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ETHNONYMS: Niasan (English), Niasser (Dutch and German), Ono Niha, Orang Nias (Indonesian)


Identification. Niasans inhabit the traditional homeland of the island of Nias, as well as the Batu Islands (which were settled from South Nias) and Hinako off the west coast of Nias. The name "Nias" is probably a foreign corruption of the indigenous name for the island, "Tanö Niha" (the land of men).

Location. Nias is located between 0° 30 and l° 30 N and 97° 00 and 98° 00 E, about 120 kilometers west of Sumatra, in Indonesia. It has an area of 5,450 square kilometers. The Batu Islands are a cluster of small islets 80 kilometers southeast, between Nias and Mentawai. The interior of Nias consists of forested hills up to 866 meters high. With 200-250 rainy days annually there are no distinct wet or dry seasons, although rain is heaviest from October to December.

Demography. In 1985 the population was estimated to be over 531,000 (including 22,583 in the Batu Islands) with an average density of 94.5 persons per square kilometer and an annual population growth of 2.6 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nias belongs to the Western Malayo-Polynesian Branch of the Austronesian Language Family. Further research is needed to establish a subgrouping of Nias with other related languages, but attempts have been made to link it with Mentawai and Toba Batak. The language (li niha: "the language of men") has five dialects, with a broad division between South Nias and the rest of the island. Batu Islanders speak the southern dialect. The Bible was translated into a northern dialect, and this has become the standard form. Bahasa Indonesia, the language of government bureaucracy and education, is not widely known among ordinary villagers.

History and Cultural Relations

The origin of the Nias people is unknown. There are striking cultural similarities with the Batak, Toraja, Ngaju Dayak, and peoples of eastern Indonesia, all of which belong to the same language family. But similar social systems can be found among peoples of highland Southeast Asia (Kachin, Chin, Naga). A diffusion of so-called megalithic cultures from Assam has been postulated, but more comparative research is needed to substantiate reconstructions. There is a myth of origin from the center of Nias, and clan pedigrees all connect ultimately to a few tribal progenitors. The great cultural variation in Nias cannot easily be explained therefore by a theory of separate waves of migration to the island. The only important external contact recorded before Dutch intervention is with Acehnese slave traders who brought gold, the supreme prestige object, needed for bride-wealth and feasts of merit. The slave trade led to the depopulation of large areas, and was only brought under control in this century. In 1857 the whole island came nominally under Dutch control, but Nias remained marginal to colonial interests until a change in policy toward the Outer Islands, which led to the complete conquest of the island in 1906. Traders from Sumatra, some of whom settled in the port of Gunung Sitoli, brought Islam to many coastal areas. Christianity was introduced by German Protestant missionaries in 1865, its geographical spread coinciding with colonial domination. It made little progress, however, until the traditional social structure and its ideological underpinnings were broken down by missionary and government interference, paving the way for a wholesale rejection of tradition. From around 1915 a series of apocalyptic conversion movements swept across the island. The character of Christianity in Nias today and its relation to traditional culture owe much to this period, which has come to be known as The Great Repentance. Postindependence Nias has seen some economic development and expansion of the administrative capital and an increasing centralization of power away from the villages.


Traditional villages (banua ) are of several types. In the south, which is a distinct region culturally, villages are very large and compact, with several hundred houses. These are ranged close together along the sides of a paved plaza, dominated by the house of the chief, which is built on a much larger scale than are other houses. In the area referred to in the literature as the center (around Gomo, which is actually southeast), many smaller villages of a similar type are found (with a maximum of fifty houses), usually strategically placed on hilltops, as well as small, amorphous clusters of dwellings and dispersed temporary homesteads. In the north, villages may be dispersed or compact but they do not usually have more than between twenty and thirty houses. The present system of administrative villages (Indonesian desa ) is based on the existing pattern of settlements, sometimes amalgamating several traditional villages or hamlets under a single headman. Most villages were originally founded by a single descent group, later becoming transformed into multiclan settlements. Houses in the center and south are beautiful rectangular structures raised on high pillars, surmounted by roofs of sago thatch up to 20 meters high. In the northern half of the island, houses are oval. Because of dwindling forest reserves and the great expense of feasting that traditional building involves, simple houses of wooden planks or concrete with corrugated roofs are now the usual form of architecture. Stone monuments, which once adorned every village, are no longer erected.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The only major town in Nias is Gunung Sitoli, which has regular maritime commercial links with Sumatra, and is the principal market for cash crops and the source of imported goods. There is a small tourist industry in the south. Coastal dwellers (mainly Muslim) practice fishing from outrigger canoes. The vast majority of the population is engaged in agriculture and pig farming. Sweet potatoes, cassava, and rice are the staple crops, cultivated in swiddens and gardens mostly by traditional methods (no plows, draft animals, or fertilizer are used). Wet-rice farming is restricted by hilly terrain and low technology. Little primary forest remains, and short swidden cycles (owing to pressure on land) have led to lower yields. Cash crops include coffee, raw rubber, cloves, patchouli oil, and copra. While all commodities are integrated in the market, traditional rates of exchange between pigs, gold, and rice are adhered to in some areas for customary transactions. In the center, where feasts of merit are still held and bride-wealth is extremely high, a traditional economy based on relations of prestige and reciprocity persists, despite modern influences. Hunting for wild pigs is practiced in many areas. Compared with Sumatra and most of Indonesia, Nias is very poor.

