The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Uncovering the mysterious past

Wanted: A university with a strong commitment to anthropology and archaeology, or a passionate philanthropist with similar interests.

The task: To build on existing scholarly research and maintain an outstanding collection of artefacts, thereby preserving records of a mysterious past and its unique treasures.

The reward: International acclaim.

Last year Father Johannes Hammerle (pictured above), the founder and director of the Nias Heritage Museum had a major health scare, undergoing a prostate gland operation at a Sumatra hospital.

No cancer was detected and the German-born priest looks exceedingly spry. But he’s just a few months from turning three score and ten, and there’s nothing like an encounter with a surgeon’s scalpel to sharpen the mind.

Not that a Capuchin friar needs a mortality alert, but it just helps make the need for future planning even more urgent.

Nias was Father Johannes’ first posting. He arrived on 21 July in 1971 after spending months in Sumatra learning Indonesian.

“At the time if I’d had the chance to choose I would have stayed in Sumatra,” he said. “Why should I go to a little island?”

Apart from discovering that the majority were Protestant (though ministers say the introduced religions don’t run deep), the first shock was discovering that his Sumatra studies were of limited help.

The people of Nias spoke their own language. But where did it originate? Where did the people come from? What was their history and culture?

It had long been known that Nias had a megalithic culture, using stone slabs to make monuments, graves and religious symbols. But few researchers had probed deeper.

Blessed with the sort of curiosity that annoys pedestrian minds Father Johannes started to explore his strange parish, assembling more questions than answers wherever he trod the rugged mountain tracks into the dark interior.

His searches in libraries overseas were equally frustrating. Very little was known and even less had been written. During the 1920s a Danish doctor involved in a vaccination program on Nias had collected some artefacts, but these are now in Europe.

Although he had no background in anthropology Father Johannes had all the skills of scholarship necessary to help fill some of the gaps. He learned the local language and started building an information base constructed from oral traditions.

Unlike other parts of Indonesia no batu tulis (stones engraved with words) have been found to help provide clues to the people of the past. The first written record comes from an 851 account by an Arab trader and translated into French.

Some stories told of people living in a cave known as Togi Ndrawa just outside Gunung Sitoli, the west coast capital – though that’s too grand a title for what is little more than a large village. There are only around 600,000 people living in the 45 kilometer-wide island, slightly smaller than Bali but far less accessible.

The cave faced east towards Sumatra, more than 100 kilometers distant, and ideal to catch the morning sun. It opened deep into the limestone mountain 130 meters above sea level, and could have accommodated several families.

With assistance from local and overseas institutions, including Surabaya’s Airlangga University, excavations showed the old stories were true.

“We now know that people were there from at least 12,000 years ago till about 600 years before the present,” Father Johannes said. “We also discovered that some were also living in tree houses to get above the mosquitoes and snakes.

“Development started when the Chinese arrived in the 14th century AD, probably with the explorer Zheng He. They established a shipyard at Singkuang on the west coast of Sumatra opposite Nias.

“The newcomers brought new technologies, ideas and materials like iron and gold. The people began to live in simple houses and these developed into the oval-shaped timber structures on massive poles that we see today.”

However these buildings are disappearing in favor of modern homes, the changes accelerated by reconstruction programs following the December 2004 tsunami and March 2005 earthquake that together killed around 1,000 and injured many more.

Also vanished is the gold used in the elaborate crocodile skin armor and headdresses worn by the warlike people who specialised in head hunting, the trophies used to buy brides. Once colonialists arrived the gold began to move off the island.

Along with the treasures went the wildlife. The island is now strangely lacking in birds and animals.

Unlike many missionaries Father Johannes didn’t follow a philosophy of purging communities of the artefacts associated with their earlier faiths. Instead he began to collect them – and write a book denouncing the attitudes of some Christians towards pagan symbols.

Once word of a buyer got around, the market started to make demands beyond the capacity of Father Johannes’ budget. But he’s still been able to collect around 6000 items. Some are displayed in the splendid purpose-built museum, constructed mainly using donations from Germany, including his Black Forest hometown of Hansach.

As an exhibition of Indonesian culture it’s far ahead in content, quality and layout when compared with the pleasant but limited provincial State Museum in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra.

The Nias collection includes sharks’ teeth from millions of years ago when the island was under water and marvellous carved tigers, more like dogs with dragonheads for the artists had never seen such animals

Apart from linguistic studies, the latest project to uncover the origins of the Nias people involves collecting hundreds of DNA samples from people across the island. These are being processed in Europe.

Although he has become an Indonesian citizen, Father Johannes isn’t optimistic that the government will step in to help. Nor does he anticipate much assistance from overseas visitors. Most come for the surf.

“The people here are not yet interested in preserving the past,” he said. “They are too poor and concerned with getting enough food to survive, and surfers have no culture.

“I think it’s important that young people know about their culture and we have many schoolchildren visiting the museum.

“There are lots of rich people in Jakarta who were originally from Nias. Maybe they should be providing support.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 Aug 2010)


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