The first known hominid inhabitant of Indonesia was the
so-called "Java Man", or Homo erectus, who lived here
half a million years ago. Some 60,000 years ago, the ancestors
of the present-day Papuans move eastward through these
islands, eventually reaching New Guinea and Australia
some 30-40,000 years ago. Much later, in about the fourth
millennium B.C., they were followed by the ancestors of
the modern-day Malays, Javanese and other Malayo-Polynesian
groups who now make up the bulk of Indonesia's population.
Trade contracts with India, China and the mainland of
Southeast Asia brought outside cultural and religious
influences to Indonesia. One of the first Indianized empires,
known to us now as Sriwijaya, was located on the coast
of Sumatra around the strategic straits of Malacca, serving
as the hub of a trading network that reached to many parts
of the archipelago more than a thousand years ago.
On neighboring Java, large kingdoms of the interior of
the island erected scores of exquisite of religious monuments,
such as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the
world. The last and most powerful of these early Hindu-Javanese
kingdoms, the 14th century Majapahit Empire, once controlled
and influenced much of what is now known as Indonesia,
maintaining contacts with trading outposts as far away
as the west coast of Papua New Guinea.
Indian Muslim traders began spreading Islam in Indonesia
in the eighth and ninth centuries. By the time Marco Polo
visited North Sumatra at the end of the 13th century,
the first Islamic states were already established there.
Soon afterwards, rulers on Java's north coast adopted
the new creed and conquered the Hindu-based Majapahit
Empire in the Javanese hinterland. The faith gradually
spread throughout archipelago, and Indonesia is today
the world's largest Islamic nation.
Indonesia's abundant spices first brought Portuguese merchants
to the key trading port of Malacca in 1511. Prized for
their flavor, spices such as cloves, nutmeg and mace were
also believed to cure everything from the plague to venereal
disease, and were literally worth their weight in gold.
The Dutch eventually wrested control of the spice trade
from Portuguese, and the tenacious Dutch East India Company
(known by initials VOC) established a spice monopoly which
lasted well into the 18th century. During the 19th century,
the Dutch began sugar and coffee cultivation on Java,
which was soon providing three-fourths of the world supply
By the turn of the 20th century, nationalist stirring,
brought about by nearly three centuries of oppressive
colonial rule, began to challenge the Dutch presence in
Indonesia. A four-year guerilla war led by nationalists
against the Dutch on Java after World War II, along with
successful diplomatic maneuverings abroad, helped bring
about independence. The Republic of Indonesia, officially
proclaimed on August 17th, 1945, gained sovereignty four
During the first two decades of independence, the republic
was dominated by the charismatic figure of Sukarno, one
of the early nationalists who had been imprisoned by the
Dutch. General (ret.) Soeharto eased Sukarno from power
in 1967. Indonesia's economy was sustained throughout
the 1970's, almost exclusively by oil export.
The Asian financial crisis, which broke out in mid-1997,
paralyzed the Indonesian economy with the rupiah losing
80% of its value against the US dollar at the peak of
On May 21, 1998, Soeharto resigned after 32 years in power
and was replaced by B.J. Habibie following bloody violence
and riots. Indonesia held its first democratic election
in October 1999, which put Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid
in the role of president.