We met the oldest tattooed tribe in the world…

On an overcast and rainy day, we met the indigenous Mentawai people of Pokai, Pulau Siberut. They weren’t all dressed up for the tourists in traditional costume, but just knocked about in the usual t-shirts and shorts. One guy was fascinated by Jamie’s arm tattoo, and took no persuading to show us his own tribal tattoo.

Source: Collectie Tropenmuseum

Siberut Island is the cradle of Mentawai culture, and these tattoos have become a Mentawai icon. Dating back to 1500BC, the people here are said by some to be the oldest tattooed community in the world. They use a tapered wooden tip, and dye made of soot from firewood, bamboo and banana leaves, mixed together in a coconut shell with the juice from sugar cane.

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When they colonised this area the Dutch banned the practice, along with other Mentawai traditions, a decision continued for some time by the newly-formed Javanese government. Happily, it seems tribal tattooing in Siberut has not died, and it’s good to see younger generations maintaining it.  

The villagers we met aren’t shy, and they smiled or waved a welcome, but unlike other places we’ve visited, they kept a discreet and respectful distance. Apart from the kids, of course (and a few characters we met there)!

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After a fascinating day immersing ourselves in the village on the edge of this thickly forested part of the island, we made a night passage south. At our next anchorage we found ourselves in a spectacular channel between dreamy tropical islands. Ahhh, time to kick back and relax!

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