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Healing Traditions in Indigenous Societies: A Look at the Abui People

By Shaun Lim

Who are the Abui people?

The word Abui, in the Abui language, means ‘mountain’ or ‘enclosed space’. In Bahasa Malay, Abui also refers to the Abui speakers, who define their language as Abui tangà, ‘mountain language’, and call themselves Abui lokù, ‘mountain people’. This ‘mountain language’, Abui, is a Papuan language spoken in Alor Island (Alor-Pantar Archipelago, South-East Indonesia, Timor area) by about 17,000 speakers.

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Figure 1. A map of Alor Island, where Abui is spoken by about 17,000 speakers today

The name Abui comes from the collection of hills in the island, as well as the interior of Alor Island, which gave the name to the territory and the language. Their language belongs to the Timor-Alor-Pantar family (Holton et al., 2012) and its speakers are among some of the largest in the Alor-Pantar Archipelago.

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Figure 2. Linguistic situation in the Alor-Pantar Archipelago

What is the relationship between the Abui speakers and plants?

Abui speakers share an extremely close relationship with plants, be they agricultural or horticultural sources, or even plants with useful properties. This is evident in the place names of Alor Island, which are frequently named after plants – a topic that has been previously studied by scholars at NTU. Research has shown that among the top toponymic sources used to name places are mea ‘mango’, wata ‘coconut’, and kanaai ‘canarium’ (Lim and Perono Cacciafoco, 2020). Other scholars have found that place names are also named after “useful plants” (Kratochvíl, Delpada and Perono Cacciafoco, 2016). These are essentially trees and vines with uses in building, clothing, etc.


The table below lists examples of some of these places:

Table 1. Examples of some toponyms named after plants that were collected in previous research

English gloss
Tifool ya
bamboo water
Karetak Afeeng
eucalyptus village
Kafiel Meelang
cactus.sp village
Kanaai Pea
nearby canarium
Kanaai Sua
triplet canarium
Kanaai Loohu
long canarium
Wata Mea
lit. coconut mango
Wata Kiika
red coconut
Village and Field
Wata Meelang
coconut village
Mea Kilikil
idle mango
Mea Takuukul
literally (lit.) tangled mango
mango ravine

Place names, which are a “special part of our cultural heritage in that they tell us something about the place to which they refer and about the name givers” (Helleland, 2012, p. 101), tell us about the relationship that the Abui people share with plants. Plants have various uses to the Abui people, such as for food, for construction, and for clothing and because these plants are commonly grown in the landscape, are then used to name the surrounding places.

What about medical healing traditions?

Unsurprisingly, another function of plants is their use in healing sicknesses and/or injuries. Living far away from towns where advanced medical care is usually located at, Abui speakers turn to plants in their landscape as a means of curing ailments. As an indigenous and oral-word society, the uses for such plants, along with how to use them, are handed down from generation to generation via word-of-mouth. According to the Abui people, even simple plants that we consume on a daily basis have healing properties. In our fieldwork with Abui locals, we have documented a few recipes on these healing plants and how to use them:

Table 2. Examples of healing plants and their related recipes

Used to heal chest pain, especially after an accident.

A young banana plant is selected, crushed, and mixed with a chicken egg. The mixture is then eaten or drunk

Used as a medicine for cough, fever, and foot injuries.


When a child has a fever, his/her parents may crush a candlenut, put it in some water, and smear the mixture on the child’s body.


Similarly, for foot injuries, one can extract the candlenut’s juice and massage on the afflicted area.

Used to treat diarrhoea.


Brown rice is cooked as porridge and eaten.