch control after 1907 reduced some conflict between princes, but in some areas stimulated other conflicts as princely lines sought the backing of the Dutch government. After the formal elimination of princedoms by the Indonesian government, the grounds for many old conflicts diminished further. There is some history of conflict between Meto princes and villages with Rotenese and Helong settled in the Kupang area, but it was evidently modest compared to conflict between Meto princes. There has been little conflict between Meto and Tetum peoples along their border in eastern Indonesian Timor.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity (Catholic in North-Central Timor and Protestant in South-Central Timor and Kupang Districts) began slowly before World War II. It spread rapidly through an evangelical "movement of the spirit" which developed in the mountains in the mid-1960s. A variety of Protestant denominations came to the area since the 1970s, many with origins outside Timor. Previously most Meto followed traditional beliefs in Lords of the Sky and Earth, ancestral rewards and punishments, and ghost and spirit powers of places and things. Magical complexes associated with warfare and headhunting are all but 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, curse and transcendental justice, and the potency of funerary rituals remain, however, and traditional beliefs and Christianity may be combined in complex ways.

Religious Practitioners. Specialists in the supernatural still may divine sources of affliction privately, propitiate Lords of the Sky and Earth, and deal with spirits regarding illness, sorcery, and other afflictions. Christian leaders seek to integrate Christian belief into Meto daily life and also assist people in dealing with afflictions, which sometimes involves them in older practices. 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 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 increasingly 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 highly poetic ritual speaking which was important to nobles and the oral histories of princedoms and clans. Indonesian language education takes the young away from such poetic links to the past. Material arts are few, other than the fine tie-dye weaving by women of cloths worn by both men and women, and ornamental basketry made by both sexes for use in life-cycle rituals.

Medicine. Illness may have natural or supernatural causes. Herbal medicines for the former are widely known. Some Meto have medicine for the latter, but there are recognized specialists (termed mnane or meo ) who deal with the supernatural. Women are aided in childbirth by knowledgeable local women, close relatives, or village mates, not by specialists. Biomedical facilities are limited to some towns and rural health posts, and not easily accessible to most Meto.

Death and Afterlife. Meto 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 a Meto's soul throughout his or 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 and marriages of princes, and annual tribute offerings to them, were the major ceremonial events binding the subjects of a princedom together. In the early twenty-first century Christian elements play an increasing part in Meto funerals, though traditional elements may remain.

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.


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