Also known as: Pasemah; Pasumah, Passumah

The Besemah people inhabit the southern highlands of Sumatra. Like many of their neighbours, they speak 'Central' or 'Middle Malay', and are now Muslim. Traditionally the nearby volcano Gunung Dempo was sacred to the Besemah people, and was believed to be inhabited by various supernatural agents, including the spirits of their dead.

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Traditional Culture(1818)Expand All +
Belief +

Supernatural Beings

Nature Spirits Present, and a major focus of supernatural practice (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 381-382
Nature god(s) Present, and a major focus of supernatural practice (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 381-382
Collins (1979), pp. 303
Ancestral spirits Present, but not a major focus of supernatural practice (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 383-384
Forbes (1885), pp. 198-199
Collins (1979), pp. 1-345, 183, 188-189
Deified ancestor(s) Present, and a major focus of supernatural practice (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 382-383
Forbes (1885), pp. 198-199
Collins (1979), pp. 183, 188-189
God(s) Present, and a major focus of supernatural practice (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 382-383

Supernatural Punishment

Supernatural punishment for impiety Present (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 382
Collins (1979), pp. 29

Afterlife and Creation

One's actions while living can affect the nature of one's afterlife Absent (Source)
Forbes (1885), pp. 200-201
Collins (1979), pp. 177
The actions of others after one has died can affect the nature of one's afterlife One factor in determining one's afterlife (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 177, 210
Myth of humanity’s creation Present, and evolutionary (Source)
Forbes (1885), pp. 194
Primordial pair Absent (Source)
Collins (1979)
Forbes (1885), pp. 194
Culture hero(es) Present, and a major focus of supernatural practice (Source)
Forbes (1885), pp. 201-203
Collins (1979), pp. 27-29

General Features

Forces of nature are controlled by or imbued with the supernatural Present (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 381-382

Classes of Tapu

Kinship tapu Present (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 197


Mana related to social influence or technical skill Absent (Source)
Mana as a personal quality Absent (Source)
Blust (2007)
Keesing (1984)
Blevins (2008)
Mana as a spiritual or religious concept Absent (Source)
Blust (2007)
Keesing (1984)
Blevins (2008)
Practice +

General Supernatural Practices

Largest religious community Whole society or larger (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Political and religious differentiation Considerable overlap between religious and political leaders (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 179-200


Genital cutting Present in the culture as a rite or feature of a rite (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 379
Social Environment +
Population 100,000 (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Andaya (1993), pp. 230
Importance of Patrilateral descent High (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Bowen (1993), pp. 198
Importance of Matrilateral descent Low (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Bowen (1993), pp. 198
Marital residence Patrilocal or virilocal - with husband's kin (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35


(No) external warfare Frequent, occurring at least yearly (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Collins (1979), pp. 105
Conflict within community Low (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 349
(No) internal warfare Occasional, at least every generation (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Isolation +
Contact with other cultures Frequent, through trade, warfare, travel, etc. (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 54, 64
Distance to closest landmass inhabited by a different culture (km) 0.0 (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 57-58
Distance to nearest continent 583.1 (Source)
Daft Logic Distance Calculator (2014)
Collins (1979), pp. iv
Pre-Austronesian population Present: Clear evidence of human occupation prior to Austronesian settlement (Source)
Bellwood (1995), pp. 109
Hindu / Buddhist influence on supernatural belief Evidence of influence (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 349
Collins (1979), pp. 54, 311
Islamic influence on supernatural belief Evidence of influence (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 54
Raffles (1835), pp. 382
Christian influence on supernatural belief No evidence of influence but in a region where contact is likely (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 54
Subsistence and Economy +

Land-based means of subsistence

Animal husbandry as a source of food Minor (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 377
Agriculture / Horticulture Principal (Source)
Raffles (1835), pp. 348, 350
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Land-based gathering Medium (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 302-306

Water-based means of subsistence

Fishing and water-based hunting performed by one or more groups Minor (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 302-306, 325
Fishing and water-based hunting performed by individuals Medium (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 302-306
Physical Environment +

