Fossils and remains of tools show that the Indonesian archipelago was inhabited by Homo erectus, popularly known as “Java Man”, between 1.5 million years ago and 35,000 years ago. Homo sapiens reached the region about 45,000 years ago. Austronesian peoples, who form the majority of today’s population, migrated to Southeast Asia from Taiwan. They arrived in Indonesia around 2000 BC and displaced the indigenous Melanesian peoples in the Far Eastern regions as they spread across the archipelago.
Ideal agricultural conditions and mastery of wet-field rice cultivation as early as the 8th century BC enabled villages, towns and small kingdoms to flourish in the first century AD. Indonesia’s strategic location on the sea encouraged inter-island and international trade, including links with the Indian kingdoms and China established several centuries BC. Trade has fundamentally shaped Indonesian history ever since.
From the 7th century CE, the powerful Srivijaya Sea Kingdom flourished through trade and the Hindu and Buddhist influences imported with it. Between the 8th and 10th centuries CE, the agrarian Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties flourished in inland Java, leaving behind great religious monuments such as Borobudur, Sewu and Prambanan. This period marked a renaissance of Hindu-Buddhist art in ancient Java.
Around the first quarter of the 10th century, the centre of the kingdom was moved from Mataram in Central Java to the Brantas River valley in East Java by Mpu Sindok, who founded the Isyana dynasty. In West Java, the Sunda kingdom was restored around 1030, according to the Sanghyang Tapak inscription. In Bali, the Warmadewas established their rule over the Bali Kingdom in the 10th century. In East Java, the Hindu Majapahit Kingdom was established in the late 13th century, and its influence extended over much of Indonesia under Gajah Mada.
Although Muslim traders travelled through Southeast Asia early in the Islamic era, the earliest evidence of Islamised populations in Indonesia dates from the 13th century in northern Sumatra. This was in northern Sumatra in the thirteenth century. Other Indonesian areas gradually adopted Islam, and by the end of the 16th century it was the predominant religion in Java and Sumatra. Islam was the predominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the sixteenth century. For the most part, Islam overlapped and intermingled with existing cultural and religious influences that shaped the predominant form of Islam in Indonesia, especially in Java.
The first regular contact between Europeans and the peoples of Indonesia began in 1512, when Portuguese traders led by Francisco Serrão tried to monopolise the sources of nutmeg, cloves and cubeb pepper in Maluku. Dutch and British traders followed. In 1602, the Dutch founded the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and in the following decades, the Dutch gained a foothold in Batavia and Amboina. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Company became the dominant European power in the archipelago.
After bankruptcy, the VOC was formally dissolved in 1800 and the Dutch government established the Dutch East Indies as a nationalised colony. For most of the colonial period, Dutch control over the archipelago outside the coastal strongholds was tenuous; it was not until the early 20th century that Dutch dominance extended to the area that would become Indonesia’s present-day borders. Despite major internal political, social and sectarian divisions during the National Revolution, Indonesians by and large found unity in their struggle for independence. The Japanese occupation during World War II ended Dutch rule and emboldened the previously suppressed Indonesian independence movement.
A later UN report stated that four million people died in Indonesia as a result of famine and forced labour during the Japanese occupation. Two days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Sukarno, an influential nationalist leader, declared independence and was appointed president. The Netherlands attempted to restore its rule, and an armed and diplomatic struggle ended in December 1949 when, in the face of international pressure, the Dutch formally recognised Indonesian independence (with the exception of the Dutch territory of West New Guinea, which was incorporated into Indonesia under the New York Agreement of 1962 and the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice of 1969).
Sukarno moved Indonesia from democracy towards authoritarianism and maintained his power base by balancing the opposing forces of the military and the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI). An attempted coup on 30 September 1965 was met by the army with a violent anti-communist purge in which the PKI was blamed for the coup and effectively destroyed. Large-scale killings took place, targeting communists, ethnic Chinese and alleged leftists. The most widely accepted estimates are that between 500,000 and one million people were killed, with some estimates as high as two to three million.
The head of the military, General Suharto, outmanoeuvred the politically weakened Sukarno and was formally appointed president in March 1968. His “New Order” government was supported by the US government and encouraged foreign direct investment in Indonesia, which was a major factor in significant economic growth over the next three decades. However, the authoritarian “New Order” was widely accused of corruption and suppression of political opposition.
Indonesia was the country most affected by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. This increased popular discontent with the New Order and led to popular protests throughout the country. Suharto resigned on 21 May 1998. In 1999, East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia, after a twenty-five year military occupation marked by international condemnation of the oppression of the East Timorese.
Since Suharto’s resignation, democratic processes have been strengthened, including a regional autonomy programme and the first direct presidential election in 2004, which was won by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who ran for a second term in 2009. Political and economic instability, social unrest, corruption and terrorism slowed progress; however, in the last five years, the economy has developed strongly. Although relations between the various religious and ethnic groups are largely harmonious, sectarian discontent and violence persist. A political solution to the armed separatist conflict in Aceh was reached in 2005.