Batak societies are patriarchally organized along clans known as Marga. A traditional belief among the Toba Batak is that they originate from one ancestor "Si Raja Batak", with all
Margas descended from him. A family tree that defines the father-son relationship among Batak people is called tarombo. In contemporary Indonesia, Batak people have a strong focus on education and a prominent position in the professions, particularly as teachers, engineers, doctors and lawyers. Toba Batak are known traditionally for their weaving, wood carving and especially ornate stone tombs.
Before they became subjects of the colonial Dutch East Indies government, the Batak had a reputation for being fierce warriors. Today the Batak are mostly Christian with a Muslim minority. Presently the largest Christian congregation in Indonesia is the HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan) Christian church. The dominant Christian theology was brought by Lutheran German missionaries in the 19th century, including the well-known missionary Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen. Christianity was introduced to the Karo by Dutch Calvinist missionaries and their largest church is the GBKP (Gereja Batak Karo Protestan). The Mandailing and Angkola Batak were converted to Islam in the early 19th century. A significant minority of Batak people do not adhere to either Christianity or Islam, however, and follow traditional practices known as the agama si dekah, the old religion, which is also called perbegu or pemena.
Ritual cannibalism is well documented among Batak people, performed in order to strengthen the eater's tendi. In particular, the blood, heart, palms and soles of the feet were seen as rich in tendi.
In Marco Polo’s memoirs of his stay on the east coast of Sumatra (then called Java Minor) from April to September 1292, he mentions an encounter with hill folk whom he refers to as “man-eaters”. From secondary sources, Marco Polo recorded stories of ritual cannibalism among the "Battas". Marco Polo's stay was restricted to the coastal areas, and he never ventured inland to directly verify such claims. Despite never personally witnessing these events, he was nonetheless willing to pass on descriptions which were provided to him, in which a condemned man was eaten
"They suffocate him. And when he is dead they have him cooked, and gather together all the dead man's kin, and eat him. And I assure you they do suck the very bones till not a particle of marrow remains in them...And so they eat him up stump and rump. And when they have thus eaten him they collect his bones and put them in fine chests, and carry them away, and place them in caverns among the mountains where no beast nor other creature can get at them. And you must know also that if they take prisoner a man of another country, and he cannot pay a ransom in coin, they kill him and eat him straightway.
The Venetian Niccolò de' Conti (1395–1469) spent most of 1421 in Sumatra in the course of a long trading journey to Southeast Asia (1414–1439), and wrote a brief description of the inhabitants: "In a part of the island called Batech live cannibals who wage continual war on their neighbors.".
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in the 1820s studied the Batak and their rituals and laws regarding the consumption of human flesh, writing in detail about the transgressions that warranted such an act as well as their methods. Raffles stated that "It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work," and that for certain crimes criminal would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.”.
The German physician and geographer Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn visited the Batak lands in 1840-41. Junghuhn says about cannibalism among the Batak (whom he called
“People do the honest Battaer an injustice when it is said that they sell human flesh in the markets, and that they slaughter their old people as soon as they are unfit for work...They eat human flesh only in wartime, when they are enraged, and in a few legal instances.”
Junghuhn tells how after a perilous and hungry flight he arrived in a friendly village, and the food that was offered by his hosts was the flesh of two prisoners who had been slaughtered the day before, however he maintains that the Batak exaggerated their love of human flesh in order to frighten off would-be invaders and to gain occasional employment as mercenaries for the coastal tribes who were plagued by pirates .
Oscar von Kessel visited Silindung in the 1840s and in 1844 was probably the first European to observe a Batak cannibalistic ritual in which a convicted adulterer was eaten alive. Interestingly, his description parallels that of Marsden in some important respects, however von Kessel states that cannibalism was regarded by the Batak as a judicial act and its application was restricted to very narrowly defined infringements of the law including theft, adultery, spying or treason. Salt, red pepper and lemons had to be provided by the relatives of the victim as a sign that they accepted the verdict of the community and were not thinking of revenge.
Ida Laura Pfeiffer visited the Batak in August 1852 and although she did not observe any cannibalism, she was told that
"Prisoners of war are tied to a tree and beheaded at once; but the blood is carefully preserved for drinking, and sometimes made into a kind of pudding with boiled rice. The body is then distributed; the ears, the nose, and the soles of the feet are the exclusive property of the Rajah, who has besides a claim on other portions. The palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the flesh of the head, and the heart and liver, are reckoned peculiar delicacies, and the flesh in general is roasted and eaten with salt. The Regents assured me, with a certain air of relish, that it was very good food, and that they had not the least objection to eat it. The women are not allowed to take part in these grand public dinners."
Samuel Munson and Henry Lyman, American Baptist missionaries to the Batak, were cannibalized in 1834. Dutch and German missionaries to the Batak in the late 19th
century observed a few instances of cannibalism and wrote lurid descriptions to their home parishes in order to raise donations for further missions. The growing Dutch influence in northern Sumatra led to increased Malay influence in coastal trade and plantations, pushing the Karo farther inland. Growing ethnics tensions culminated in the 1872 Karo Rebellion where the Karo were suppressed by Dutch and Malay forces. Despite this, Karo resistance to Dutch imperialism lingered into the early 20th century. In 1890 the Dutch colonial government banned cannibalism in the regions under their control. Rumors of Batak cannibalism survived into the early 20th century but it seems probable that the custom was rare after 1816, due partially to the influence of