Indonesia—History and Geography

Women carry temple offerings
Women carry temple offerings to Pura Gunung Raung Temple near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.   John W Banagan / Getty Images

Indonesia has begun to emerge as an economic power in Southeast Asia, as well as a newly democratic nation. Its long history as the source of spices coveted around the world shaped Indonesia into the multi-ethnic and religiously diverse nation that we see today. Although this diversity causes friction at times, Indonesia has the potential to become a major world power.

Capital and Major Cities


Jakarta, pop. 9,608,000

Major Cities

Surabaya, pop. 3,000,000

Medan, pop. 2,500,000

Bandung, pop. 2,500,000

Serang, pop. 1,786,000

Yogyakarta, pop. 512,000


The Republic of Indonesia is centralized (non-federal) and features a strong President who is both Head of State and Head of Government. The first direct presidential election took place only in 2004; the president can serve up to two 5-year terms.

The tricameral legislature consists of the People's Consultative Assembly, which inaugurates and impeaches the president and amends the constitution but does not consider legislation; the 560-member House of Representatives, which creates legislation; and the 132-member House of Regional Representatives who provide input on legislation that affects their regions.

The judiciary includes not only a Supreme Court and Constitutional Court but also a designated Anti-Corruption Court.


Indonesia is home to over 258 million people. It is the fourth most populous nation on Earth (after China, India and the US).

Indonesians belong to more than 300 ethnolinguistic groups, most of which are Austronesian in origin. The largest ethnic group is the Javanese, at almost 42% of the population, followed by the Sundanese with just over 15%. Others with more than 2 million members each include: Chinese (3.7%), Malay (3.4%), Madurese (3.3%), Batak (3.0%), Minangkabau (2.7%), Betawi (2.5%), Buginese (2.5%), Bantenese (2.1%), Banjarese (1.7%), Balinese (1.5%) and Sasak (1.3%).

Languages of Indonesia

Across Indonesia, people speak the official national language of Indonesian, which was created after independence as a lingua franca from Malay roots. However, there are more than 700 other languages in active use throughout the archipelago, and few Indonesians speak the national language as their mother tongue.

Javanese is the most popular first language, boasting 84 million speakers. It is followed by Sundanese and Madurese, with 34 and 14 million speakers, respectively.

The written forms of Indonesia's multitude of languages may be rendered in modified Sanskrit, Arabic or Latin writing systems.


Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, with 86% of the population professing Islam. In addition, almost 9% of the population is Christian, 2% are Hindu, and 3% are Buddhist or animist.

Nearly all of the Hindu Indonesians live on the island of Bali; most of the Buddhists are ethnic Chinese. The Constitution of Indonesia guarantees freedom of worship, but the state ideology specifies a belief in only one God.

Long a commercial hub, Indonesia acquired these faiths from traders and colonizers. Buddhism and Hinduism came from Indian merchants; Islam arrived via Arab and Gujarati traders. Later, the Portuguese introduced Catholicism and the Dutch Protestantism.


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 epicenter of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.

Indonesia covers about 1,919,000 square kilometers (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.


Indonesia's climate is tropical and monsoonal, although the high mountain peaks can be quite cool. The year is divided into two seasons, the wet and the dry.

Because Indonesia sits astride the equator, temperatures do not vary much from month to month. For the most part, coastal areas see temperatures in the mid to upper 20s Celsius (the low to mid-80s Fahrenheit) throughout the year.


Indonesia is the economic powerhouse of Southeast Asia, a member of the G20 group of economies. Although it is a market economy, the government owns significant amounts of the industrial base following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. During the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, Indonesia was one of the few nations to continue its economic growth.

Indonesia exports petroleum products, appliances, textiles, and rubber. It imports chemicals, machinery, and food.

The per capita GDP is about $10,700 US (2015). Unemployment is only 5.9% as of 2014; 43% of Indonesians work in industry, 43% in services, and 14% in agriculture. Nonetheless, 11% live below the poverty line.

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, catalyzing 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 s have been selected through reasonably free and fair elections.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Indonesia—History and Geography." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 27). Indonesia—History and Geography. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Indonesia—History and Geography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).