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23. Order in East Timor during 600BCE-476CE,

FEB. 25, 2021


Hold onto your heads! Ryan travels to #EastTimor and delves back into the #classical period (600 B.C. - A.D. 476) to introduce Pete to ocean-travelling drums, nutty #drugs and #headhunters.

In this episode we visit the island (well half-island) nation of East Timor. This long, thin island is 485km / 300 miles by 90km / 55 miles and is the last in a long island chain that starts with Malaysia and curls south-east (down and to the right) to Singapore, Sumatra, Java, Indonesia and a bunch of other island nations on a heading towards Australia.

It is also the only Asian country to be located entirely under the equator

We say half-island because Timor is a country divided. It is literally split down the middle making up West Timor which today is part of Indonesia and East Timor which is its own independent state.

East Timor is the anglicised version of Timor Leste, it’s colonial name, which is also weird, because the Indo-Malay for ‘East’ is Timor, so East Timor means ‘East East’.

Dili is the capital, the largest city, and where half of all urban people live and they speak mostly Tetum and Portuguese, although a huge 40 other languages or dialects are used as well.

It’s not a rich place, the main exports are oil, coffee and sandalwood and coffee production employs 5% of the population. More important though is oil, and East Timor is recognised as the most oil-dependent country in the world.

People arriving in East Timor

40,000 years ago in the upper Paleolithic, and Timor is populated by three migrations that were happening across the entire South East region. The first people were The Vedda, who arrive around 42,000 years ago using their excellent sailing skills. In fact these people used the world’s earliest known fishhook.

Then in 3,000BC at about 4pm, a second migration brings Melanesians from the East. This caused the Vedda who were on the island to withdraw into the mountains and become mountain people (“dump the fish hooks guys, we’re mountain people now”).

And finally, Timorese myths then tell of ancestors who sail around the eastern end of the island, arriving in the south. These are believed to be a third migration from China

The first historical record is found in 1300 and describes Timor as an island populated by 60 small kingdoms. 200 years later a group of French Catholic friars establish a village called Lifau. Soon after that, the Portuguese arrive, and a trade route is opened.

From here East Timor really becomes a destination for Europeans and in 1600 the Dutch start trading too. In1702 the island becomes a Portuguese colony, taking the name Portuguese Timor

Eventually, in 1859 – the Dutch and Portuguese split Timor down the middle – creating East Timor, where they put down independence movements, including the 1910 Great Rebellion. They can’t keep the people down for ever though, in 1975 Portugal leaves the island for good…whereupon Indonesia immediately invades and takes over.

It is not until 1999 when a referendum results in 78% vote for pro-independence from Indonesia that signs of freedom appear, and in 2002 East Timor finally gained its independence.

Life in ‘Classical’ East Timor

Well, it’s hard to know what life was like in our Classical period. But recent discoveries have shown Timor-Leste has a lot of rock art. 30 sites have been located so far – most on the north-eastern end of the island.

There are hand stencils, abstract imagery, geometric shapes, simple figures of people and animals. For a long time it was difficult to date these images, until a relatively recent discovery.

In 2014, a round fragment of bronze metal was found in an old cemetery. The metal had a low-relief, 10-pointed star, surrounded by concentric areas of geometric shapes

One year later in 2015, in a village north of where the first discovery was made, more metal was found!

This was a whole item – a big bronze drum measuring 0.8m in height with a tympanum (the bit you hit) 1.1m in diameter.

It was missing part of the base and a small part of the decoration, but otherwise, it was near complete. It was also highly decorated, including four toads, spaced equally around the upper edge, figures of humans on the sides, each with high feather headdresses and a schematic image of a boat.

These drums now sit in the national collection in the capital city, Dili and were easily identifiable as Đông Sơn drums, created by the Đông Sơn culture in northern Vietnam. More than 400 Dong Son drums have been found spread across a distance of 4000km from east to west - the entire region of Island Southeast Asia. They are an astounding example of metalworking for their time period.

But even better, the artwork on the sides of the drums mirrors the style and content of the rock art too – tying the two together and suggesting this is the same time period the rock art was created.

