Prehistory and early history of Indonesia

Remains of Homo erectus originally called Java man or Pithecanthropus indicate that the ancestors of humans were very much present on the island of Java roughly 1.7 million years ago, when much of the western archipelago was still connected by land bridges. Fast post-glacial rise in sea level some 6,000 years ago submerged these bridges leaving behind the largest island complex in the world ( the Indonesian archipelago). So, it is not at all surprising that the sea has greatly impacted Indonesian history and boat has become a pervasive metaphor in arts, literature and oral traditions of Indonesia.

Connectivity within the archipelago and with the rest of maritime Asia has been made possible by monsoon winds, blowing south and north of the Equator. In quite early times renown of spices and timber of Java and the eastern islands and the fame of the resins from the extremely wet equatorial jungle in the western islands of Sumatra and Borneo had reached to far away places. By the first century AD, commodities were already being shipped overseas and by virtue of navigable rivers Indonesian hinterland had come in contact with distant markets.

Although records of foreign trade from period prior to early centuries CE are not available, it is a distinct possibility that people from the Indonesian archipelago were visiting other parts of Asia far earlier. Natural History of Pliny the Elder suggests that Indonesian outriggers were involved in trade with the east coast of Africa in 1 AD. Indonesian settlements may have been present at that time in Madagascar, an island with palpable Indonesian cultural traits.

Voyages between Indonesia and China were most probably not regular before 5th century CE. Western Indonesian tree produce including camphor from northern Sumatra finds mention in Chinese literature of 5th and 6th centuries AD. It is a distinct possibility that Indonesian shippers of the time were exploiting southern China’s economic difficulties arising out of cutting off of the region from the ancient trade route of Central Asia. Small estuary kingdoms had begun to thrive as international entrepôts. Easy overseas communication couldn’t cause the establishment of territorially large kingdoms though. Baisic form of hierarchy had evolved in many riverine and coastal groups of the archipelago long before the records began although no group was disproportionately large or powerful to think about occupying or overrunning neighbouring territories. Groups concentrated on exploiting their own natural resources.

Many Indonesian place-names quite strangely have remained unchanged since the start of documented history. In such places often existing in close proximity to each other, the leader would seldom attach any importance to territory outside his own strip of river valley or the coast. Hence the early history of Indonesia includes  many regional histories sparingly intersecting each other. Local hegemony was established by some centres but they couldn’t extinguish rival centres.

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