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ETHNONYMS: Atahori Rote, Hataholi Lote


Identification. The Rotinese have long taken their name from some version of their Indonesian island's name and combined this with a dialect word for "man" (Atahori Rote, Hataholi Lote). The principal name for Roti in ritual language is "Lote do Kale," and the expression for "man" is Hataholi do Dae Hena. The Rotinese insist that Rote or Roti is a Portuguese imposition. One seventeenth-century Dutch map shows the island as Nusa Da Hena, which would translate as the "Island of Man." By ancient tradition, the population is divided into two territorial divisions, Lamak-anan for the eastern half of the island, which is also known simply as "Sunrise," and Henak-anan for the western half, also known as "Sunset." Whether these names formerly had political or other significance is difficult to ascertain. This dual classification now serves to characterize differences in custom, dialect, and topography between the east and the west. Within these divisions, the island is subdivided into eighteen autonomous states, each ruled by its own "lord." These domains are the maximal native political units. Each domain cultivates its own distinctive variation of dress, speech, and customary law. The Rotinese tend to be of short stature, of light build, and of Malay appearance. They are characteristically identified by their broad, sombrerolike leaf hats.

Location. Roti, off the southwestern tip of Timor, is the southernmost island of the Indonesian archipelago. The Rotinese have migrated in large numbers to the northeastern plains of Timor, to Kupang, and to the island of Semau. There they work as rice growers, lontar tappers, retailers, and, in Kupang, as civil servants. Rotinese also live on Sumba and Flores. Because of a long tradition of education, many educated Rotinese are to be found in the large cities of Indonesia. Roti consists of level areas of cultivation, bare rolling hills, palm or acacia savannas, and occasional patches of secondary forest. The east monsoon (April to October) brings a dry season of gusty, hot winds. The west monsoon, which brings a sporadic rain, is irregular; it begins sometime between November and January and continues until April.

Demography. Census figures for 1980 record a population of just over 83,000. There are probably another 50,000 Rotinese on Timor and Semau. Chinese merchants and Indonesian government officials live in the town of Baä. Roti has traditionally assimilated the excess population from the tiny island of Ndao.

Linguistic Affiliation. Rotinese, according to Jonker, shows closest affinities with the Belu (Tetum) languages, Timorese (Uab Meto), Galoli, and Kupangese, and more distant affinities with the languages of Kisar, Leti, Moa, and Roma. Each of Roti's eighteen domains cultivates its own manner of speech, and Jonker distinguishes nine mutually intelligible dialects. One dialect, that of the central domain of Termanu, has gained some prominence as a lingua franca. The Rotinese, in addition, possess a form of ritual, poetic, or high language that crosscuts dialect boundaries. Included within the political boundaries of Roti is the small island of Ndao, whose population of approximately 3,500 persons speaks a distinct language closely related to that of the island of Savu.

History and Cultural Relations

The Rotinese claim to have migrated from the north in separate groups by way of Timor. They also possess a tradition of accepting client-strangers from other islands. Each domain has its own traditional narratives associated with its ruling dynasty. Portuguese Dominicans established a mission on the island (then known as Savu Pequeño) in the late sixteenth century, but by 1662 the Dutch East India Company had signed treaties of contract with twelve of the domains of present-day Roti. The domains (nusak ) were recognized as autonomous states until the twentieth century. Until 1969, the Republic of Indonesia recognized the eighteen domains plus Ndao within an administrative structure of four districts (kecamatan ). This has since been altered to a system of six districts, each of which combines two or more former domains. The existence of an extensive school system in the nineteenth century gave the population an educational advantage in eastern Indonesia; it also stimulated emigration. Rotinese now participate at all levels of Indonesian national life.


