46 Comments
Jan 24Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Tomas - Boy do I have the book for you. It turns out that none other than Clifford Geertz wrote a whole book (one of his most influential in fact) on exactly this subject. Like, literally exactly this subject. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_Involution

Basically you are on the right track that it has to do with the social demography of rice production in that specific environment. You can go grow rice in a labor extensive (slash and burn) or labor intensive way (paddy based). Java and Bali are the most populated regions of Indonesia and they both are organized around sawah, or paddy based production. It turns out that rice responds to manual labor better than any other cereal crop. In other words, rice yields go up with the intensity of labor inputs, not literally infinitely but it can seem that way (think about people standing in a paddy transferring individual shoots of rice into the ground at very careful intervals and then tending that tiny paddy obsessively over months). Over time, as the farms get subdivided down through family succession the pressure on individual units of land to produce enough rice to sustain a nuclear family goes up. The response is to have more kids so that you can pour more labor into the paddy so that you can squeeze more rice out of it. More kids means more subdivision through succession, and so on and so on over many many generations.

Expand full comment
Jan 25Liked by Tomas Pueyo

As an Indonesian that live in Java Island. I approve this article.👍

Adding to that, Javanese people have a very polite character (not in japanese polite sense). Helping each other even stranger. If you go to java and ran out of money. You still going to survive because their hospitality.

Expand full comment
Jan 25Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Love the article. I can get "bachelor degree" with this LOL.

Expand full comment

Really great article, simple yet detailed. Kudos!

Expand full comment

This is my first read on Substack and I absolutely loved the way you shared the information with sources. I'm always intrigued with geography and maps so I will be bookmarking this and will go read your next article!

It was a pleasure to read.

Expand full comment
Feb 5Liked by Tomas Pueyo

volcanoes in java do erupt every few years, on average every eight years and in the last 100 year is every 3 years, and lava isn't the thing that renew/fertilize the land, it's the volcanic ash that is carried by the wind for many kilometers from the erupting volcano

Expand full comment
Jan 31·edited Jan 31Liked by Tomas Pueyo

What a great reading about Java! But I would like to "clarify" a bit that the "Borobudur was built by the Srivijaya" narration (Non-local Javanese kingdom) isn't really correct. After the founding and the reading of the Sojomerto inscription in Central Java, local historian experts start to believe that the Shailendra Dynasty—even if it was shadowed by the Srivijaya—was actually a local Javanese ruler. Hoping you can check out a lot more about Borobudur because this notion about who-built-it is currently on rise for our neighbor nation's supremacist propaganda.

Anyway, love this article. You've done such an excellent job, Tomas! Looking forward for your another work. Matur nuwun wis nyerat babagan Jåwå!

Expand full comment
Jan 26Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Fascinating read. Loved the maps. However, a little too dismissive of the historical reasons. Java has always (at least for millions of years) been volcanic and fertile, which doesn't explain the more recent population boom.

Historic trade routes were quite different. While Malacca was a historic trading port, it declined quite quickly when Europeans arrived. The Portuguese, who conquered it, had stiff competition from the English elsewhere in Malaya (and who would eventually set up Singapore as their trading base - and current centre for trade in the region. Malacca, meanwhile, never recovered) and, importantly, the Dutch.

Although it may not seem that way now, the Dutch were a colonial powerhouse during this period. They capitalised on the spice trade, wresting all control away from the Portuguese (except in far off East Timor) and keeping the English well off to the margins. Meanwhile, the Dutch had established their power base in Java, particularly their capital Batavia - now Indonesia's current capital and biggest city, Jakarta - and shifted the trade routes at the time through the nearby Sunda Strait.

While they did eventually conquer the rest of the archipelago, it's important to note that the Dutch consolidated their power and concentrated the development of their colonial empire from Java exactly over this period of population expansion. As spices declined in value and importance, the Dutch turned their attention to cash crops. Java, being so fertile, was perfect for this. So successful were their efforts at ramping up agriculture that Java is now synonymous with one of those cash crops, coffee.