But why were Vietnamese drums in East Timor?

The answer to that is a sea-based network of trade and exchange, ongoing for over a thousand years long before the arrival of the Europeans.

Sea-based network of trade

In the classical period in the North, Indian and Chinese empires were also flourishing, expanding their boundaries, and meeting and engaging with ethnically and culturally different peoples.

As is often the case, trade became the first step / door opener for their interactions. Valuable day-to-day items like raw materials, food crops and animal were exchanged, but so were people, technology, religious beliefs - and disease! (although that last one was a bit more of an accident.

But what can the East Timorese do for us? The answer was in the trees.


The most lucrative item they had on the island was Sandalwood - which grew in forests across the island and was a highly praised aromatic wood. This wood retains its fragrance for decades and the oil can be extracted is used for cosmetics and perfumes. Even today, Sandalwood is one of the most expensive woods in the world.

So from the Timorese perspective, they were likely very happy to trade sandalwood in exchange for two shiny bronze drums, but they were probably more keen to trade Sandalwood for something else, something rather moreish.

Betel chewing is one of Timor’s most traditional customs, in use even today. It involves taking an areca-nut, the seed of the areca palm, a leaf of the betel-pepper and and lime, which, in Timor, they keep in gourds around their waist.

To take it, you take a leaf, you daub it with lime paste and you top that with thin slices of the areca nut, then you fold or roll it into a bite-size packet – called a ‘quid’ – and you pop it in your mouth and chew it.

When you do that, the ingredients mix together with saliva and turn your saliva red. Like the mouth is full of blood. This juice is mostly spat out, leaving red splotches on the ground.

Similar to caffeine or tobacco, Betel it is highly addictive, produces a race of the pulse, and increases brain activity, described like ‘taking a dab of heavily cut speed and rubbing it on the gums’ (for those of you out there who know what that’s like).

Another consistent theme of both the rock art and the drums is the depiction of figures in headdress holding ceremonial axes (candrasa) and severed human heads.

This is likely to be imagery of head hunting, a practice that was widespread in the Indonesian islands—including Timor. When the Europeans arrived in the area, it had been around long enough for them to describe it as a long-established custom.

Headhunting was a common practice throughout South East Asia, not just in Timor (where it was only retired as a practice in 1942).

Partly a means to maintain social hierarchy, only men could hunt for heads and only after they reached the age of forty.

During the hunt, the look for the menfolk of other villages and when they find them, they cut off their heads with a curved blade. At that moment, the arrayal [warriors] of the kingdom sing the Loro Sai (rising sun), a chant which is full of melody and harmony.

Back at the village, any Timorese male who cuts the head off of a man is considered assuai (brave) and is entitled to a reward from his régulo [chief or ruler].

A great ceremony takes place inside the village fort. They wait inside the fort with their decapitated head tied by their hair to bamboo sticks for four days and four nights, during this time they each put a betel chew in the mouth of the severed head “so that they do not miss the pleasures that they had in life”.

After four days, the heads are brought to the king and a ceremony is held which elevates the men who have taken a head. Ceremonies start at night with a young woman dressing as a meo (headhunter) leading the male initiates into the shrine area where the heads are displayed.

The warriors form a circle, each of them around the heads they have cut off. The chief presents the heads to the crowd, expressing a thousand apologies for having had to cut it off.

Then he demonstrates to the head why its decapitation was necessary, but tells it not to worry, because it will never fall short of anything. Then the mood changes to incriminating the heads, raising his axe and singing to them, saying: ‘But why have you armed yourselves against us? Why did you want to kill us? For didn’t you know that we are stronger than you?’

Eventually, things become even more heated and the old female shaman and other women of the tribe dance before the heads and become possessed by their spirits. They toss the heads back and forth between themselves, kick them around the floor, wear them like a hat, and even suck the blood from them, like milk from a coconut. Which is very gross.

This goes on for many days, with identical ceremonies performed exactly the same way over and over again on each night.

So, same time tomorrow then?

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