Medical Humanities


Endemic Diseases and Their Perception- Cultural Anthropology of Illnesses in Alor Island

Francesco Perono Cacciafoco


This paper reconstructs the etymology of the names of endemic diseases and their perception and interpretation by local people in the context of Abui language and culture. Abui (ISO 639-3: abz; Glottolog: abui1241) is a Papuan language (Trans-New Guinea family, Alor-Pantar sub-family) spoken approximately by 17,000 speakers in the central part of Alor Island, South-East Indonesia, Alor-Pantar archipelago, Timor area. The native name of the language is Abui tangà, literally meaning ‘mountain language’. The Alor-Pantar languages are a family of clearly related Papuan languages spoken on islands of the Alor-Pantar archipelago. Besides eminently linguistic aspects of the naming strategies used by Abui speakers in ‘making’ and (sometimes par-etymologically) explaining the names of local diseases, the paper investigates anthropological elements of the relations between Abui people and local illnesses common in Timor’s area, like resistant malaria, yellow fever, cutaneous Leishmaniasis,  Japanese encephalitis, and typhoid fever. In particular, the paper analyzes local beliefs about the origins of these diseases, often connected with the breaking of a taboo or with a ‘curse’ triggered by a ‘criminal act’ (e.g. fruit theft from a private property, specifically from a tree to which a spell has been ‘applied’ by the owner of the land). The paper investigates, therefore, the perception of the illnesses by local people, from the appearance of the first symptoms to their course, and the cause-effect relationship of the onset of the diseases according to local beliefs and traditional Abui medicine. The analysis is developed through a comparative approach focused, mainly, on Papuan and Austronesian aboriginal contexts. This study associates Etymology and Language Documentation with Cultural Anthropology, History of Medicine, and History of Culture. ​​​