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The Malay Archipelago is the archipelago located between mainland Southeastern Asia and Australia. Situated between the Indianmarker and Pacific Oceansmarker, the group of 25,000 islands is the world's largest archipelago by area. It includes the countries of Indonesiamarker, the Philippinesmarker, Singaporemarker, Bruneimarker, East Malaysia, East Timormarker, and most of Papua New Guineamarker. The island of New Guineamarker is not always included in definitions of the Malay Archipelago.

The common name is based on the concept of a Malay race. The region is also sometimes referred to as the East Indies (particularly from an historical perspective) and Maritime Southeast Asia. Alfred Wallace has called the area the "Indian Archipelago" and the "Indo-Australian" Archipelago. While all of these different names for the archipelago describe the same general area, that area has been narrower or broader throughout history.


The concept of a “Malay race” which included the peoples of Indonesiamarker, Malaysiamarker, and the Philippinesmarker was put forward by European colonialists due to their observations regarding the influence of the Malay empire, Srivijaya. Nineteenth century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace used the term “Malay Archipelago” as the title of his influential book documenting his studies in the region.

As Wallace himself noted, there are arguments for excluding Papua New Guinea for cultural and geographical reasons: Papua New Guinea is culturally quite different from the other countries in the region, and the island of New Guineamarker itself is geologically not part of the continent of Asia, as the islands of the Sunda Shelf are (see Australiamarker). The archipelago is sometimes also known as the “East Indies”, particularly in the European colonial era, but broader definitions of the “East Indies” include Indochina, the Indian subcontinent, and even areas as far west as Iranianmarker Baluchistanmarker.

Geography and geology

The land and sea area of the archipelago exceeds 2 million km². The 25,000 islands of the archipelago comprises many smaller archipelagoes. The largest groupings are:

The six largest islands are New Guineamarker, Sumatramarker, Borneomarker, Sulawesimarker, Javamarker, Luzonmarker.

Geologically the archipelago is one of the most active volcanic regions in the world. Tectonic uplifts have produced large mountains, including the highest in Mount Kinabalumarker in Sabahmarker with a height of 4,095.2 m and Puncak Jayamarker in Papuamarker at . The climate throughout the archipelago, owing to its position on the equator, is tropical.

Wallace's line between Australian and Southeast Asian fauna.
The deep water of the Lombok Strait between the islands of Bali and Lombok formed a water barrier even when lower sea levels linked the now-separated islands and landmasses on either side.


Nineteenth century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, proposed the "Wallace Line", a boundary that separated the flora and fauna of Asia and Australia. The line runs through deep water straits in the Malay Archipelago, between Borneomarker and Sulawesimarker; and through the Lombok Straitmarker between Balimarker (in the west) and Lombokmarker (in the east). This is now considered the western border of the Wallacea transition zone between the zoogeographical regions of Asia and Australia. The zone has a mixture of species of Asian and Australian origin, and its own endemic species.

Antonio Pigafetta had also recorded the biological contrasts between the Philippinesmarker and the Maluku Islands (Spice Islandsmarker) (situated on opposite sides of the line) in 1521 during the continuation of the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan (after Magellan himself had been killed on Mactanmarker).


The archipelago's population is over 300 million and the most heavily populated island is Javamarker. In contrast, of Indonesia's estimated 17,500 islands, for example, about 6,000 are inhabited. The people of the archipelago are predominantly from Austronesian subgroupings and correspondingly speak western Malayo-Polynesian languages. This region of Southeast Asia shares more social and cultural ties with other Austronesian peoples in the Pacific than with the peoples of Mainland Southeast Asia.

Peninsular Malaysiamarker is included in Maritime Southeast Asia such that all the non-Oceanian Austronesian peoples are grouped in one cultural region.

The main religions in this region are Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and traditional Animism.

See also


  1. " Malay Archipelago." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2006. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
  2. " Maritime Southeast Asia." Worldworx Travel. Accessed 26 May 2009.
  3. RAND Corporation. (PDF)
  4. Reid, Anthony. Understanding melayu (Malay) as a source of diverse modern identities. Origins of Malayness 2001 Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on March 2, 2009.
  5. "If we draw a line ... commencing to the east of the Philippine Islands, thence along the western coast of Gilolo, through the island of Bouru, and curving round the west end of Mores, then bending back by Sandalwood Island to take in Rotti, we shall divide the Archipelago into two portions, the races of which have strongly marked distinctive peculiarities. This line will separate the Malayan and all the Asiatic races, from the Papuans and all that inhabit the Pacific; and though along the line of junction intermigration and commixture have taken place, yet the division is on the whole almost as well defined and strongly contrasted, as is the corresponding zoological division of the Archipelago, into an Indo-Malayan and Austro-Malayan region."
  6. Philippines : General Information. Government of the Philippines. Retrieved 2009-11-06; ;
  7. ;

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