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Invisible Currency: A Speculation Through Pest, Diaspora and Futures

Media artist Natasha Tontey excavates mythical links between a resilient race of cockroaches, an “economy of stones” in Minahasan culture, and its links to the Mongols.



Pictured are the society of cockroaches in the artist’s film Pest to Power having a Minahasan feast of roasted pork and the stone people from the film Wa’anak Witu Watu

Pictured are the society of cockroaches in the artist’s film Pest to Power, 2019, having a Minahasan feast of roasted pork (babi putar in casual Minahasan), and the stone people from the film Wa’anak Witu Watu, 2020. Image courtesy Natasha Tontey.

Author’s Apologia This text is by no means a historical document. It is merely an attempt to think speculatively and imaginatively using a historical account. What matters is the notion of non-human circulation, social currency, and commodity exchange. It is the writer’s privilege (and pleasure) to tamper with the historical and mythical account of Minahasa. However, in this instance, I feel an apology is due to the people who have lived during the colonial era in Minahasa. In my defence, I can only acknowledge the ancestries of Tou Minahasa[01], Karema Lumimuut and Toar[02] — people of the Malesung Land[03] as well as to all the elders whom we call Opo[04] , from the past and present and future of Malesung Land. The indigenous sovereignty of paying respect to ancestors between stones and humans has been deemed as something unusual. Modern society sees these phenomena as irrational and alienated by modern religion. Yet I acknowledge the pact of the stone Watu Pinawetengan[05]; and that the first person was a woman, the Goddess Karema, who gave birth through a stone.

I. Voyage to a Beginning

In the 16th Century, Spain, as a proto-nation state with its goal to expand its empire, sailed to Sulawesi. There was already an existing sultanate in the south of Sulawesi, but also a complex collective of tribes in the north known ethnically as the Minahasans. Minahasa, as a place, inherited a certain charm with its mountains and seas and some neighbouring islands. In this land, trading was practised amongst merchants and sailors, a result of the ever-existing silk. At the same time, the Spanish empire, through its shipping company, mandated the extension of colonialism. The Spanish presence in Minahasa land — together with the Portugese — brought alien objects.

Similar to the story on how a type of insects called blattodea migrated from Africa to America, we can speculate that a new species of blattodea was travelling inside the wooden boats of Spanish merchants as another form of alien object alongside guns and germs [06]. Blattodea, or more familiarly, cockroaches ( kecoa in Bahasa Indonesia or kakkarlak  a common locution in casual Minahasan which is an absorption word that comes from the Dutch), are seen from the perspective of human’s history as a tiny, foul creature. Humans consider them pests, which explains why they were ignored in Noah’s Ark. In that narrative, species that benefit the life of humans are greatly mentioned, i.e. chicken, cattle and goat, whilst blattodea and other tiny insectoid are dismissed. However, they might be the answer to sustainability providing solutions for alternative food sources and waste disposal [07]. Whilst blattodea have existed for possibly centuries in the land of Minahasa, there is a possibility that a different species was actually onboard on the Spanish ships, which created a new breed when they mated with cockroaches endemic to Minahasa. Was this new breed of cockroach, which spawned due to the result of early capitalism, slavery, colonialism and the Silk Road, the most resilient [08] one?

A long time before the Spanish and Portuguese invaded Minahasa, most of its residents were involved in feuds over ownership of the land. Tribal war was a common activity until Watu Pinawetengan emerged and became the symbol of unity. Watu Pinawetengan, or “the stone of dividing” solidified the divided tribes through the process of commoning. Tribe leaders realised that they came from the same ancestor and shared the same land. As most of these tribes were hunter-gatherers, the presence of the stone revolutionised the notion of ownership. It came to be conceived as providing public access to natural resources and land. The Minahasans concluded that all material in the earth is never owned by humans; instead, they deemed that the earth owns humans.

The Minahasans concluded that all material in the earth is never owned by humans; instead, they deemed that the earth owns humans.

The stone was later lost by natural events. The ash from eruptions of Mount Soputan in the years 1785-86, 1819, 1833/38, 1845, 1890, and 1906 buried the megalithic stone, which is now said to be located at the foot of the mountain. The eruption of 1832-33 in particular was so extraordinary that the stone was hurled 18 kilometres from Mount Soputan. The sacred stone was later unearthed and excavated by the two German missionaries who were educated in the Netherlands, J.A.T. Schwarz and J.F.G. Riedel, according to their report for The Royal Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences [09] published in 1898.