Traditions assert that before the formation of domains, each clan or origin group identified with a particular named ancestor held its own territory in the vicinity of some defensible walled redoubt. After the formation of the domains, these clans were assigned positions in the defense of the walled fortifications of their lords. With the establishment of peace under the Dutch, settlements became scattered. For administrative purposes, the Dutch attempted to recognize villages or village areas (now identified by a church or local school), but houses are still dispersed individually and in small clusters wherever there is sufficient fresh water for drinking and gardening. The traditional house, the center of Rotinese life, is a rectangular structure with gabled ends and a thatched roof that extends nearly to the ground. The house proper, divided into male and female halves, is raised on posts beneath the roof. The roof also envelops a ground-floor area with resting platforms where guests are received. Cooking is most often done in an adjacent thatched structure. Since 1970, traditional houses have been replaced by rectangular structures built on the ground. Because of a lack of wood, both cement and stone are now used in building houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. A large proportion of Rotinese subsistence is derived from tapping and reducing to syrup the juice of the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer ). This syrup, mixed with water, provides the normal daily sustenance of most Rotinese. Solid foodstuffs, especially rice and millet, are eaten sparingly and usually saved for feasting, when they are consumed in great quantities with boiled meat. Some syrup is processed into thin square cakes of crystallized sugar. Syrup is also fermented to make a dark beer, which may be distilled to a fine sweet gin. Rice is the prestige food, but maize, millet, sorghum, a variety of tubers, various kinds of bean, green grams (or mung beans), peanuts, squash, sesame, onions, garlic, and several kinds of cucumber are grown in dry fields and also in household gardens fertilized with animal manure. The principal fruit trees are the banana, papaya, breadfruit, nangka, djeruk, mango, and coconut. The Rotinese also grow tobacco, cotton, betel (the nuts rather than the leaves of the plant are preferred for chewing), and areca. Located in a dry region with an irregular monsoon, the Rotinese are remarkably capable wet-rice cultivators who divert rivers and streams and use natural springs to water their fields. Although rice plots are individually owned, planted, and harvested, wet-rice fields are organized into corporate complexes whose members maintain a common fence and who appoint individuals to apportion water. Dry fields are usually cleared by burning in November. Over the past hundred years, wet rice and maize have predominated but have not entirely replaced dry rice, millet, and sorghum. Wet-rice fields are worked by driving herds of water buffalo through them after rain has softened the earth; other fields are worked with steel digging sticks and hoes.

Fishing is a common daily occupation in the dry season. Offshore stone weirs trap fish as the tide recedes, and rivers yield a variety of small shrimp and eel. Women fish with scoop nets; men use spears or cast nets. Basket traps, poison, and hook and line are used to a lesser extent. Hunting is confined to small birds, a few remaining deer, and an occasional domestic pig gone feral. Honey, mushrooms, seaweed, and agar-agar are gathered to supplement the diet. The Rotinese have herds of horses, water buffalo, sheep, and goats and most households have dogs, cats, pigs, and chickens.

Industrial Arts. Weaving of tie-and-dye cloths and basketry are the major domestic arts. Pottery, made in only a few areas with suitable clay, is traded throughout the island. Wandering Ndaonese goldsmiths attach themselves briefly to wealthy households, for whom they work gold and silver jewelry.

Trade. There is extensive trade between Roti and the town of Kupang on the island of Timor. On Roti, trade is mainly with Chinese and Muslim residents. Animals and foodstuffs are traded for broadcloth, cotton thread, kerosene, tobacco, and areca nuts. Apart from native pots, occasional flintlocks, and betel, the Rotinese trade little among themselves. The interisland trade with Kupang is becoming increasingly important. Clans possess rights to water and thus the right to appoint a ritual head over the corporation of individuals who hold plots of land irrigated by that water. Land, trees, and animals are the property of individual households. Native cloths, gold and silver jewelry, ancient mutisalah beads, and old weapons are the chief forms of movable wealth.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each domain is comprised of a number of named origin groups or clans (leo ), which constitute its political units. Clans are divided into named lineages (teik ) and these, in turn, into smaller "birth groups" (bobongik ), and finally individual households (urna ). Neither clans nor lineages are localized, though "birth groups" tend to cluster in the same general village area. In conventional terms, "descent" may be described as ideally "patrilineal." In fact, the continuity of origin groups is based on genitor lines that trace relations through a system of inherited, altering names. Since these "hard names," no matter from whom they are inherited, are associated with the masculine aspect of the person, origin groups are conceived of as symbolically "male." If bride-wealth has been paid, the child of the marriage belongs to his father's group and takes a part of his "hard name" from that of his father. This is the statistically overwhelming form of lineage ascription and name inheritance on Roti. The child of a woman for whom no bride-wealth has been paid belongs necessarily to his or her mother's group and acquires a part of the mother's "hard name." Although not exclusively lineal, there is no personally "optative" element in Rotinese lineage ascription.

Kinship Terminology. The Rotinese kin terminology has several levels of articulation. Father and father's brother are distinguished from mother's brother; mother and mother's sister are distinguished from father's sister. Same-sex siblings and parallel cousins are classified according to relative age; opposite-sex cross cousins are distinguished from parallel cousins. There is a special progenitor relationship, marked in the terminology, between mother's brother and sister's child.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Rotinese recognize three levels of marriage, depending on (1) the amount of bride-wealth given for the woman, (2) the reciprocal prestations on the part of the woman's family, (3) the amount of ceremony and feasting accompanying the marriage, and formerly (4) the length of bride-service performed by the groom. Bride-wealth may be paid in gold, in old silver rupiah, in water buffalo, or in sheep and goats; there exists a fixed conversion rate among these different forms of wealth. Polygyny is permitted and is the ideal of the rich and the noble. Rotinese clans are not exogamous, although lineages are. Marriage is prohibited between siblings and close parallel cousins; more distant parallel cousins are, however, potential marriage partners. Marriage is preferred but in no way prescribed between cross cousins, the stated preference being for marriage with the mother's brother's daughter. In Thie and Loleh, there exists a moiety system that partially regulates marriage. Divorce is relatively easy, but permission must be obtained from the lord's court. Levirate, sororate, and adoption are extremely rare.

