Origins of Nias People
In 1154 the Arab cartographer Edrisi wrote that "the island of Nias is occupied by a large number of tribes." After having travelled far and wide he settled in Sicily and was commissioned by King Roger II to write a geographic book describing the lands he had seen or heard about on his journeys. In this book Edrisi wrote about Niyan (Nias Island), that it was densely populated, that there was no cities and that the island was occupied by a large number of different tribes.
These tribes were the first inhabitants of Nias Island, before the current ethnic group arrived. Oral storytelling in Gomo mentions that there were six tribes who were all descendants of Mother Sirici. They are also briefly described in the genealogy of Nias people written by Sundermann and Thomas, missionaries who recorded the oral history on Nias around the year 1885. Both of them identified two ancestral branches from oral legends. The first branch contains the original inhabitants of Nias. They were considered less human and sometimes even described as ghosts or evil spirits. The second branch outlines the ancestors of the true humans (Niha), which were the forefathers of today’s ethnic Nias people. Nias people call themselves Ono Niha (the children of human beings) and the name for Nias Island is Tanö Niha, which means Land of the Humans.
The first inhabitants of Nias – descendants of Mother Sirici
People of the underground (Niha moroi tou)
This tribe lived in caves and their lifestyle was similar to cave dwellers from the early Mesolithic period and the Epi-Palaeolithic cultures that existed in Hoa Binh in Vietnam. Human habitation of caves on Nias has been verified by archaeological excavations (facilitated by the Nias Hertiage Museum) in Tögi Ndrawa cave near Gunungsitoli. Tögi Ndrawa means Alien Cave indicating that a different kind of people lived here. Research shows that human habitation starter more than 12,000 years ago, but abruptly stopped some 700 years ago. During a DNA study about the origins of Nias ethnic group, no traces of the cave dwellers were found in the genes of Nias people. The reasons for this maybe that the they were quickly extinct and there was no interbreeding between them and the Nias ethnic group.
The White People (Niha safusi)
Oral traditions describe this tribe as being very pale and living in trees. They were the owners of the forests and all the animals living in the jungle. Nias people and other tribes who wanted to hunt in the woods had to ask permission from them by making offerings. As late as 1985 some communities still put offerings under trees to appease the Niha Safusi. Their ancestor was named Bela and they were known as Ono Bela (sons of Bela).
The River People (Cuhanaröfa)
According to oral traditions the Cuhanaröfa tribe was living along the rivers of Nias.
The Big Heads (Sebua gazuzu)
This tribe was also called Nadaoya and was said to have big heads and dark skin and speak loudly using a guttural language. They were seen as evil spirits or dangerous demons.
The tribe known as Sihambula lived next to or under waterfalls and in steep ravines. They were the owners of waterfalls and wild pig wallows.
The Underwater People (Barö nidanö)
As there is no people living underwater it is believed that the myth refers to people or a tribe that was drowned by a tsunami. These people were also called sea ghosts (Bekhu nasi).
The oral traditions of the Ono Niha ethnic group naturally focus on themselves so there is very little information about the first inhabitants of the Island. If mentioned at all, the previous inhabitants are described as either subhuman or as only existing in mythology.
Who were these people and did they actually exist? There were definitively people on the island before the current ethnic group arrived. This is confirmed by historical records and archaeological research. Some of these described groups may just be fictitious mythological stories, but others, especially the cave and three dwelling people did exist. They were possibly groups of Austronesian tribes that had been isolated on the island. Some Nias people today have tight curly hair which may be the result of genes from the first inhabitants of Nias.
Nias People (Ono Niha)
The second branch of people on Nias is the Ono Niha, who is the dominant ethnic group on Nias today. Early Nias people didn’t refer to themselves as a particular tribe or group, but simply as ‘humans’. According to mythology they are the descendants of Mother Nazara. The first Nias people lived in the upper world and are therefore sometimes called "the People from above" (Moroi yaŵa). The original ancestors were lowered to earth (Nias Island) by Mother Nazara.
It is not clear who was the first Ono Niha clan to arrive on the island, but Chinese sounding names are often mentioned; Ho, Hia or Hia-Ho. DNA research shows that the Ono Niha ethnic group have many similarities with Austronesian tribes in the Philippines and Taiwan that originated from Yunnan in South China.
The Ono Niha ethnic people arrived on Nias around 1350 AD. They had superior technical skills in agriculture, animal husbandry, weaving, carpentry, metal smithing and architecture. The new arrivals also brought with them their own customs and culture such as ancestor worship and megalithic culture.
