History & Geography


History of Indonesia

Human history in Indonesia goes back at least 1.5-1.8 million years, as shown by the fossil “Java Man” – a Homo erectus individual discovered in 1891.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Homo sapiens had walked across Pleistocene land bridges from the mainland by 45,000 years ago. They may have encountered another human species, the “hobbits” of the island of Flores; the exact taxonomic placement of the diminutive Homo floresiensis is still up for debate. Flores Man seems to have become extinct by 10,000 years ago.

The ancestors of most modern Indonesians reached the archipelago around 4,000 years ago, arriving from Taiwan, according to DNA studies. Melanesian peoples already inhabited Indonesia, but they were displaced by the arriving Austronesians across much of the archipelago.

Early Indonesia

Hindu kingdoms sprang up on Java and Sumatra as early as 300 BCE, under the influence of traders from India. By the early centuries CE, Buddhist rulers controlled areas of those same islands, as well. Not much is known about these early kingdoms, due to the difficulty of access for international archaeological teams.

In the 7th century, the powerful Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya arose on Sumatra. It controlled much of Indonesia until 1290, when it was conquered by the Hindu Majapahit Empire from Java. Majapahit (1290-1527) united most of modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia. Although large in size, Majapahit was more interested in controlling trade routes than in territorial gains.

Meanwhile, Islamic traders introduced their faith to Indonesians in the trade ports around the 11th century. Islam slowly spread throughout Java and Sumatra, although Bali remained majority Hindu. In Malacca, a Muslim sultanate ruled from 1414 until it was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511.

Colonial Indonesia

The Portuguese took control of parts of Indonesia in the sixteenth century, but did not have enough power to hang on to their colonies there when the much wealthier Dutch decided to muscle in on the spice trade beginning in 1602.

Portugal was confined to East Timor.

Nationalism and Independence

Throughout the early 20th century, nationalism grew in the Dutch East Indies. In March of 1942, the Japanese occupied Indonesia, expelling the Dutch. Initially welcomed as liberators, the Japanese were brutal and oppressive, catalysing nationalist sentiment in Indonesia.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Dutch tried to return to their most valuable colony. The people of Indonesia launched a four-year independence war, gaining full freedom in 1949 with U.N. help.

The first two presidents of Indonesia, Sukarno (r. 1945-1967) and Suharto (r. 1967-1998) were autocrats who relied upon the military to stay in power. Since 2000, however, Indonesia’s president have been selected through reasonably free and fair elections.


With more than 17,500 islands, of which more than 150 are active volcanoes, Indonesia is one of the most geographically and geologically interesting countries on Earth. It was the site of two famous nineteenth-century eruptions, those of Tambora and Krakatau, as well as being the epicentre of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.

Indonesia covers about 1,919,000 square kilometres (741,000 square miles). It shares land borders with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

The highest point in Indonesia is Puncak Jaya, at 5,030 meters (16,502 feet); the lowest point is sea level.