The islands of Raja Ampat are a melting pot of ethnic influences that date back thousands of years. The people of the archipelago are of Melanesian descent, but the arrival of Austronesians over four millennia ago altered the culture and physical appearance of the native inhabitants in a significant and unique way. Within the last thousand years, seafarers, traders, and colonial settlers from Biak, Halmahera, Kai and Ceram have shaped the cultural heritage of the modern islanders, and the more recent influence of Dutch colonists and western missionaries is strikingly evident.
Most people living in Raja Ampat speak bahasa Indonesia, but a broad variety of languages and derivative dialects are spoken in different regions. The six principal language groups that originated in the area are Ambel, Biga, As, Maden, Matbat, and Ma’ya. Entirely different dialects are spoken traditionally amongst neighbouring communities who maybe separated by no more than a narrow straight of water or by relatively short distances across the interior of the larger islands. Several of the native dialects are considered to be approaching extinction amongst the small and sparse villages, where the language of the schools is exclusively bahasa Indonesia .
Islam, brought to the islands principally from Halmahera and Ceram is the predominate religion in the southern part of the archipelago, whilst in the north the islanders remain heavily influenced by the protestant teachings of foreign missionaries. Amongst both religious groups however, the people of Raja Ampat retain strong ties to traditional beliefs that are steeped in reverence for ancestors and an intrinsic connection to the natural world. Across the archipelago, a wealth of ancient mythical and spiritual traditions still play a dominant role in the daily life of most modern islanders.
On some islands, decorative markings and ornate petroglyphs dating back millennia adorn the walls of caves; this ancient artwork bears a remarkable resemblance to other Austronesian cave art found in Australia. Modern art forms include carving, weaving, traditional boat design, and the crafting of instruments such as skin–topped drums.
Most people living in the rural regions of the islands still make their living by farming, fishing and gathering, in the manner of their ancestors who first settled the archipelago.