Land commoning and democratisation shifted the lifestyles of Minahasan people from hunter-gatherers to agricultural workers. This opened the possibilities of producing a new cosmological thinking and political system of Mapalus [10] —  the act of knowledge transfer through volunteerism and mutual aid. Mapalus  is a social currency that formed the foundation of Minahasa’s gift economy, within which transactions and trade were performed based on trust and reciprocity.

The Goddess Karema in the artist’s film Wa’anak Witu Watu, 2020

The Goddess Karema in the artist’s film Wa’anak Witu Watu, 2020. Image courtesy Natasha Tontey.

There is a popular myth in Minahasa that the people are descendants of Mongolians. Believers are convinced that the first human in Minahasa was a Mongolian princess who was carried away to North Sulawesi. Her name was Karema. They believe Karema was also a goddess that gave birth through a mossy stone. An ancient prophecy in a tongue of mossy stone and a voice of water told Karema to knock on the stone and it spawned another human, named Lumimuut.

Yah ongah u nuwuk’ku ing kumua wia ni sia I clearly told her, the goddess of nature Wewe’an un Aoan nah-gio-gioan, ang kenap-sena’na I had begotten the gleam, but the shadow between the valley is part of my cosmos Ni itu ya tanu lalem-lalemdeman, wo tanu zuni-zuni’an Cloudy with a chance of rainbow sphere Ya wituma un Arina, Linengkaran niaku It is the place where I was born.

*This is a scripture of the legends of Minahasa, Toar and Lumimuut, by the late Yessy Wenas [11]. It spread amongst many WhatsApp groups of the Minahasa diaspora.

Multiple versions of this myth have spread through oral history. However, the myth is believed to be the cosmogony of Minahasa. Of course, there is no evidence whether this myth is true or not. For one, the Mongolians were stranded in the South and then landed in the northern part of Sulawesi. Moreover, geographically-speaking, Sulawesi is off-route on the Silk Road track, however, through the connection of the Gowa Kingdom in South Sulawesi, Mongol and Arab merchants could reach the north part of the island. In this sense, one can speculate that the myth of Mongol ancestry might be a fabrication in order to ignore the existence of prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Minahasa land. The material relation of prehistoric Minahasans continues to be dismissed in order to build a political system based on a stronger economic machine through a larger mode of governance. Mapalus started to be considered as a local wisdom rather than an economic transaction. We can speculatively think that the coinage was applied to Minahasan people because they found the practice much more reliable than complex — a transaction of trust and compassion. This process of cultural shift determines the myth that Mongols, considered superior in terms of polity and systemic governance — were the start of civilisation in Minahasa.

In this sense, one can speculate that the myth of Mongol ancestry might be a fabrication in order to ignore the existence of prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Minahasa land.

3D rendered of Watu Pinawetengan taken from the film Wa’anak Witu Watu

The diagram shows the relationship between kanaramen (habit), ta’ar (promise) and the system of rules which Minahasans established to govern the practise of mapalus — rules observed by every mapalus group throughout the region. The word kawanua indicates a common origin, common adat or custom, common language and common dwelling place — all of which connote a sense of security. The wanua was also the fundamental unit of settlement and the primary social community in Minahasa. It indicates the importance of the role of the wanua [footnote = "12"]. The image is 3D rendered of Watu Pinawetengan taken from the film Wa’anak Witu Watu. Image courtesy Natasha Tontey (2020).

II: Seeking Mythical Futures

In an effort to rule the southern part of Asia, Kublai Khan sent emissaries to the Singhasari Kingdom [15] in the Indonesian archipelago. He ordered them to submit to his power. When one of his emissaries was denied and brutally humiliated upon his visit to Java, Kublai Khan labelled the Singhasari Kingdom barbaric. This incident forced Kublai Khan to send armadas of thousands of ships to the archipelago as an act of revenge. This was also part of his plan to take over the southern part of the Silk Road, which was controlled by many kingdoms in the Indonesian archipelago. In this period of time, the Singhasari kingdom was a close ally with the Gowa kingdom in South Sulawesi, and thus Kublai Khan’s army was defeated and humiliated. A million cockroaches that shared Kublai Khan’s ships were left in the archipelago, bringing germs and bacteria that were non-endemic to people in Java and Sulawesi. Hundreds of warlords and thousands of soldiers were killed and stranded — many on uninhabited islands — to start new civilisations on one of thousands of islands in the archipelago. Perhaps Karema was one of the male queer soldiers working under Kublai Khan’s warlords. She might have been stranded. She might have suffered from gender dysphoria, transforming herself into a princess left alone with millions of cockroaches, later saved by the hunter-gatherers of the land of Minahasa.

Does Kublai Khan embody the currency?

