When I got the latest issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, I was delighted to find an article by Kristen Herdman and Raymond Clemens on an unusual kind of book used by the Toba Batak of North Sumatra:

The image shown here, of a bark book in the Beinecke Library’s collection made by the Batak people of northern Sumatra, challenges our notion of what a book is. This particular volume is a divination book, also called a pustaha, which was made for use by a datu: a shaman and healer. Pustaha are frequently made of materials like the bark of an Aquilaria tree, a writing surface unique to the Batak people.

While pustaha deal with medicine or divination and are the dominant type of surviving book from pre- or early colonial Batak society, other objects preserve other traditions, of love laments and poems. […] A pustaha could be used as an informal (and highly individual) way of recording instructions for how to complete a particular rite. Such a document could support oral instruction for the beginning datu and serve as a reference work for the well practiced. The Yale book, like most pustaha, is folded like an accordion—a style of binding that has found popularity in manuscript cultures around the world. It is made of a single, thin, long strip of bark.

Dated to between 1860 and 1920, this example is written in Hata Poda, a language that was long thought to be understood only by the datu himself. The writing was carried out by use of a sugar palm pen dipped in a specially prepared black ink. Batak, as a language group, is divided into six subcategories, representing the diversity to be found between northern and southern ethnic groups of Batak people. As a result, surviving pustaha can act as witnesses to the linguistic differences among the Batak peoples.

There’s more at the link (as well as an image of the book); you can read more about pustaha at Wikipedia (“The name pustaha is borrowed from the Sanskrit word pustaka […] meaning ‘book’ or ‘manuscript’”) and more about the hata poda form of the language here (p. 48 of Herman Neubronner van der van der Tuuk’s venerable Grammar of Toba Batak [1971, first published in Dutch 1864–1867]). As I wrote in 2008, I took a Field Methods class in which we met every week to elicit forms from a speaker of Toba Batak and each had to produce a (rudimentary) grammar by the end of the semester, so this was of particular interest to me.


  1. I thought I recognized datu as the same word that is used as an honorary title elsewhere. It seems to be cognate with Old Malay dātu “king”, which is today often used in the form of the title datu or datuk in Malay (e.g. Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamed) with similar forms used in other Austronesian languages.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s sort of glass-half-empty/glass-half-full that the university has this really cool item but apparently no one around who can necessarily read it. The medievalist grad student referenced is doing her dissertation “focused on the material culture of the Lüneburg Heath cloisters and how text, particularly in the form of the banderole, impacts reading and viewing practices across media.” The anthropology department still has Joseph Errington, who has done linguistic fieldwork on Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia, and various other Malay dialects, and who was back toward the beginning of his career my sociolinguistics teacher. But Indonesia’s a large and diverse region, so maybe he wasn’t the right person to get a quote from for for this. And a major university ought to hang on to things like this because a few centuries from now there may be a grad student or faculty member for whom it is relevant and/or because researchers from other institutions with less funding may want to pay it a visit.

    I have no doubt told the story before of working in an obscure basement part of the Yale library system back in the mid-Eighties and coming across the university’s stash of Tibetan books — amazing artifacts printed with carved wooden blocks instead of metal type — that were languishing in the apparent absence of any then-current faculty members who could read them. They had all been bought, it appeared, about 25 years previously with money obtained from the federal government circa when Tibetan had for Cold War reasons been designated a “strategic” language that the feds wanted to fund knowledge of. But maybe hold onto them long enough and an interested reader will again appear.

  3. It is made of a single, thin, long strip of bark.

    I don’t think I would ever say “thin, long” rather than “long, thin” (also I wouldn’t put a comma after “single”). I don’t know that “long” and “thin” are in different categories in ordering of adjectives though. But “thin” in “long, thin strip” would make me think “narrow”, rather than referring to the thickness of the material.

  4. In searching for similar format codices, besides accordian style, some are listed as concertina style.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    No melodeons?

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