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Borneo, Remote, Mysterious, Yet Not So Far From Okinawa

Date Posted: 2000-04-21

Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Still thickly forested, most of the island is sparsely populated and remote. The native Dayak tribes make up 40% of the population. Twenty percent are Chinese immigrants and the rest are settlers from various parts of the Indonesian archipelago and Malay peninsula.

The southern three quarters of the island, about half a million square kilometers, is claimed by Indonesia and called Kalimantan.

To the indigenous tribes, particularly wandering ones like the Punan, the borders between Kalimantan and the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak (belonging to Malaysia) and Brunei, do not mean much.

Except for a few crossing points, the border is a line through jungle so thick it has hardly been surveyed.

The Punan are thought to be the original inhabitants of Borneo, there before even the Dayaks. Light skinned and shy of outsiders, the Punan spend almost all of their lives deep within the shaded confines of the forest. They have retreated inland as immigrants have colonized coastal areas.

About 10,000 now live in small, wandering groups around Borneo's remotest highlands, the Apo Kayan and the headwaters of one of the island's main rivers, the Mahakam.

The Punan are acknowledged by other Borneo tribes as being the true experts in jungle craft. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of forest plants and no access to conventional medicine, they know of pastes, infusions and powders that can be taken for dysentery, tuberculosis, beri-beri, hepatitis and malaria.

They live by hunting pigs, birds, monkeys and small mammals. Their preferred weapon is the blowpipe, which is silent and deadly accurate in their hands. Darts are poisoned with preparations from various barks.

They also gather wild fruit, berries and sago, their staple food, which they make into flour. The Punan do not preserve meat except by smoking it. When they have food they eat. When there is none they go out to look for it.

Almost anyone who spends time with the Punan is impressed by their plant knowledge. They use vine which when lit, smoulders for days and in the absence of matches, is an easy way to carry fire. Another vine helps them keep off leeches.

They know of a root which can be pounded up, mixed with water and put into rivers to stupify fish. They float to the surface and are scooped up to be eaten.

These forest dwellers are also expert at bird and animal calls. They can lure deer to within shooting range by imitating their calls. In the same way, birds like the rhinoceros hornbill can be enticed down from the treetops to be caught and eaten.

Over 200 other tribal groupings fall within the classification "Dayak". They can be broadly divided into riverine, lowland and upland dwellers. Most of them have an animist heritage and their traditional livelihood has been rice growing and shifting cultivation through slash and burn agriculture.

Until the 1940s there were remote highland dwellers such as the Kelabits who'd had hardly any contact with the outside world.

British commandos landing by parachute on the Plain of Bah in 1944, prior to setting up a secret base from which to attack the Japanese in Sarawak, found the locals friendly on first contact. The unit reported that the cautiously approaching tribesmen wanted to know first whether their visitors were human!

These tribes didn't use money. Their hunting expertise was matched by their farming ability. They were able to extract several rice crops a year by means of their intricate and expert irrigation systems.

They lived communally in wooden longhouses and had a carefully organized hierarchy. They were fond of a mildly alcoholic rice brew after their toil in the fields and at celebrations.

Wealth and status was measured by possession of huge ceramic jars made in China, sometimes hundreds of years previously. The jars had been traded on the coast by Chinese merchants. They had been brought inland, strapped on backs, over almost impossibly rugged terrain: mountain ranges, rivers and gorges. They were beautiful objects in their own right. But the tribes invested in them great magical powers.

They had some extraordinary superstitions about these jars. Borneo doesn't have much cold weather. However, very occasionally the rain can turn to hail. Hail is so rare in the highlands that a lifetime can pass without it happening. When it does though, it is very alarming indeed. The tribes seem to have linked water going hard to fossilized remains of animals they had found. They believed things could be turned to stone if humans offended against nature. Making fun of animals or causing them to appear ridiculous were particularly serious crimes. One hailstorm was believed caused by a group of children playing with frogs they had caught, draping leaves over their heads and laughing at them as they hopped. Evidence of hailstorm disasters were great rocks roughly the shape of longhouses, believed to have been turned to stone.