Industrial Arts. Niasans are highly skilled builders, producing some of the finest domestic architecture in Southeast Asia. Imported clothing long ago replaced locally produced bark cloth. Mats and baskets are still made in the villages.

Trade. Small weekly markets usually serving several villages are held all over Nias, providing an outlet for surplus crops and a living for small local traders, who obtain goods from town.

Division of Labor. Women perform domestic chores, tend gardens, weed fields, and prepare pig food. Men clear forest for swiddens, hunt, fish, and spend much time in customary transactions. Planting in many areas is done by teams, who receive payment in rice and pork.

Land Tenure. Great variation occurs, but there is usually a distinction between original tenants and recent settlers. The latter may not sell or transfer the land they work or plant coconut trees, which are signs of permanent ownership. In the south, communal village ownership of land with allocation of it by the chief has been reported. In the north and center, land belongs to the person who first cleared it, and to his descendants or lineage. Segments of the lineage or nuclear families work individual plots of lineage land. Forest land or land that has remained fallow for more than twenty years may be claimed by anyone.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal. Clans (mado ) are dispersed. In the center, the local lineage is the largest corporate descent group. It has a depth of about six generations and its members, who call themselves sambua motua (those of one ancestor), generally share land, cooperate in festive and economic ventures, venerate the same set of ancestor figures, and live in the same or adjoining houses. Variant marriage forms have no effect on patrilineal recruitment. Fostering of agnates or a sister's child is common but adoption of nonkin is rare and was formerly associated with servitude. In the south patrilineal descent groups of varying compass are called mo'ama. Precise details on descent organization in the north and south are lacking. There is great variation in adherence to the ideal of clan exogamy, both within a region and between regions.

Kinship Terminology. Great regional variety and a complexity of contextual options prevent a simple classification. In all areas matrilateral cross cousins are distinguished from other cousins and siblings. Distinctions of relative age in sibling sets are carried through all levels down to grandchild. There are separate terms for wife givers and wife takers but no prescriptive equations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Bride-wealth (böli niha, bövö ) consists of up to thirty named prestations, mainly of gold and pigs, raised by loans from agnates and neighbors. Recipients include the members of the bride's lineage and the agnates of her mother, mother's mother, mother's mother's mother, etc. These groups of agnates form a series of affines who are collectively viewed as wife givers (direct or indirect) to the groom. As such they (and the man's own mother's agnates) are ritually superior and are owed lifelong allegiance and tribute on festive occasions. A prohibition on the reciprocal exchange of women gives an asymmetric slant to the pattern of affinal relations. In the south the ideal marriage is with a matrilateral cross cousin, but there is no terminological prescription. Postmarital residence is typically patrilocal. Variant forms of marriage include uxorilocality, polygyny, bride-service, and widow-inheritance. Divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. There is a range of household types from nuclear family, which forms a unit of production and consumption, up to joint family of brothers with their sons and grandchildren and incoming wives. In central Nias a whole local lineage may reside in one large building with separate family quarters and a common social area.

Inheritance. Sons receive almost everything, with rules varying on how seniority and personal qualities affect entitlement. In some areas uxorilocal sons-in-law and sisters' sons can be endowed if they have been loyal and generous allies to the deceased.

Socialization. Infants are raised by all members of the household, including older siblings. Division of chores by gender begins in early childhood. Full moral responsibility and social adulthood are only attained on marriage and parenthood. The moral qualities valued in a man are filial piety, cleverness and skill in speech, firmness, and initiative; in women, chastity and diligence.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In South Nias there are two hereditary classes: nobles (si'ulu ) and commoners (sato ). Slaves (savuyu ) were bonded laborers, captives, or ransomed criminals. Children of a nobleman and a commoner woman (in a secondary marriage) are ono ba zato (child by a commoner), an intermediate rank that is not heritable. A council of elders (si'ila ) is appointed from the commoner class. In the north and center there is an analogous hierarchy of ranks rather than classes, with greater social mobility and emphasis on achieved status. Hamlet or village chiefs are called salawa; satua mbanua, village elders, are men who have demonstrated superior qualities and mastery of custom by staging feasts of merit (ovasa ). Ordinary villagers are called ono mbanua. There are further informal gradations of status subject to continual revision. Status is validated and raised in feasts of merit. Influence is won by gaining credit in the system of festive payments. This system is insulated from other forms of exchange (e.g., mutual aid, bride-wealth) by elaborate rules and different systems of measurement. In parts of North Nias, however, the size of bride-wealth was formerly integrated with social rank in a single scheme of "steps" (bosi ).

