The Mentawai
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The Mentawai

Hunters - Gatherers of Sumatra

Hunters - Gatherers of Sumatra

They are one of the oldest native tribes in Indonesia, also named Mentawei or Mentawi. Nowadays, they are estimated to be around 64.000, and they mainly live in Siberut Island. They originally come from the northern island Nias and then settled in Mentawai Islands, close to the western coast of Sumatra. They have always lived isolated until in XVII century Dutch arrived. They are also known as "Flower people" because of their connection with nature. Mentawai people used to inhabit in the coastal and rainforest environment, but recently the central government started a relocation plan trying to assimilate indigenous culture.


  • Region is Southern Asia

  • Climate here is Tropical

  • The challenge here is Medium

  • This trip has been rated 5 by other travelers



Mentawai always survived by what nature offered: man fishing and hunting deer, primates, warthogs, and women gathering wild yams or fruits. They also keep pigs and chickens for feeding and dogs to spot animals during the hunt. They never killed an animal or exploited a plant without asking for their spirit's forgiveness.


Usually, more than a family live in the "Uma": a longhouse. Walls are made with bamboo strips weaved together, and the roof is thatched with grass. Houses have a wooden floor elevated on stilts so that they are ventilated and isolated from insects, animals, and flooding. There are two other versions of the “Uma”: a “Lalep” that is a smaller house hosting only one family and the “Rusuk” where widows and bachelors live.


Social Structure

Traditionally clan members are all treated equally and lived in small groups in longhouses. In this group, there are Shamans, called "Sikerei" who are responsible for ceremonies and to pass down traditional indigenous knowledge about religion, tattooing and a self-sufficient lifestyle.


Most of Mentawai follows “Arat Sabulungan”: an animist system believing in supernatural powers and ancestral spirits. They believe every element of nature has a spirit. They still practice their ancient veneration even if recently government ask them to declare which of the officially accepted religions they belong to.


Their tattooing tradition, called “Titi", is considered one of the oldest in the world. A tattoo describes the role of a person in society: actually, different patterns and design are varying according to regions and clans.

In past times Mentawai people sharpen their teeth with a chisel to feel more beautiful.

They wear colourful collars around the neck, wrists or on the head and adorn their air or ears with flowers.

Men used to wear a loincloth made with the bark of a gum tree. Nowadays it is made of cloth. Women in past times wore small vests made of banana leaves.

They perform different styles of dance inspired by animal’s movements.


Schooled children are encouraged to speak Indonesian, but Mentawai remains the principal language of this tribe. It is part of the Austronesian language family.


Coloured beads necklaces and other objects for daily life. Ordinary objects must be made attractive to the user, and also for the object itself, in order to support its desire to function properly. Mantawai think that beauty is necessary for harmony. They carve wooden birds that are present when the shamans (kerei) summon the group’s ancestors as toys for their souls, but they also carve other objects and flower decorations used in ritual contexts.


Tribal rituals where shamans make tattoos with a needle and two pieces of wood shaped into a hammer-like stick.

They celebrate special ceremonies to guard them against evils spirits.

Special ceremonies are held before killing or eating animals.
Further knowledge

Further knowledge

With the use of money in communities relatively recent, wealth is still measured in pigs. These animals are hunted in the jungle - and then raised near the umas-, which makes a person's wealth depend on their own work and not on inheritances.

In the last decades two tsunamis have hit the island of Siberut. The explanation of this ethnic group to the phenomenon is simple: it is the gods and ancestors who cause it.

Photo credits

Mentawai islands

“Senyuman Sikerei dari Mentawai" by Erisonjkambari is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

"Panah Mentawai" by zulfikar_efendi is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Tribal elder poisoning arrowheads Mates

Mentawai Islands Botha

Mantawai house