The way to avoid this ultimate catastrophe was to rush indoors as soon as it started hailing. Then every pot, pan and gong had to be beaten. Making as much noise as possible was the way to ward off the petrification process. If the hail intensified despite the noise, the longhouse and everyone in it was in imminent danger of turning to stone. The oldest and most potent of the precious jars were then shifted to block the entrance of the longhouse. They alone were believed to have sufficient magical force to resist the anger of the gods. When the walls began to take on a rocky hue, it was time to get out of the longhouse. The jars would stop the entrance going rocky and could be smashed to escape from the doomed building.

In the last half century Borneo has modernized. A petrochemical industry has created some large coastal cities and the logging industry has brought great changes to the interior. Most of the island is still inaccessible by road though.

Many remote villages are visited once or twice a month by light aircraft, owned by Christian missionary organizations, which land on grass airstrips. The Mission Aviation Fellowship almost has the status of an airline of the interior. Outsiders can get rides on planes for fixed fees, provided there is space after supplies have been loaded.

The Indonesian state airline, Garuda, and some smaller ones, Baliair, Merpati ("pigeon" in Indonesian) and Bouraq fly to places more on the beaten track. But schedules and take-off times are not as in other places. You may get to the aerodrome only to be told that the aircraft won't be arriving that day because of bad weather. Securing seat allocations can be a matter of making sure "the feeling is right" with the check-in staff, rather than more mundane considerations such as reservations or allowable weight limits.

If you can't take a plane, there often isn't a road either. Borneo's main arteries are its rivers. Most Borneo people, if they have any distance to go in the interior, travel by boat. On the main stretches of the big rivers like the Barito, Mahakam and Kapuas, big double decker river taxis ply their trade.

Lots of canoes penetrate remoter rivers and tributaries of the large waterways. They are privately owned but hiring them and guides to go with them, is easy.

Borneo longhouses are spectacular. Some have intricately coloured animist spirit carvings. Others are solid, utilitarian living spaces. They are built on stilts and in hill country would house up to 200 people. On the rivers, where there is more mobility, they could house up to 1000. Some could be half a mile long.

No wooden structure built in wet jungle lasts much more than a generation. The damp and the ants eat them away. The tendency now is for people not to live in longhouses. On the Indonesian side of the border the government compels former longhouse dwellers to move into single family dwellings, although its tentacles of control cannot reach nomadic jungle hunters like the Punan.

Nevertheless old ways are disappearing in Borneo. A clear sign of this is in peoples' bodily adornments. You still see earlobes stretched to shoulder length, dangling with brass weights. But they are not common on people under 40 anymore, except in very remote districts.

Similarly, elaborate body tattoos, often covering entire limbs and very intricate among the Kenyah and Kayan tribes, tend now only to be seen on the older section of the population.

Headhunting is another aspect of old Borneo that is not what it was. There are old men in Borneo today who remember their fathers going on expeditions to collect heads. But apart from a brief revival during World War Two, it has long been a forbidden practice. It was mainly a fertility rite, with fresh heads replenishing a village's spiritual power, guarding against disease, crop failure, drought or other misfortunes. There are still sometimes unexplained beheadings in remote parts of Borneo. Although the practice has largely disappeared, the mentality behind it and the beliefs associated with it have not.

The traditional headhunting season used to be October and November, when villagers were isolated in their fields, often far from the longhouse, weeding and building huts in preparation for the harvest. This time, when people were particularly vulnerable to marauders looking for heads, was known as the Season of Fear.

Among tribes such as the Kenyah in remote areas like the Apo Kayan, there is still a Season of Fear. People travel in groups, are suspicious of strangers and wild rumours on black magic and spirit attacks abound.

Before building a longhouse blood sacrifices are necessary. Before colonial days the blood would have been from a captive, slave or young girl. in Sarawak to the the north and on the east and south coasts in cities like Samarinda, Balikpapan and Tanjung Selor, there are still blood sacrifices before work is started on construction projects.

The blood is animal and companies have learnt the importance of calling in the shamans before work is started. Without these rites the local labor force will walk off the job.

Inland people don't believe it is animal blood that is spilled to appease the various earth spirits needed to start construction projects. Wild rumors abound. They reason that if it took the blood of one human to put up one longhouse pole, hundreds must have been needed for bridges, high rises and hydroelectric dams.

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