Perhaps the real kicker is that the Dutch were so determined to squeeze every ounce of money out of their newfound cash crops that they even brought in the colonial policy of the Culture System, which forced farmers to produce crops for their colonial masters. Essentially indentured labour. The rapid rise in labour intensive agriculture required more people to work the land, which fed back into growing more rice, which provided more people, which required more rice, more people, more rice, etc. It became a cycle/spiral that spurred itself on until it created a population boom.

It was a combination, or confluence, of all these different reasons that the population exploded. You could argue that it would never have happened had the conditions and timing not been perfect.

Expand full comment

Thanks for covering Indonesia, as a Javanese I found this article pretty accurate! I didn't realize how densely populated Java is until I visited other regions of Indonesia & other countries 😂

There are a lot of ricefields, forests, and remote villages here too so it don't feel that dense, especially if you live in the suburbs. It feels dense if you live in the bigger cities.

Expand full comment
Jan 25Liked by Tomas Pueyo

I always love your articles. I was just at Borobudur Temple this past weekend, though, and it’s solidly in Central Java, not on Sumatra, as the photo caption says!

Expand full comment
Jan 25Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Interesting article ! I live in Java myself and I found this article quite enlighting of why this island is crowded and I found some other new information about this island too. Because I do not know why Java has to be this crowded and become like a center of view in this country. Everything has to be compared to Java. It has the most educated people, it has best schools and universities, the most modern island, most biggest modern cities, but we are struggling with many problems like clean water, trash problem, land subsidence, bad air quality, etc. So yes it will be nice I think to reduce the density like transmigration program, but unfortunately larger part of Javanese has developed a culture saying 'mangan ra mangan kumpul' it means whether we have something to eat or not, we should stay together. So it will be hard for the program to run smoothly. It's just FYI though, nice article 👍

Expand full comment
Jan 24Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Very interesting and well-written article again, thanks! Nothing to add or comment, except that the Borobudur is on Java, not Sumatra ;-)

Expand full comment
Jan 24Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Perfectamente explicado y de forma muy amena. Gracias¡¡

Expand full comment
Jan 24Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Very cool visuals !! Thanks Tomas.

So from the timing I guess it's the Singhasari that crossed the Indian Ocean and colonised Madagascar? I always thought it was fascinating that a civilisation would have the technology and population to do trans-oceanic colonisation centuries before the Europeans, yet stopped at a single Island.

It's also ironic that as you point out, much of the economic model that sustained the early European colonisations in that area was based on spices. We didn't have spices, and that gave demand for a high value per kg trade in Europe, which sustained the colonisations.

So if the Singhasari had not had such great spices right there, would they actually have colonised the world?

Expand full comment
Jan 24Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Dear Thomas, as usual an interesting article, thanks. One notes however, that at the end the explanation is basically "“Java has many volcanoes and… something something fertile land. More food, more people.”

Expand full comment
Sep 16Liked by Tomas Pueyo

I am javanese, i live in java.

Why people choose to live in java? Because it's comfortable. Java along with bali and nusa tenggara have seasons like northern hemisphere but the climate follow southern hemisphere. It's cold in dry season (summer), can reach zero degree in mountains. And hot in wet season (winter), luckily it's rain everyday.

we don't have snow like japan. Or hit by taifun every week like philipine. There are no smoke from burning forest like in sumatra and kalimantan that can cover for months. and the floods doesn't stay for long time like in sumatra and kalimantan. No tiger (to bad they are extinct in java). No elephant that can damage your crops. No wild tribal. People in java organized in village system.

And you should also notice that global wind (because earth rotation) always flow from east to west in equator. And java along with bali and nusa tenggara spreads from west to east. Thats makes volcano's ashes fall down in the land of those islands. Not like in sumatra the ashes fall down in the ocean.

Expand full comment