West Papuan Culture’s Journey in the Pre-colonial Era

West Papua Dairy - West Papuan Pra Colonial Era

Before colonization, the West Papuan in Indonesia followed a royal system that included the Majapahit kingdom, the Sriwijaya kingdom, the Mataram kingdom, and others. This period is known as the pre-colonial phase. 

2 girls in white and brown stripe dress standing on beach shore during daytime


The term “Western New Guinea History” refers to the history of the western, or Indonesian, the portion of the island of New Guinea and other nearby, smaller islands. Irian Jaya was the old name for this area. Papua New Guinea occupies the island’s eastern half. 

West Papuan Culture in the Pre-colonial Era

Bananas have grown in this region for at least 7,000 years, making the highlands an early and autonomous hub of agriculture that expanded gradually over many thousands of years. 

At least 3,000 years ago, Austronesian migrants across Maritime Southeast Asia landed and colonized Cenderawasih Bay in particular. Due to its physical isolation, the island has given rise to various cultures and languages, with over 300 official languages and 200 more dialects.

  • 500-700 AD

Around the middle of 500 AD, the Chinese trader Ghau Yu Kuan arrived in Papua and called the region Tungki the source of their spices. The island was referred to as Janggi by the Sumatra-based Srivijaya empire (7th Century–13th Century) in 600 AD. 

The empire maintained commercial ties with western New Guinea. They initially obtaining goods like birds of paradise and sandalwood to tribute to China but subsequently enslaving the inhabitants. 

The first traders from Persia and Gujarat arrived in Papua at the beginning of 700 AD. They naming the region Dwi Panta or Samudrananta, which means “at the edge of the ocean.”

  • 7-14th Century

The empire of Srivijaya (7th Century–13th Century), began trading with western New Guinea at the beginning of the seventh Century. At first, it took birds of paradise and sandalwood as a tribute to China, but eventually, it turned the indigenous into enslaved people. 

Majapahit’s (1293–1527) empire ruled in western New Guinea. As one of the recognized territories in the east, Wwanin or Onin appeared in the 14th-century Majapahit poem Nagarakretagama. 

Today, Onin Peninsula is located in Fakfak Regency, in the western portion of the wider Bomberai Peninsula, West Papuan, south of the Bird’s Head area. The western region of the island of New Guinea was probably first referred to as Wanin or Onin in written records.

  • Early 15th Century

Papuans and Muslim traders from Southeast Asia first engaged in commerce in the 15th Century, if not earlier. By the 17th Century, Muslim traders from the Sultanates of the Moluccas had established close business relations with West Papuan. Muslims from Maluku brought ironworking skills to the area in the 16th Century.

  • 16th Century

Other coastal regions of Papua, from the island of Biak to Mimika, have become vassals of the Tidore Sultanate since the 16th Century.  The Raja Ampat Islands were not included, which were claimed by the Bacan Sultanate, Tidore Sultanate, and Ternate Sultanate.

The Tidore Sultanate adheres to the trade pact and custom of Uli-Siwa ( federation of nine). Therefore, Tidore led nine trade partners in opposition to the Ternate-led Uli Lima (federation of five). 

In administering its regions in Papua, Tidore divide them into three areas, Korano Ngaruha (lit. ‘Four Kings’) or Raja Ampat Islands, Papo Ua Gamsio (lit. ‘Papua the Nine Negeri’), and Mafor Soa Raha (lit. ‘Mafor the Four Soa’). 

Bottom Line

An almost 30-year-old public discussion over West Papua’s future turned on its natural riches. If the colonialists had acknowledged West Papuans’ desires for self-determination at the time, they would today have the last say in exploiting West Papua’s gold, silver, oil, timber, copper, nickel, and land development. Ultimately, the US administration coerced the Dutch into giving West Papua to Indonesia in 1962.

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