Culturally speaking, one of the most remarkable facts about the Timorese is their ethno-cultural heterogeneity. This is evident in the various languages and dialects as well as differences in material goods, most notably in regional architecture. The Timorese people have a rich oral tradition in which mythology and legend play an important role in passing on knowledge about the pre-colonial period and the later evolution of the kingdoms. There is also a long tradition of animist spiritualism in Timor which remains highly influential today, despite exposure to major powerful religions and the Timorese people抯 growing allegiance to the Catholic Church.
When the Portuguese first disembarked in Timor, the inhabitants were identified as animists. In 1522, Pigafetta referred to the Timorese as 揼entiles? and wrote that 搘hen they go cut sandalwood, it was told to us that the demon appears in various forms and tells them to ask for something that they need? Later, in 1559 the priest Baltazar Dias states in a letter that the Timorese 揳re the beastliest people that exist in these parts. Nothing do they adore, neither have [they] idols. Everything what the Portuguese tell them, they do it.? This indicates that the expansion of the Islamic religion from Malaysia in the 15th century hadn't reached Timor (although it is said that the Sultan of Ternate, Cachil Aeiro, should have subjected the island).
While the Malays, Chinese, Japanese and others frequented Timor and surrounding islands before the arrival of the Portuguese, colonisation and religious conversion (eg to Islam) was not their purpose nor was it permitted by the local Chiefs (Liurais). For instance, just like the early years of Portuguese contact, the Muslims appeared to have lived on the island only for the short period of time needed to cut and load the highly prized sandalwood trees. In the words of the captain of Malacca in 1518 to King D. Manuel, the Timorese also 揾ad natural aversion to the Muslims?
Animist religion in Timor-Leste revolves around the spirits of the dead who are both feared and worshipped. These spirits are materialized through stones, animals, wells, streams or objects endowed with mysterious magical powers that can be either good or evil. In Timor these are called 慙uliks? which means sacred and intangible.
Efforts to promote spiritual conversion to Christian Catholicism were introduced into Timor through Portuguese colonisation. However, the influence of the Catholic Church really took hold and began to strengthen only after the Indonesian invasion. This is partly because the Church, particularly the Diocese of Dili, gained the respect and prestige of the people during this period because they often came to the defense of Timorese lives. Today more than 90% of Timorese identify Catholicism as their religion. Nevertheless, animist beliefs remain strong in Timor-Leste and only a minority of local Christians (serani in Tetum) can be considered as having no animist beliefs. For a few Timorese, animism remains their main spiritual religion which informs their cultural practices and outlook on life.