Dayaks and Forests of Interior Borneo

By: Timothy C. Jussup and Andrew P. Vayda

Originally Published in 1988

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Borneo, largest of the Greater Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago (Fig. 2a,b) and the largest island in the world (after Greenland and New Guinea), is home not only to the richest rainforests on earth but also to a fascinating diversity of peoples. We will be concerned mainly with this area and the varied social and land-use practices of the Dayak peoples who live there.

Although the area is remote, the lives that  people lead there are by no means static or unchanging and their cultures are not tidy bundles of traditions handed down intact from generation to generation. On the contrary, their long history of mobility, inter-group contacts, intercourse with outside traders, as well as changes in group affiliation and group boundaries have resulted in a wide but irregular distribution of traits and customs commingled with other items peculiar to each small community.

People have lived in and used the resources of Borneo’s forests for at least 40,000 years, that is, since the last Ice Age, when the Greater Sundas were connected by a land bridge to the Asian mainland. Borneo then was, in the words of Tom Harrison, “at the far fringe of the fully walkable world” (1972:385). Compared to the history and prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia, there is frustratingly little known about the people of Borneo before the 19th century. From the great Niah Cave in Sarawak and a few other sites comes archaeological evidence of past human activities; however, most of what we know about the island’s history in all but the most recent times comes from travelers’ accounts and indirect evidence from China and elsewhere.

Borneo is sometimes portrayed as a historical backwater, but that is not, of course, the perspective of its inhabitants. Creation myths of the interior peoples place the origin of humanity in the forests at the heart of the island. To highland peoples such as the Kenyahs, we “downriver” folk are all foreigners (alok). As such, we begin our account here, at the island’s periphery, as did the early Indonesian, Chinese, and European voyagers.

A Turbulent History

Since the 1st millennium A.D. political and economic influences from outside powers such as China and Java have ebbed and flowed across Borneo’s coastal regions. The effects of these outside contracts have seeped into the interior by means of trade, migration, warfare, and colonial hegemony. Principalities situated near the coast by navigable rivers have from time to time risen to local prominence, flourished for awhile, and then, for the most part, lapsed into obscurity or fallen into ruin. A few, such as Kutei on the east coast and Banjarmasin in the south, were absorbed during the colonial period into the Dutch East Indies. Since its early history in the 7th century A.D., only the Sultanate of Brunei has managed to survive intact the vicissitudes of trade, war, piracy, and colonial domination (see Brown, this issue).

The coastal kingdoms and sultanates depended for their survival on overseas trade and alliances beyond the island. The raison d’etre of the cities and smaller trading towns located at the mouths of Borneo’s rivers, however, was the flow of valuable forest products, collected by the people in the hinterland. These heterogeneous interior peoples, commonly known as Dayaks, are the focus of this article.

Human Geography

According to a recent estimate (Ave and King 1986:8,13), Borneo has roughly 3 million people who can be classified as Dayak. This is somewhat less than a third fo the island’s population. The remaining two-thirds are mostly Muslim peoples dwelling near the coast (Malays, Banjars, Kuteis, Bugis, Javanese and others) and a significant number of Chinese. We include as Dayaks the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the forests, such as the Punans and Bukitans, who probably comprise less than one percent of the Dayak population. The majority of Dayaks are farming people inhabiting the middle and upper reaches of Borneo’s many rivers. Most practice the shifting cultivation of rice. hunting and gathering and the collection of forest products for trade are also important economic pursuits, even among cultivators, especially in large forested areas of low population density (Fig 1).

Numerous linguistic and ethnic groupings exist within the broad category of Dayaks. These are geographically distributed with little regard to the political boundaries that divide Broeno into the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah; the Indonesian provinces of East, South, Central and West Kalimantan; and the independent nation of Brunei Darussalam. Even the natural barrier formed by the rugged central spine of mountains has not stopped the migration of peoples between highlands and lowlands and from one side of the island to the other.

Five great rivers flowing out of the central highlands — the Barito, Kapuas, Rejang, Kayan, and Mahakam — serve as highways for migration and trade, although the upper reaches are fraught with dangerous rapids which must be circumvented by overland portages. Transverse movements movements between the different river systems are blocked in the interior by densely forested ridges or, in the southern part of the island, by vast swamp forests. In the very center of Borneo, however, trails link the headwaters of the several rivers. In the past these were the routes for headhunters, as well as for collectors of forest products and occasional peddlers who were bold enough to venture into the highlands.

Now the trails and rivers of the interior are traveled in peace by itinerant traders and parties of Dayaks on their way to and from the lowlands where they work as loggers and plantain laborers, and by others who collect forest products to exchange in downriver markets for salt, steel, cloth, tobacco, and other goods. Such trade expeditions can be long and arduous, lasting for more than a year and requiring months of travel. It is therefore not surprising that most necessities of life for the interior peoples probably have been obtained from local sources. Even salt and iron were produced and exchanged by people in the remote highlands, where trade with the coast was unreliable until well into the 20th century. People in these areas still depend on nearby forests for food, building materials, and a variety of other products. Before discussing the ways in which forests are used, we will briefly describe some aspects of Dayak societies.

Social Organization

Kinship is the basis for much of Dayak social and political organization. Members of a community acknowledge a common descent, or affinity through marriage, relationships which not only unite the community as a people but serve to define its limits. Generally speaking, kinship is reckoned bilaterally through male and female lines. Affinities and differences between ethnic groups are cast in terms of kinship, with genealogies purporting to show the common descent of groups, such as the various Kenyah communities. Slaves captured in war in former times were for the most part prohibited from marriage with their captors and so remained “outside” those societies. But the occasional adoption of captive children was an exception to this rule.

In many Dayak societies, especially in the central highlands and surrounding areas, people belong to different social strata or classes, although such differentiation is by no means universal. Nomadic Penan (or Punan) in Sarawak have no social classes of their own but are considered an inferior class by some neighboring cultivators with whom they trade forest products. Among the farming peoples, Ibans are noted for their egalitarian ideology, although individuals can attain positions of prestige through travel (bejalai, including expeditions to collect forest products), the accumulation of wealth, and in the former times success in headhunting.

Social stratification n is most pronounced among the Kayans and neighboring peoples such as the Kenyahs. The leadership exercised by aristocratic (maren) chiefs in these societies can be quite strong, especially in the past when chiefs commanded labor of slaves (dipen) and, for a certain number of days each year, of “commoners” (panyin and hipuy).

Cite This Article

Jussup, Timothy C. and Vayda, Andrew P.. "Dayaks and Forests of Interior Borneo." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 1 (March, 1988): -. Accessed February 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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