Political Organization. Nias is a kabupaten (regency) of the North Sumatran province of Indonesia. Its thirteen subdistricts (kecamatan ) contain an average of fifty villages each. Many areas had traditional federations of villages (öri ), which legislated on rates of exchange and interest on loans, and within which headhunting and war were prohibited. The öri were renamed negeri after independence and dissolved in 1967. Prior to the Dutch "revival" of the öri system, there was no political unit above village-level in the center; nor was there a paramount chief until the Dutch imposed one. Leadership in the village was informal and unstable as the prominent men of each lineage vied for supremacy. In the south the traditional ruler is the senior nobleman, the balö zi'ulu, who rules in concert with his councillors or elders. The status and functions of traditional chief and government headman overlap to some extent.

Social Control. Serious crimes are now dealt with by government authorities. In disputes over matters of custom (e.g., bride-wealth, adultery, land borders), long debates, led by elders and chiefs, have the aim of restoring social harmony and reaching a settlement, rather than simply imposing a penalty. Fines, in pigs and gold, include a meal for participants. Offenses against church rules (e.g., polygyny, funeral feasts) are punished by expulsion from the church and denial of the sacraments.

Conflict. Prior to colonial government, warfare and headhunting between villages (or between öri) were endemic. Heads or human sacrifices were required for funerals and certain feasts of merit. The slave trade with Aceh led to increased insecurity.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In 1985 80 percent of the population was Protestant, 15 percent was Catholic, and 5 percent was Muslim. Affiliation to an official religion is compulsory under national law.

Aspects of the traditional religion survive in the vernacular Christianity (e.g., in concepts of sin and misfortune). The ethos of social life derives from a non-Christian value system. Some spirit beliefs persist. Feasts of merit are intended partly as a means of winning the blessing and fertility dispensed by wife givers, who are thus in a position analogous to the gods (cf. "Batak"). In the old cosmology a creator god, Lowalangi, and his younger brother Lature Danö (center: Nazuva Danö) control the upper and lower world respectively. There was a priestly cult of the goddess Silewe. Man's daily welfare depended on the placation of patrilineal ancestral spirits and on the blessing of wife givers. His ultimate destiny lay with Lowalangi, who keeps men as his pigs. Sacrifices to forest spirits ensured success in the hunt. There were no clan totems.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional ritual experts (male or female) called ere performed life-cycle rituals, divination, and healing, interceding with ancestral spirits (represented in carved wooden figures), and with God in various manifestations. Some were experts in reciting oral traditions. The charismatic leaders of the conversion and revivalist movements have often been ere, and evangelists often claim the ere's oracular skills, albeit in Christian guise.

Ceremonies. Most stages of the life cycle are marked by ceremonies and, usually, by feasting. The complex systems of exchange and measurement were regulated by ritual. Epidemics, thought to be caused by profiteering, were remedied by expiatory sacrifices and a lowering of interest rates. In the center, annual clan ceremonies (famongi ) involving abstention from work took place after the harvest. For any venture, the household ancestor figures were adorned and given offerings. Large-scale feasts of merit today retain an important place only in central Nias.

Arts. Fine wooden ancestor figures were once carved, as well as larger statues that were venerated before raids. Ornamented stone columns are found in South Nias; limestone seats with animal heads as well as a variety of columns are found in the center. Traditional arts are no longer practiced except in making souvenirs for tourists. Many fine statues and carvings are now in museums and collections abroad.

Medicine. The remedy for illness is indicated by the diagnosis of the cause by a diviner, healer, or Christian priest: counter-magic for sorcery, herbal palliatives for poisoning, placation of the ancestors by sacrifice to remove a curse, tribute to disgruntled wife givers, repentance to the Christian God (who, it is believed, punishes sin with disease and death).

Death and Afterlife. Only men who had performed feasts of merit, whose festive debts had been paid off, and who had been buried with full honors (including human sacrifice) could enter the Golden Paradise, tete holi ana'a, which seems to have been a replica of the earthly village. Ordinary men were left to rot and "became food for the worms."

See also Batak; Mentaweian


Beatty, Andrew (1992). Society and Exchange in Nias. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Marschall, Wolfgang (1976). Der Berg des Herrn der Erde: Alte Ordnung und Kulturkonflikt in einem indonesischen Dorf. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

Schröder, Engelbertus Eliza Willem Gerards. (1917). Nias: Ethnographische, geographische en historische aanteekeningen en Studiën. Leiden: N. V. Boekhandel en Drukkerij Voorheen E. J. Brill.

Suzuki, Peter (1959). The Religious System and Culture of Nias, Indonesia. The Hague: Excelsior.