At this time the Ming dynasty ruled the seas in Southeast Asia. In 1350 AD there was a Chinese colony
called Singkuang at the mouth of the river Batang gadis which is facing Nias on the west coast of Sumatra. Singkuang was an important shipyard and trading hub. It is possible that the Ono Niha people come to Nias via Singkuang.
Some well-known early Ono Niha clans are the Siraso, Hia and Ho. According to genealogy these clans have lived in the Sifalagö Gomo region of Nias since the beginning of Ono Niha on the island. Research conducted by Archaeological Institute of Medan in Sifalagö Gomo found evidence of the presence of Nias people in that area starting around 1350 AD, or about 600-700 years ago.
An early wave of immigration?
The genealogy of tribes who practise ancestor worship is often very accurate. By examining the genealogy of some clans on Nias, we can conclude that there may have been early waves of immigration before the main influx around 1350 AD. By counting 25 years for each generation and following the genealogy of some clans it is clear that they did not arrive at the same time as the majority of Ono Niha people. One interesting example is the Daeli clan. Their family history states that they came to Nias nine generations before there the Hia clan(1350 AD). If correct this means they arrived c. 225 years before the main wave of immigrants. According to the Daeli genealogy (42 generations) we come close to the same estimated arrival: ± 950 AD. Other examples are:
- Sihai, Sirao and Luomewöna clans; 60 generations = estimated arrival ± 500 AD.
- Gözö and Baeha clans; 40 generations = estimated arrival ± 1000 AD.
These calculations do not intend to question the theory about Ono Niha arrival around 1350 AD. It simply tells us that the immigration of Nias by the Ono Hiha tribe may have been done in waves rather than in one big push.
Other ethnic groups on Nias
The Polem clan from Aceh
A small group of immigrants from Aceh arrived to Nias in 1642. They belonged to the Polem clan and arrived with seven ships. They landed in several places on the east-coast of the island. One of the landing sites were the entrance of Idanoi river. Their descendants are still living on Nias today and can be found in the Mudik area of Gunungsitoli and in To’ene. Many muslims in Gunungsitoli are descendants of these immigrants from Aceh. Relics from this event include two large cannons that were brought from Aceh on-board the ships. These can be seen at the Government Pavillion in Gunungsitoli and in front of the oldest mosque in Mudik.
The Bugis People
The Buginese people are an ethnic group of seafaring nomads that journeyed all over Southeast Asia. Today most of them live in Sulawesi. According to Nias oral tradition, there are several mentions about the presence of Bugis people on the island. They lived in Laowö Maru in Southern Gunungsitoli; In Masa, the headwaters of Oyo river; in Bahoya in Mazinö and Bekhua in Telukdalam. But today they are no longer there. Their descendants can be found on Hinako Islands, in Sirombu in west Nias and on Tello islands in South Nias. Many of the Bugis in Hinako Islands were killed during repeated attacks by Acehnese people. Bugis descendends still live in Hinako islands today, often with surnames like Marunduri and Maru'ao.
Chinese people have been coming to Nias as traders for hundreds of years and many of them have settled on the island. Chinese families have been living in towns and larger villages along the coast for generations. Descendants of ethnic Chinese people are known as "Tionghoa" in Indonesia. Examples of Chinese clan names on Nias are; Lim (Halim), Thio, Wong, Tan and Gho.
In the last century there has also been an influx of other Indonesian ethnic groups through intermarriage, particularly Batak people from Sumatra.
The Nias language is very old and unique and its origins in not known. It is not closely related to other languages in the region and does not easily fall into any other category of languages. Linguistically it is described as an Austronesian language.
It is assumed that each new tribe that immigrated to Nias gradually abandoned their own languages and started using the Li Niha language (the language that is spoken on Nias today). An example is the Polem clan from Aceh who immigrated to the Mudik area of Gunungsitoli and today use the Nias language exclusively. A more recent example is the Bugis people in Hinako Islands. Until 1800 they still spoke the Bugis language but since then have changed to Nias language. Bugis language is called Li mbekhua in Nias Language. Some examples of Bugis language on Nias is the name for Tello Island. In Makassar, the heartland of the Bugis people, there was a kingdom by the name of Tello.
Today there are approximately one million speakers of the Li Niha language. This included the 700.000 ethnic Nias people living on the island as well as several hundred thousand Nias people living elsewhere in Indonesia. It is very much a living language and many people, especially in remote areas use Nias language exclusively. It is possible to meet older people who don't speak the national language.
Customs, laws and religious beliefs
It is generally acknowledged that most customs and traditional law on Nias originate from Gomo. This does not mean that all Nias people are from Gomo, but the main wave of Ono Niha immigration settled in the Gomo area and spread from there.