Domestic Unit. Elder sons and all daughters leave at marriage, but the youngest son resides with his parents after marriage. The youngest son inherits the paternal house and brings his wife to live there. All elder sons must establish a new residence before or shortly after marriage, usually in the same village area but never too close to the paternal house. The domestic unit is based on the nuclear family and generally consists of husband, wife, and unmarried children, except for the youngest son and his wife. Widows can maintain their own households and raise their children on their own.

Inheritance. The eldest son inherits the right to represent his father in affinal ceremonies and inherits all affinal prestations; the youngest son inherits the house. Other wealth is divided equally among all sons. A daughter (or daughters) may inherit only when the household lacks a male heir.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Traditionally each domain was ruled by a "male" lord (manek ), a complementary and executant "female" lord (fettor ), and a number of court lords chosen, ideally, from each of the clans of the domain. In every domain, one court lord was Head of the Earth (dae langak ). He was the acknowledged upholder of customary law and had the right, in certain instances, to abrogate the lord's decision. His clan claims settlement priority and ritual rights over the land. Nobility is associated with the clans of the "male" and "female" lords; all others in a domain are commoners. The wealthy are frequently described as forming a separate class, but it is theoretically and, in fact, practically impossible for a wealthy commoner to become a noble. A former slave class has been absorbed within the other social categories. When the domain system was abolished in the 1970s, many of the functions of the domain, particularly rights to settle local disputes, devolved on the village headman. Much of Roti's traditional clan structure has been preserved under modern guises.

Social Control and Conflict. Means of settling disputes existed within the lineage and the clan and at the lord's court. There existed no traditional means of settling disputes between domains, and in the past such disputes led to warfare. Since approximately 1850, domain warfare has given way to a pattern of lesser feuding and some raiding across borders that persists to this day. Headhunting may have been ritually associated with agricultural fertility but, as an institution, it appears to have been eliminated or transformed, perhaps as early as the eighteenth century.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity has been preached on Roti since 1600 and has long been associated with some knowledge of Malay. Early in the twentieth century less than one-fifth of the population were baptized Christians, but wholesale conversion followed a national literacy campaign and government certification of its success. Traditional religious practice centers on ancestral spirits and their opposites, malevolent spirits associated with the bush. Lontar-leaf representations of the ancestors were hung within the house, which itself can be regarded as a shrine to the ancestors.

Religious Practitioners. There was no class of priests, although there exist men who are regarded as chanters and who recite long ritual poems at major feasts. Any man may make offerings to the spirits. A mother's brother must perform all life-cycle rituals for his sister's children.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonies are concerned with marriage, house building, and death. Minor ceremonies occur in the seventh month of the first pregnancy, at hair-cutting, baptism, naming, whenever human blood has been shed, at specific times during the agricultural and palm-tapping year, and at times of illness and upon recovery from illness. An annual clan-focused "feast of origin," hus, marking the transition from one year to another, has been abandoned in all domains except Dengka. In the hus cycle each clan that possessed ceremonial rights performed its own rituals according to a prescribed sequence of celebration. The cycle ran for several weeks in August, September, or October, depending on the domain and the number of its participating clans. Each hus involved ancestral invocations and requests for animal and plant fertility. Rituals also included horse racing, dancing, mock battles, and animal sacrifices. In the cycle there was usually one clan that performed rain rituals on a hilltop.

Arts. The Rotinese have maintained a vast oral literature and weave magnificent tie-and-dye textiles. This literature and textile tradition were once an integral part of Rotinese ritual life.

Medicine. Native curers, who use a variety of (secret) native medicines, have diminished in number. Formerly, for serious illness, a small feast was held to make offerings to the spirits. Now Christians gather at these feasts to pray for the sick.

Death and Afterlife. The souls of those who have died a violent death are separated from other ancestral souls and become malevolent spirits who wander the earth. Funeral practices are the most elaborate of the Rotinese rituals. The deceased's mother's brother and mother's mother's brother, or their direct descendants, prepare the coffin and dig the grave. Dog sacrifice may accompany the making of the coffin, called the ship of the dead. There exist numerous formal ritual chants in praise of the dead. Burial is usually on the third day after death; feasts are given on this day and on the seventh, ninth, and fortieth day, and further commemorative feasts may be given a year or even three years later. There are no secondary burial rites involving the exhumation of the corpse. The mother's brother "cools" or purifies the close mourners on the day following burial and releases them from their expected fast.

See also Ndaonese


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