Karo Batak fieldsite in North Sumatra, Indonesia

Primary Site Researcher

Geoff Kushnick

Dr Geoff Kushnick is a Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at The Australian National University in Canberra. He has spent a total of 27 months conducting fieldwork in North Sumatra, Indonesia, among the Karo Batak.

His research and teaching interests include: human behavioural ecology; reproduction, parenting, and health; mathematical and statistical modelling and analysis; and the peoples and culture of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He received a PhD in biocultural anthropology from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 2006.

geoff.kushnick@anu.edu.au | Website


Karoland (Taneh Karo) is the cultural homeland of the Karo Batak people (Singarimbun, 1975). Although its boundaries are often conflated with those of the administrative regency with a similar name (ie Kabupaten Karo), its real boundaries include the entire Karo regency and bordering portions of Langkat, Dairi, Simalungun, and Aceh Tenggara regencies, as well as the entire stretch of Deli Serdang regency from the outskirts of Medan to the Karo regency.

With the exception of a substantial number living in local cities and other urban areas throughout the Indonesian archipelago, the majority of Karo Batak people live in scattered villages throughout Taneh Karo. The focal communities of this research (Kushnick, 2006, 2009b, 2010) are two villages and one town. The first village, Doulu, is located in a mountainous valley pass approximately 1,200m (4,000ft) above sea level. The second, Laubuluh, is located in a hilly hinterland approximately 1,030m (3,400ft).

Green hills


The exact number of Karo Batak in Indonesia is unknown because the census does not ask about ethnic affiliation. In 1998, the population of Kabupaten Karo was 280,486. In 2004, the populations of the focal study communities were as follows: Doulu 1,003; Laubuluh 791 (Kushnick, 2006). Approximately 99% of the populace of Doulu and Laubuluh are Karo Batak.


The local language is Bahasa Karo, though most people are also fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, the trade language for all of Indonesia. Both of these languages are part of the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian language family.

Karo Batak children

Ethnic identity and history

The Karo are one of six Batak peoples from north Sumatra. The earliest accounts of Batak peoples emphasised their practice of cannibalising war prisoners. In fact, in Marco Polo's memoirs of his 1292 stop on the east coast of Sumatra (then called Java Minor), he mentions an encounter with hill folk who "eat human flesh" (Kipp, 1993). This is clearly a reference to the Batak, but unclear which group specifically.

The earliest mention of the Karo Batak was in Anderson's 1826 book Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra wherein he mentions a people by the name of Karau-Karau. Since that time, there has been considerable interest in Karo Batak customs and society from missionaries, travelers, Dutch colonialists, and anthropologists (Kushnick, 2009a).

Some important events in the recorded culture-history of the Karo Batak include the following (Kipp, 1993; Sibeth, 1991; Singarimbun, 1975). In 1906, the Karo highlands were annexed into the Netherlands East Indies. With this annexation came a stop of intervillage warfare and abortion, and the beginnings of mandatory vaccination amongst Karo children.

In 1908, the Bataksch Instituut was established in Leiden, Netherlands, to conduct practical and scholarly studies on Batak peoples, including Karo Batak society and agriculture in the Karo highlands. In 1909, a road from Medan to the highlands of Taneh Karo was built. In 1911, an experimental agricultural station was established in the Karo highlands. In 1941, the Karo Batak Protestant Church was established.

Batak foragers

Social organisation and kinship

All Karo people are members of one of five exogamous patrilineal clans: Ginting, Karo-Karo, Perangin-Angin, Sembiring, and Tarigan. These clans are so central in shaping Karo Batak lives that they sometimes refer to their society as the Merga si Lima (ie the five clans). Marriage creates very specific relationships and responsibilities among people of the wife-taking (anakberu) and wife-giving (kalimbubu) clans (Kipp, 1993; Singarimbun, 1975; Steedly, 1993).

Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage is the stated ideal but the tradition is rarely practiced (Kushnick and Fessler, in press). Polygyny was at one time an acceptable marriage arrangement, but today it is frowned upon. Upon marriage, a three-part bridewealth is transferred from the groom's family to the wife's. Once married, the couple may reside with the groom's family until they are able to attain financial independence. Finally, land is divided equally among sons upon the death of their parents (Kushnick, 2010).

Man with a vehicle pulled by a buffalo

Schooling and literacy

The majority of the Karo Batak population of Taneh Karo have an elementary level education (Kushnick, 2006). As such, one would also classify most Karo Batak people as having at least some literacy. A smaller portion have junior and senior high school level educations, and an even smaller portion have college educations. Only elementary and junior high school education are free in Indonesia.

Nonetheless, the cost of tuition is not the only obstacle to obtaining higher levels of education, especially among the village populations. Some villages are quite remote in relation to educational institutions, with the exception of elementary schools.

Two women sitting in front of a store

Economic practices

Although Karo Batak people can be found practicing many vocations, the majority are farmers. The Karo Batak economy centres on both cash-crop and subsistence agriculture. Both wet and dry rice is grown, as well as a variety of other vegetables and fruits (Kushnick, 2006). Many of the products grown in Taneh Karo are introduced European species.

Penny and Singarimbun (1967) claim that a number of favourable factors effect Karo Batak agricultural practices:

  • The fertile volcanic soil.

  • The cool climate of the highlands.

  • The road built between the Karo highlands and Medan in 1909.

  • Taneh Karo's proximity to urban areas in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The Karo Batak have proven to be an adaptable people who are willing to adopt new technological practices for seeking economic prosperity. Kipp (1984) provides an example of Karo Batak from certain villages thriving by adjusting to the demand for cloves for the cigarette market.

Although their agricultural practices remain unchanged in many ways - such as, the use of traditional farming implements and water buffalo for traction - by the 1960s, they had begun to use fertilisers to a greater extent than other north Sumatran societies.

Street parade

Religion and healthcare

The majority of Karo Batak people today are Protestant, with a minority practicing Catholicism, Islam, or traditional animism (Kipp, 1993; Kushnick, 2006). In Kabanjahe, there exist a variety of options for medical care, including public health facilities, a hospital, and many private practice doctors. In villages, however, options are much more limited. Most villages have a public health facility (puskesmas) staffed by a nurse or nurse-midwife.

Green landscape
Village landscape

Explore this fieldsite with Google Earth

Google Earth allows you to explore sites anywhere in the world using satellite images of those sites. Navigate the fieldsite and explore it in detail using the files below:

Google Earth files for Doulu (KMZ, 679B) and Laubuluh (KMZ, 681B)


Rita Smith Kipp (1984). The Karo Batak of Sumatra revisited. Explorer's Journal, 62, 120-125.

Rita Smith Kipp (1993). Disociated identities: Ethnicity, religion, and class in an Indonesian society. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Geoff Kushnick and Daniel Fessler (in press) Karo Batak cousin marriage, cosocialization, and the Westermarck hypothesis. Current Anthropology.

Geoff Kushnick (2006). Parent-offspring conflict among the Karo of north Sumatra. PhD dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.

Geoff Kushnick (2009a). Bibliography of works on the Karo Batak of north Sumatra, Indonesia: Missionary reports, anthropological studies, and other writings from 1826 to the present (Version 1.2).

Geoff Kushnick (2009b). Parental supply and offspring demand amongst Karo Batak mothers and children. Journal of Biosocial Science, 14, 183-193.

Geoff Kushnick (2010). Resource competition and reproduction in Karo Batak villages. Human Nature, 21, 62-81.

D. H. Penny and Masri Singarimbun (1967). Economic activity among the Karo Batak of Indonesia: A case study in economic change. Bulletin of Indonesia Economic Studies, 6, 31-65.

Achim Sibeth (1991). The Batak: Peoples of the island of Sumatra. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson.

Masri Singarimbun (1975). Kinship, descent, and alliance among the Karo Batak. Berkeley: University of California.

Mary Steedly (1993). Hanging without a rope: Narrative experience in colonial and postcolonial Karoland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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