Geographical Range of Culture

Number of islands inhabited by culture One (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 57-58

Features of Island with Largest Culture Population

Island type (island with largest culture population or largest island if unknown) Continental island (Source)
'Sunda Shelf' (2016)
Island Size (km²) 480793.0 (Source)
'Sumatra' (2017)
Maximum elevation (meters) 3800.0 (Source)
'Sumatra' (2017)


Latitude -4.1 (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. iv
Google Maps (2014)
Longitude 103.3 (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. iv
Google Maps (2014)
Post Contact History(1818-2014)Expand All +
Religious History +


Use of force in conversion Low (Source)
Bowen (1993), pp. 199
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Adoption of a world religion Present and predominant (Source)
Bowen (1993), pp. 199
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Resident missionary involvement in conversion process Absent (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Secular History +

Demographic and Social Changes

Foreign government systems Present, and of high importance (Source)
Bowen (1993), pp. 197-198

Modern Infrastructure

Vehicles and roads Present and widely used (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 275-276
Sea port Present (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 63-64

Loss of Autonomy

Nature of loss of autonomy Largely involuntary (Source)
Bowen (1993), pp. 197-198
Collins (1979), pp. 110-111
Loss of political autonoomy High (Source)
Bowen (1993), pp. 197-198

Economic Changes

Exportation of goods to other cultures Present but minor (Source)
Jaspan (1972a), pp. 35
Bowen (1993), pp. 198
Current Culture(2014)Expand All +
Belief +

Religious Demographics

Unofficial religious syncretism Medium (Source)
Collins (1979), pp. 312
Dominant world religion Islam (Source)
Bowen (1993), pp. 199
External Links
Andaya, B. W. (1993). To live as brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Bellwood, P. (1995). Austronesian Prehistory in Southeast Asia: Homeland, Expansion and Transformation. P. Bellwood, J.J. Fox, & D. Tryon (Eds.), The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (pp 113-114). Canberra, Australia: ANU Press.

Blevins, J. (2008). Some Comparative Notes on Proto-Oceanic *Mana: Inside and Outside the Austronesian Family. Oceanic Linguistics, 47 (2), 253-274. Retrieved from

Blust, R. (2007). Proto-Oceanic *Mana Revisited. Oceanic Linguistics, 46(2), 404-423. Retrieved from

Bowen, J. R. (1993). Ogan-Besemah. Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume V: East and Southeast Asia (197-199). NY: G.K. Hall & Co.

Brunton, R. (1989). The Abandoned Narcotic: Kava and Cultural Instability in Melanesia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, W. A. (1979). Besemah concepts: a study of the culture of a people of South Sumatra (Doctoral dissertation). University of California, Berkeley.

Daft Logic Distance Calculator. (2014).

Forbes, H.O. (1885). A Naturalist's Wanderings in the Eastern Archipelago: A Narrative of Travel and Exploration from 1878 to 1883. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved from

Google Maps (2014). Retrieved from

Jaspan, M. A. (1964). From patriliny to matriliny: Structural change among the Redjang of southwest Sumatra (Unpublished PhD thesis). Australian National University: Canberra, Australia.

Jaspan, M.A. (1972a. Pasemah. In Lebar, F. (Ed.), Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia Volume 1: Indonesia, Andaman Islands and Madagascar (34-35). New Haven, CT: Human Resources Area Files.

Keesing, R. M. (1984). Rethinking "mana". Journal of Anthropological Research, 40(1), 137-156,

Lebar, F. (Ed.). (1972). Eastern Sumbanese in Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Volume 1: Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press.

Marsden, W. (1811) The History of Sumatra: Containing an Account of the Government, Laws, Customs and Manners of Native Inhabitants (2nd Ed.). London, England: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown.

Raffles, S. (1835). Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Volume I). London, England: James Duncan. Retrieved from

Sumatra (2017). Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from

Sunda Shelf (2016). Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from