Some of the most important aspects of Nias customs are;
- Traditional weddings: one of the most common manifestations of Nias culture is the traditional wedding. There are strict protocols outlining the many ceremonies that have to be observed before a marriage is concluded. Because a marriage is the joining of two clans, the impact of a wedding can affect many people and is therefore a very serious matter.
- Traditional law: customary rules are known as fondrakö. Fondrakö is not only general guidelines but actually the law. Many aspects of life are governed by these rules. Customary laws are settled during fondrakö ceremonies. Breaking traditional laws will be punished according to the crime ranging from payment of a fine to gruesome executions.
- Ancestor worship: the pre-Christian religion on Nias was a form of ancestor worship. Elderly people were deeply respected and dead parents and ancestors worshiped. Ancestors were represented by wooden Adu Zatua sculptures and prayers and offerings were made to them.
Community structure and hierarchy
The community structure on Nias is patrilineal. Members of a clan follow the male line which is a common kinship system in which an individual's family membership derives from and is traced through his or her father's lineage.
Marriages had to be arranged between people from different clans to avoid inbreeding. Daughters were always married away to other clans and villages. Brides can be taken from other clans by paying a dowry. When negotiating the dowry (the amount of pigs for the wedding feast) the uncles of the bride have the final say.
Nias people were strictly hierarchical and divided in three classes; noble men, commoners and slaves. Each class had different levels. The chiefs were the highest of the noblemen, almost closer to gods than human. Next came the noblemen who were involved in governance. The rank of a commoner was more fluid and depended on his wealth (gold, pigs and slaves) and ability to provide the sacrifices necessary for the feasts of merit (Owasa). Slaves were divided in three levels; prisoners taken in war, people unable to pay their debts, and criminals with a death sentence who had been pardoned. Prisoners of war were the lowest category and were sometimes sacrificed when human heads were needed for ceremonies.
There was never one chief or King of all Nias Island, and this is why Nias culture is described as a tribal society. Each village had its own chief, but villages from the same clan were tied together in a type of federation called Öri. Some öri's in the south were very powerful and sought to dominate other öri's through outright war or political maneuvering. In the southern tip of South Nias there were three important öri’s with descendants from the ancestors Mölö, Lalu and Zinö. They were known as Maniamölö, Onolalu and Mazinö. To this day this is where the most impressive traditional villages on Nias can be found. The strongest öri was Maniamölö and the most powerful chief lived in a large building (Omo Sebua) in Bawömataluo village. This is why this house is often (mistakenly) called the Kings House.
A Warrior Society
When slaves became a commodity around the eleventh century Nias Island was often raided by outsiders, particularly from Aceh. Eventually the chieftains of Nias also became involved in the trade, selling captured enemies in exchange for gold. For a long time the people of Nias lived in a state of perpetual conflict, defending themselves against slave raiders or engaging in intertribal warfare. Nias society developed a culture of war, focusing on constructing defenses and making weapons. Young men were brought up to become fierce warriors and training started at an early age. As a result Nias people were not very skilled in agriculture or fishing but were brilliant fighters, carpenters, stonemasons and blacksmiths.
Being a warrior does not mean that you always have to fight. Strategic planning and cunning was important skills in Nias society. Political maneuverings between villages and öri’s were part of the constant power struggle. For example a village could side with the invading Dutch troops in order to defeat an enemy, only to switch sides later. Anyone who could persuade another person to do their bidding by words only was highly respected. Oratory was therefore a highly valued skill, and to this day Nias people are very gifted public speakers and natural politicians.
Clans of Nias
There are roughly one hundred clans on Nias. Here are the names of some well-known family names.
Originating from Börönadu, Gomo in South Nias. Currently living in West Nias.
Originating from Idanoi, Gunungsitoli. Currently living in Gunungsitoli, Sawo and Gomo.
Originating from Gidö river, Nias. Currently living in Gidö, Mau and Mandrehe.
Originating from Laraga-Ononamölö-Tumöri, Gunungsitoli. Currently living in Tumöri, Gunungsitoli and Mandrehe.
Originating from Onozitoli, Gunungsitoli. Currently living in Namöhalu, Lotu and Gunungsitoli.
Originating from Onolimbu, Lahömi in West Nias. Currently living in West Nias.
Originating from Negeri To'ene, South Nias. Currently living in Teluk Dalam.
Originating from Gomo, South Nias. Currently living in Alasa.
Originating from Gomo, South Nias. Currently living in Lölöwau, Gidö and Lölömatua.
Originating from Gidö river, Nias. Currently living in Mau and Mandrehe.
Other common clan names:
Dachi, Halawa, Mendröfa, Ndruru, Gea, Zalukhu, Zega, Zendrato, Lase, Laoli.
Faces of Nias