A glimpse inside the world’s largest matrilineal society

A golden crown is worn by a Minangkabau bride as a symbol of wealth. (Yoppy Pieter/Arka Project)

Editor’s note: Quotes have been edited for clarity.

The Minangkabau are an anthropological wonder. The world’s largest matrilineal society with a population the size of Los Angeles, its people sprawl through West Sumatra province in Indonesia. Despite producing numerous influential scholars and politicians, the Minangkabau have great trepidation about what urbanization means for its future.

“The [urbanization] phenomenon is slowly destroying the identity of the Minangkabau,” photographer Yoppy Pieter said. He spent seven weeks in a Minangkabau village between 2013 and 2015, where he was welcomed into their homes, swam with them in Lake Singkarak, and was served their signature beef dish, Rendang. His resulting photo essay is called “Saujuana Sumpu,” which means “cultural landscape of the village Sumpu.”

In his photos, stunning horned houses rise out of parcels of land, both of which are passed down from mother to daughter. In these homes, the husbands are the guests of the wives, Yusmarni Djalius of Andalas University told the Post. The rumah gadang, which translates to “big house,” is the center of Minangkabau life.

But after all these years, the majestic homes too are facing a threat – old age and deterioration. In Sumpu, Pieter says only 40 of about 200 houses were in good condition. The bullhorn tips of the roofs, once pointed skyward, are beginning to slouch. Some had been burned down; others were completely abandoned.

Additionally, a slow exodus from Minangkabau villages is underway. A sort of short-term exile, or marantau, has traditionally been a cornerstone of their culture. When they come of age, men are encouraged to travel to experience the outside world, work for a period of time, and eventually bring back their newfound knowledge. But Pieter says some of the younger generation are leaving permanently because they see no future in the modest villages. “They believe that the village is mean to be a home one misses from afar, or a place where one only spends one’s childhood and old age,” he said.

It all comes down to the adat, or customs and laws that dictate the Mingangkabau way of life. According to anthropologist Frederick Errington, adat allows for assimilation of new elements, as long as the core remains.

So for centuries, the flexibility of its customs has permitted the community’s survival. And if it wants to continue, it must find a way to adapt once again.

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