Though originally Melanesian, many islanders were exterminated in the 17th century during the spice wars, particularly in the Banda Islands. A second influx of Austronesian immigrants began in the early twentieth century under the Dutch and continued in the Indonesian era.
The islands consist of the Southeast Maluku Regency (Maluku Tenggara) within the Maluku Province. The Regency is sub-divided into six districts (kecamatan). Though geographically within the Kai Islands, the city of Tual is the capital of the Southeast Maluku Regency of Indonesia, but not a member of the regency.
The Kai Islands are a part of the Wallacea, the group of Indonesian islands that are separated by deep water from both the Asian and Australian continental shelves, and were never linked to either continent. As a result, the Kai Islands have few native mammals and are a part of the Banda Sea Islands moist deciduous forests ecoregion. Kai Besar in particular is mountainous and densely forested. Kai is also famous for the beauty of its beaches, notably in Pasir Panjang.
Inhabitants called the islands Nuhu Evav (Evav Islands) or Tanat Evav (Evav Land), but they were known as Kei to people from neighboring islands. The islands are located on the edge of the Banda Sea, south of the Bird's Head Peninsula of New Guinea, west of the Aru and Tayandu Islands, and northeast of the Tanimbar Islands.
The Kai islands are made up of numerous islands, including:
The Kai Islands' total land area is 1,438 km2 (555 sq mi).
The islands are located in a tropical area near the equator where there is little change in the weather throughout the year. The year round temperature is usually around 30 °C (86 °F), with the lowest temperatures reaching 18 °C (64 °F). There is a dry season that lasts from April to September, during which rain is scarce.
Local history holds that ancestors of contemporary Kai islanders came from Bali, part of the expanding Majapahit kingdom from the western archipelago. The village of Ohoi-Ewur (first Raja Ewab: Raja Ohoi-Ewur = Raja Tabtut) on Kai Kecil or Nuhuroa island was the arrival point for the Balinese royal family and their army. They stayed in the village with local residents. As a result, Ohoi-ewur became a seat of government, where the local law (Larvul Ngabal) – Red Blood and Balinese Spear – was developed at the initiative of the royal princess D it Sakmas.
Evidence for these stories include an inheritance and a harbor named Bal Sorbay (Bali Surabaya) on Kai Kecil which is, presumably, the harbor at which the royals arrived.
It is recognized by Kai islanders that some of their ancestors also came from other places such as Sumbawa island (Sumbau), Buton (Vutun) in Sulawesi, Seram (Seran) and Gorom (Ngoran) islands in the Central Moluccas, and the Sultanates of Jailolo (Dalo) and Ternate (Ternat) as well.
The tiny island of Tanimbarkei is not part of Tanimbar, as the name might suggest but is, in fact, one of the Kai Islands. It is inhabited by fewer than 1000 very traditional people. Half of the population call themselves Hindus, but in fact are more or less practicing ancestor worship.
After the 1999 clashes between the Muslim and Christian populations in Ambon, similar inter-communal clashes also swept through Kai, but quickly calmed down.
All of the islands depend on 22 ratshcaap, or traditional local leaders called Rat or Raja, as kings of customary law.
The official language in the Kai Islands is Indonesian, although local languages also exist between regions.
Three Austronesian languages are spoken on the Kai Islands; Keiese is the most widely spoken, in 207 villages on Kai Kecil, Kai Besar, and surrounding islands. Kurese is spoken on Kur Island and nearby Kaimeer, where Kai is used as a lingua franca. Bandanese is spoken in the villages of Banda-Eli (Wadan El) and Banda-Elat (Wadan Elat) on the west and northeastern side of Kai Besar. Banda speakers originally came from the Banda Islands, but the language is no longer spoken there. There is no native writing system for the Keiese Language. Dutch Catholic missionaries write the language using a variation of the Roman alphabet.
Some Kai musical instruments include:
The Kai are among the few islands in the region to have more Catholics than Protestants; they are regarded as the center of Catholicism in all of Maluku.
The Muslims present in this region are a smaller community, and they follow a mild form of Islam because they rarely have veiled women and mosques are low key affairs too.
Half of the people who live on the small island of Tanimbarkei practice a variant of the Hindu religion, which involves a form of ancestor worship.
Their story of creation is a type of earth-diver myth that involves sending a dog down to the earth, who brings up his sandy paws.
There were three brothers and two sisters in the upper sky-world. While fishing one day, Parpara, the youngest of the brothers, lost a fish-hook which he had borrowed from Hian, his oldest brother. Angered by the loss of the hook, Hian demanded that it be found and returned to him. After much fruitless search, the Parpara met a fish who asked him what his trouble was, and who, on learning the facts, promised to aid in the search. At length they discovered another fish who was very ill because of something stuck in its throat. The object proved to be the long-lost hook, which the friendly fish delivered to Parpara, who thus was able to restore it to its owner.
Parpara, however, determined to have his revenge upon his brother, and so he secretly fastened a bamboo vessel full of palm liquor above Hian's bed in such a way that when the latter rose, he would be almost certain to upset it. The expected happened, and Parpara then demanded of his brother that he return to him the spilled liquor. Hian endeavoured, of course fruitlessly, to gather it up, and in his efforts dug so deeply into the ground that he made an opening clear through the sky-world.
Wondering what might lie below, the brothers determined to tie one of their dogs to a long rope and lower him through the aperture; and when they had done this, and the dog had been drawn up again, they found white sand sticking to his feet, whereupon they resolved to go down themselves, although the other inhabitants of the heaven-world refused to accompany them thither. Sliding down the rope, the three brothers and one of the sisters, together with their four dogs, safely reached the world which lay below, and which was thus discovered for the first time. As the second sister was descending, however, one of the brothers chanced to look up, at which his sister was so ashamed that she shook the rope and was hauled up by the other sky-people. In this way the three brothers with their sister were the first occupants of the world and became the ancestors of the human race.
The soil on Kai Kecil is of poor quality; slash-and-burn agriculture is still common. Fishing is usually done around Trepang, and cultured pearls are harvested in Kai Kecil.
A phenomenon that the seawater recedes up to 6 kilometers, so someone can go to other island by walking is done every year and is called as Meiti Kei. In 2017, the phenomenon will occur on October 22 to 23.