What was also left behind by the Mongolian invasion of the archipelago was the idea of state-ruled fiat money in the form of paper, the value of which is determined by the central authority. Exchange value is based on Kublai Khan’s dominant power and cult of personality.

The hidden shrine of the Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin) Goddess -13- nearby Lumimuut and Toar’s waruga -14- tombstone, a Minahasan type of sarcophagus in Palamba, South Langowan, Minahasa Regency, North Sulawesi

The hidden shrine of the Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin) Goddess [footnote = "13"] nearby Lumimuut and Toar’s waruga [footnote = "14"] tombstone, a Minahasan type of sarcophagus in Palamba, South Langowan, Minahasa Regency, North Sulawesi. The photo was taken on 24 December 2019 and collaged with a found image of Kublai Khan from the world wide web. Image courtesy Natasha Tontey.

However, since the Mongols were defeated in the archipelago, the idea of centralised valuation of commodities was never implemented in the land of Minahasa until the cyclone of colonialism hit the archipelago. People of Minahasa dismiss the idea of objects without functional and intrinsic value. However, Spanish and Portugese traders, merchants, and colonisers trade using the idea of commodity money in the shape of coins. With the presence of colonialists from the west and their interactions with the locals through trade instead of warmongering, their centralised trading system replaced the economic power of Mapalus which was developed since the beginning of Minahasan history. Mapalus was ruled out as a currency of exchange. Trading was manifested through material and object exchange. Sociality as a form of currency began to be forgotten. Modes of transaction have to be based on commodity rather than community. As a community of multiple tribes, centralised trading shifted the lifestyle of the Minahasan people.

III: Invisible Currency and Cockroach Diaspora

Upon this great transactional shift, an economy of stone emerged. Though it still revolves around the notion of commodity, contemporary stone transactions are becoming a thing — a mixture of New Age practice, capitalism and spiritual connection to the Gaia. This new wave of commodified stone impacts contemporary Minahasa. The stone market is ubiquitous. People use stones as amulets, adornment and fashion statements. What makes it interesting is that many Minahasans link this New Age phenomena to their ancestral roots: the democracy of the dividing stone.

With great surprise, the logic of the market has now developed a new relation. However, a market is a market; in the end the value of one stone is determined by the time and labour of producing one stone. The new stone economy has failed to become an invisible currency based on belief and ancestral roots, unless we can apply blockchain upon this transaction.

A ritual in Watu Pinawetengan in the film Wa’anak Witu Watu, 2020

A ritual in Watu Pinawetengan in the film Wa’anak Witu Watu, 2020. Image courtesy Natasha Tontey.

Imagine if the concept of the stone economy was built on the foundation of an alternative non-market system, which might be based on the idea of how closely related the owners are to their stones. Echoing the energy of the gift economy, individuals can transact their stones based on a decentralised agreement, which involves two parties dealing with the value of a stone through its personified adjustment. They believe that stones are possessed by their ancestral spirits which symbolise the kinship between people. In this transaction, there is no central institution regulating the value of the stones. They each decide the value of the stones according to the different spirits that are materialised in each stone. For example, if someone needs to protect their children, families, or hopes to manifest abundance and prosperity, another individual could give them a stone that embodied the “protector” spirit in exchange for nothing. Therefore, this transaction is based on mutual trust and kinship that is manifested in a gift. This philosophy of peer-to-peer trust without a central governance is internalised in the stone as a social currency.

Imagine a set of invisible currencies embodied in Kublai Khan, a possibility of speculation that neither wishes to shut the door to the past nor succumb to the vulnerable future.

Can this mode of currency envision the future of transactions? We cannot be sure. However, the remnants of centralised paper money developed in the age of Kublai Khan leaves us with no alternative in dealing with transactions. We need an invisible currency — a currency that we can use based on social interaction rather than objects or materials. The premise of a blockchain stone economy is fascinating, but in practice might conclude similarly to the failed promise of cryptocurrency; it is a matter of time before it transforms into a total centralisation.

We need an invisible currency — a currency that we can use based on social interaction rather than objects or materials.

Carol Pontoh, a stone aficionado, explaining the brief history of stone currency and culture in Minahasa, documented on 25 December 2019 in his house in Tondano, North Sulawesi; a collection of images from the ritual in Watu Pinawetengan where some people are charging their amulets’ energy in the neighbouring stone called “Watu Muntu Untu”

From left to right: Carol Pontoh, a stone aficionado, explaining the brief history of stone currency and culture in Minahasa, documented on 25 December 2019 in his house in Tondano, North Sulawesi; a collection of images from the ritual in Watu Pinawetengan where some people are charging their amulets’ energy in the neighbouring stone called “Watu Muntu Untu”, documented on 3 January 2020.

What we might need is to rethink the Mapalus  system and try to apply it in our daily transactions. The global Minahasan diaspora has tried to apply this system by building solidarity through community engagement. There is a strong connection between Minahasans who take refuge in the Netherlands and other Minahasans who are undocumented illegal migrants in Japan. Mapalus  works better for them. This echoes the first conversation about cockroaches, the cockroaches which travelled the world living in non-habitats without being settler colonialists. They might come from Africa, travel to Central Asia, and end up in Southeast Asia, but they still survive as a species with strong solidarity — a very determined diaspora. Perhaps, in our contemporary time, whether in the Minahasan cosmology or any other world on earth, only our friend, the revolutionary blattodea, still practices Mapalus .

Their fate may be different in the coming years should humans start to think of consuming them as a means of sustainable living [16]. Their presence will be re-rendered with the logic of the market — commodified and consumed. But for now, they are still the abominable creatures with a strong Mapalus mentality.

Sa kita esa, sumerar kita, sa kita sumerar, esa kita, tumani o tountumuwu am waya, sapake’ em palated, sarun sia. If we are truly united, let us spread. Living our lives, we shall face every obstacle. In the menace, we thrive and face it with sincerity.

En atemu karengan pute ang kakete i watu anio’, ambisake’ eng kateka’annu, mapat ko. If we are truly united, let us spread. Living our lives, we shall face every obstacle. In the menace, we thrive and face it with sincerity. Your heart must be as solid as a rock.

Ta’an kawisake, we’emio’ an deken em pused e Apo. However, until whenever, submit your heart and mind for the supreme beings, the cosmos mother who bestowed the celestial energy [17].

I Yayat U Santi! [18]

  • 01.

    Tou Minahasa (local translation for the Minahasan people) are divided into nine sub-ethnicities: Babontehu, Bantik, Pasan Ratahan (Tounpakewa), Ponosakan, Tonsea, Tontemboan, Toulour, Tonsawang, and Tombulu.

  • 02.

    In the cosmology and history of Minahasa culture, Karema (the Goddess), Lumimuut (a female deity, the Child of the Stones) and Toar (a male mythical figure, Lumimuut’s son) are the mystical ancestors of the Minahasan people. According to the interview that I conducted with a historian and lecturer in faculty of history in Universitas Sam Ratulangi, Fendy Parengkuan on January 3rd 2020 at his house in Tondano, he said that there are over 92 versions of the origin of Toar and Lumimuut. However, Toar is relatively more well-known and honoured by Minahasans, whilst Karema and Lumimuut are considered as subordinate to Toar. In the text, I have changed the hierarchical order. I placed Karema and Lumimuut before Toar, because of my own respect towards the figures of Karema and Lumimuut, especially Lumimuut who is in fact Toar's biological mother.

  • 03.

    Malesung is the ancient name of the region of Minahasa.

  • 04.

    According to the interview that I conducted with Fendy E. W. Parengkuan on January 3rd 2020, Opo is the common name for the elders and deities of Minahasa. Before the arrival of missionaries and new religions in Minahasa, the Minahasan people had practiced animistic and monotheistic beliefs. This practice included the concept of worshiping deities that inhabited the natural surroundings. These deities are called Opo. Opo is also considered a shaman and spirit.

  • 05.

    Watu Pinawetengan is a sacred stone to Minahasan people. It is located in Pinabetengan Village, Tompaso, Minahasa, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. In this place, before 1000 BC there was a pact made where Tonaas the people representatives at that time deliberated to divide nine sub-ethnic Minahasa.

  • 06.

    Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Society (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999).

  • 07.

    In the future, cockroach breeding might be a sustainable way for living. See Ryan Raman, “Cockroach Milk: A Promising Superfood or Nothing but Hype?”, Healthline, January 2, 2020.,theirdevelopingyoung(1). and Thomas Suen and Ryan Woo, “Bug business: Cockroaches corralled by the millions in China to crunch waste,” Reuters, December 10, 2018.

  • 08.

    Carl Zimmer, “The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments,” The New York Times, March 29, 2019.

  • 09.

    Endang Sri Hardiati; Nunus Supardi; Trigangga; Ekowati Sundari; Nusi Lisabilla; Ary Indrajanto; Wahyu Ernawati; Budiman; Rini (2014). Trigangga (ed.). Potret Museum Nasional Indonesia, Dulu, Kini dan Akan Datang - Pameran "Potret Museum Nasional Indonesia, Dulu, Kini dan Akan Datang", Museum Nasional Indonesia, 17-24 Mei 2014. Jakarta: National Museum of Indonesia, Directorate General of Culture, Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Indonesia.

  • 10.

    For Minahasans, mapalus is a familiar term. They associate it with a form of activities which character and purpose is to help others. This help, of course, must be given according to a specific procedure. However, such mutual help is not unique to the Minahasans — every ethnic group in Indonesia, and indeed throughout the world, probably possesses its own version.” Fendy E. W. Parengkuan, “A Contribution To The History of Mapalus in The Minahasa, North Sulawesi, Jurnal Masyarakat dan Budaya, Volume 8 No. 2 Tahun 2006.

  • 11.

    Yessy Wenas or Jehezkiel Robert Wenas (d. 2019) was a composer, Minahasan cultural theorist and a Tonaas (a title of honour in Minahasan culture and considered as the elder). Yessy studied at the Fine Art Department, Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) in 1961-1967. Yessy was active in his music career and later in his life he was an active member and board of Kerukunan Keluarga Kawanua Sedunia (International Minahasa Diaspora Community). His interest in Minahasa oral history inspired the Minahasa diaspora and local communities around the world.

  • 12.

    Fendy E. W. Parengkuan, Intervensi Asing Terhadap Sistem Pemerintahan Tradisional Minahasa Sampai Akhir Abad XIX. Presented at the 4th National History Seminar, Yogyakarta, December 1985.

  • 13.

    Kuan Yin is a well-known Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion.

  • 14.

    Waruga is a type of sarcophagus or above ground tomb traditionally used by the Minahasans until around 18th century where the Dutch banned the use of Waruga due to the pox epidemic. Thus, the Minahasan buried the dead according to Christian customs. See an interview with Bodewyn Grey Talumewo, a historian, on December 27th 2019 in Manado, Sulawesi Utara[citation here]. Also Fendy E. W. Parengkuan on January 3rd 2020 in Tondano, Sulawesi Utara in a video published by North Sulawesi Archeology Centre (Balai Arkeologi Sulawesi Utara).

  • 15.

    The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Singhasari,” Encyclopædia Britannica, April 10, 2016.

  • 16.

    See Agence France-Presse, “Papa cockroach is healthy food for humans: Chinese farmer breeds bugs for the table,” Gulf News, April 16, 2019. . See also David McKenzie, “Would you eat a cockroach in China? This guy did,” CNN, September 1, 2014.

  • 17.

    According to Fendy E. W. Parengkuan on his lecture on ‘Mysticism and Minahasan Culture’ in 28 November 2014, this is one of Minahasan philosophy written in the indigenous language of Tountemboan. See Frangky Wullur, “Pakar budaya Minahasa Fendy Parengkuan,” Berita Manado, November 30, 2014. Following up on this article, I made a brief conversation on WhatsApp with Parengkuan on 13 June 2020 and translated the script.

  • 18.

    The literal translation of I Yayat U Santi is to raise and lift your sword. This phrase is used especially by warriors and members of the sword dancer (Kabasaran) when they face the enemies. This is a battle cry, a command, an order to provoke strong emotion, enthusiasm, as well as to repel nervousness, worry, anxiety and fear before facing the enemies. In contemporary Minahasa, I Yayat U Santi is commonly used as an expression to end a speech.

Artists and Contributors

Natasha Tontey picture

Natasha Tontey

Natasha Tontey is an artist based in Yogyakarta. She is interested in exploring the concept of fiction as a method of speculative thinking. Through her artistic practice, she investigates the idea of how fear, horror, and terror could be manifested in order to control the public. In her work, she explores the fictional account of the history and myth surrounding ‘manufactured fear’ as a method of speculative fiction and how it determined the expectation for the future.

Her works have been shown internationally in Next Wave Festival in (Melbourne 2016), Koganecho Bazaar (Yokohama 2015), Indonesian Dance Festival (Jakarta 2018), Instrument Builder Project: Circulating Echo at Kyoto Art Centre (2018), Other Futures: Multispecies Experiment (Amsterdam 2019), Contemporary Art Tasmania (Hobart, Tasmania 2019), Polyphonic Social 2019 (Melbourne, VIC) + Tricks of the Mouth (Sydney, NSW) presented by Liquid Architecture, K4 Gallery of Video and Moving Image (Oslo, Norway) and The Wrong Biennale for Digital Arts (2019). Her solo exhibition Almanak was held in 2018 at Cemeti Institute for Art and Society, Indonesia. In 2019 she was awarded Young Artist Award by ArtJog MMXIX and HASH Award 2020 for Net-Based Projects in the Fields of Art, Technology, and Design by Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe and Akademie Schloss Solitude. Website: