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PUNAN "GITA," PENAN BENALUI, PUNAN APUT: FROM HUNTER-GATHERERS TO AVERAGE CITIZENS: Early and later experiences of the author in East Kalimantan.


In this paper I briefly describe daily life in three Punan groups in East Kalimantan. The three groups differed significantly from one another in socio-cultural terms when I first visited them and these difference have persisted. Their development at the time, from the late 1970s through the 1990s, appeared to have depended on the extent and duration of their past trading contacts with sedentary swidden agriculturists.

The first group was found living near the small Gita River in the mountains that were then covered in primary forest lying between the Sesayap River to the north and the Kayan River to the south. Because of their location, I call this group the "Punan Gita." They were still nomadic hunter-gatherers in 1978 and had only very rare contacts with longhouse people on the Sekatak River to the east. One of the few signs of this contact was an iron cooking pot they had obtained from Sekatak.

The second group are the Penan Benalui, who were settled when I first visited them in 1999 at Long Belaka on the Lurah River, a right-hand tributary to the Bahau. In recent decades this community has been well researched culturally and linguistically (Puri 1997, 2005, Koizumi 2005, 2007, Soriente 2012, 2013). They have been in close contact with the Kenyah Badeng for many decades and have adopted much of the latter's culture and agricultural technology.

The third group, which I first visited in 1994, are the Punan Aput who then occupied the twin villages of Long Sule and Long Pipa on the upper reaches of the Kayanyut River, a right-hand tributary to the Kayan. According to the Kepala Adat of Long Sule, Pahila Pakila, they have lived in the neighborhood of their patrons, the Kenyah Ma'ut (a synonymous term for the Kenyah Badeng) for 200 years and have always followed the latter whenever and wherever they have moved. They fully adopted their patrons' material culture 80 years ago and today better preserve it than their patrons. They enjoy many benefits provided through their US-based GKII mission church, the Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia, including single-band radio phone communication and flight connections via the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) with other landing strips and airports in Kalimantan, especially Tarakan. The Long Pipa air strip is shown in Photos 45 and 46. Owing to these benefits and through their industrious trade, the Punan Aput have achieved considerable prosperity and enjoy a standard of living better than that of most rural Indonesians.

The different levels of development between these groups suggest that hunter-gatherers are generally willing to adopt the benefits of a sedentary way of life when they have the opportunity to do so. There is no evidence of the reverse process having occurred, that is, of any hunting-gathering group having, as some Borneo scholars have argued, "devolved" from people who were formerly sedentary agriculturalists. Here, in this essay, I include some short word lists to show that the languages spoken by these Punan groups differ from one another, including a brief word list of Kutai Punan, which appears to be particularly divergent from the others. I also briefly touch on some sexual practices of these groups and in an appendix indicate why there are no traditional longhouse cultures in northeastern Kalimantan.

Finally, during the last forty years the rainforests in East Kalimantan has been increasingclearedfortimberexploitation, plantations, mining, government transmigration settlements, and industrial and infrastructural developments. As a consequence, those who were still hunter-gatherers when I first visited the region have been deprived of the possibility of carrying on their former way of life and their unique culture is now rapidly disappearing.

Preliminary remarks

In 1976 and 1978, for three months each time, I was a private consultant on a project studying the impact of logging to the then Governor of East Kalimantan, Abdul Wahab Syahranie (Photo 1). Several years before large-scale logging had begun in Kalimantan, mostly at the mouths of larger rivers, and huge concession areas, some covering several 100,000 hectares, were allocated in East Kalimantan to foreign companies from Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and USA, and to the Indonesian state logging company, Inhutani. The foreign companies had to have an Indonesian counterpart, who generally was a crony or a child of then President Suharto.

At the time virgin rainforest covered nearly all of Kalimantan. Harvesting was still limited at the time to a selective cutting system of the largest trees, 10 to 20 per hectare, in the lowland dipterocarp forest. However, the trees were felled in crisscross directions and hauled the same way to camp sites using heavy caterpillar tractors. During this process the valuable undergrowth was rolled over and destroyed and the soil compacted. The rest of the forest looked like a tank exercise had been executed. Governor Abdul Wahab Syahranie confidentially told me his father was a Katingan Ngaju Dayak and now he was afraid that logging companies would destroy the basis of Dayak life. My study of lower impact logging suggested the obligatory introduction of spatial, organizational and technical principles which are the basic conditions for sustainable forest management.

To explore the conditions of logging all over East Kalimantan, I used a helicopter, an amphibious airplane, speed boats and mostly my legs. I took the opportunity to travel the vast territory into areas rarely visited. In their longhouses, villagers felt honored by my visit and arranged welcoming rituals. During the following years, until 2013, I had assignments in foreign development projects during which time I conducted more than a dozen field visits in all the provinces of Kalimantan.

The Punan "Gita," one of the few hunter-gatherer groups still unsettled in 1978 Finding the way

In October 1978, I sailed onboard an Inhutani-owned ship from Tarakan, up the Sesayap River, bypassing Malinau, to the Inhutani logging camp at Tanjung Lapang. Later at Malinau, at that time the principal town of the Malinau sub-district with 2000 people living in small simple wooden houses on the right-hand bank of the river, I visited the Camat (Subdistrict chief), Hanoek Merang BA, a Kenyah Dayak. He told me that since 1972 nearly all 2000 Punans in the Bulungan district (a part of which is now included in the Province of North Kalimantan), mostly from the Tubu group, were settled in 29 kampung sites, where they had become dry rice cultivators. He estimated that nomadic Punan in this area comprised at most 200 people. I could probably find some at the headwaters of the Bungalun River, a right-hand tributary of the Sesayap. That was good news as in the lower Bungalun, at Batu Lidung, I had visited the Malaysian logging company, United Finance & Investment Ltd., operating in an upstream direction. Being there, I saw they were harvesting only the largest trees. From the Executive Chief, Theo Hock Keat, an ethnic Chinese, I learned that a small Punan settlement existed near the Gita River, an upper tributary of the Bungalun (Photo 3). These people, he said, would probably know where nomadic Punan groups could be found. (1)

We set off in a small motorized boat including an English-speaking Inhutani forest engineer, After Ladaun, a boat operator, a police officer, and me. The advance was very difficult because many trees had fallen into the small stream and obstructed our way. The area was sporadically dotted with isolated small houses constructed from material like bamboo, wood, bark sheets and palm leaves that belonged to the Berusu people. The Berusu are settled across northeast Kalimantan, among other places along the Sesayap River and its tributaries. Like the Basap, who live to the south in eastern East Kalimantan, they live in simple single-family houses on stilts. Both are non-longhouse tribes, but own tempayan, valuable ancient Chinese jars, like longhouse Dayak do.

The first night we spent at Kampung Sesoak, in the small house of Berusu Yantchi, sleeping on bark mats. In his humble house he had five precious tempayan. There, we were lucky to meet a young-looking 35-year old Berusu man named Yogok who told us he could communicate with the Punan people because when he was younger he went hunting with them. We took him as part of our crew and later he became our best interpreter.

A Punan village (Kampung Punan)

Next day our travel became even more difficult. Twice the screw of our outboard motor touched ground and had to be repaired. Many rapids had to be overcome. Under Yogok's direction, we entered the Gita tributary. Finally, in darkness, we reached the Punan village where we slept the night on the bare wooden floor. The village consisted of six simple wooden houses on short stilts with palm-thatched roofs. The two rooms of each house were unfurnished. There were many children but most of the adults were out in their ladang gardens. Many people who were at home were sick, feverish, and malnourished, the children with runny noses and bloated bellies.

A lot of my medicines found use there. Their problem was that they harvested rice once a year but were unable to store food until the next harvest. Several graves in the immediate vicinity testified that they buried their dead. The good news was that they confirmed that a group of nomadic Punan had a camp far up at the Gita River.

We left early next morning. The meandering river got shallower and a few times we had to pull our boat over the gravel. At every third river turn a colorful kingfisher flew by. Black gibbons observed us from the trees and hornbills flew noisily by. In the afternoon Yogok suddenly pointed to some bushes. He had spotted a small hidden canoe. In the bamboo thicket at the bank a kind of tunnel was visible. We crawled through it and after fifty meters we saw a hut with people sitting inside. We stopped and Yogok called them. A man answered and after exchanging a few words we were allowed to approach the hut. The distance from the Sesayap River to this Punan camp is only about 45 kilometers as the crow flies. However, it took us three days to get there (see Map 1).

In the Punan camp

At first they were very reluctant. Then, Tongsen, the oldest woman offered us some wild Salak fruits and told us through Yogok that, unfortunately, they could not offer us tobacco. This was dropping a broad hint. I unpacked my stock of cigarettes and tobacco and all came close to me, including an eight-year old boy. I had to light his cigarette. Some boys touched my arm. Then, a young girl pointed at my hairy legs and obviously made a very disrespectful remark. I tried to grasp her joyfully but she jumped up and indicated that she wanted me to catch her. She was willing to be caught and I carried her back. When I passed the fireplace I kept her just above the fire. She struggled and everyone started to laugh. In this moment, I felt the community had accepted me as a guest. Because I did not know the name of the girl I called her "Gadis" (Indonesian for girl). Soon everybody called her Gadis and she seemed to be proud of the name. The following days she always stayed at my side and once warned me of a venomous viper I would not have otherwise seen.

Most of the day this small community squatted peacefully on the platform of their hut together with their dogs. They did not speak much but the mood was good, because they often laughed. That may be because they were all so young and they seemed all well-nourished.

I counted 25 persons, 12 male and 13 female. Among them were 10 children up to 13 years of age, five boys and five girls. The average age of the group I estimated at 18 years. Gadis and her 9-year-old brother were the children of Pusuh, the oldest man, and his wife Tongsen, the oldest person in the group (Photo 7). Four couples have one child each, the remaining three couples two, and one woman has no partner and no child. Two women and also two young men looked as similar as identical twins, although they were not siblings. The two men I could distinguish only because Jalung had a reddish loincloth and Dingien a formerly white one. The reason is that all are inextricably related to each other because they took their partners from their own group with one exception, Pusuh and Tongsen.

I did not come empty-handed. My modest gifts were considered interesting: tobacco, salt, lighters, fishing hooks, and nylon fishing line as well as a comb, a small mirror and a piece of soap. The tobacco immediately vanished among the crowd, but the mirror went hand-to-hand because everyone wanted to see what he or she looked like. There was much laughter and obviously mocking remarks. Only the soap remained. Something like that was not yet known. There is no word for thanks in the Punan language, but their affection for me rose.

About three weeks prior to our arrival, one of the women had given birth to a girl child. I was told it happened outside the hut. The woman pressed in a squatting position and her husband caught the child and separated the umbilical cord with a bush knife after the placenta was delivered. Gadis showed me where the placenta had been placed under the roof between the rafters.

All young children were treated very affectionately by their parents. And every child had his or her own young dog with which they had a close relationship. They slept together on the platform. Otherwise, dogs are kept only for hunting and the group had no other pets.

Itchy skin disease

Compared to my Indonesian companions, the complexion of the Punan was a little paler. But living permanently in the shady humid jungle fostered skin infections, especially tropical mycosis, the skin disease Tinea imbricata, or ringworm. This fungal pathogen partly destroys the pigmentation of the skin, often creating a decorative pattern, but is not dangerous. However, it causes itching. When Pusuh sat next to me, his scratching soon caused me to be covered in dermal scales.

Of the 25 members of the group, 17 suffered from this skin fungus including almost all children and more men than women. A Danish researcher once claimed that the air in Borneo is so humid that you almost get moldy (Mjoberg 1929). Pusuh, the oldest man in the group, is completely infected with this skin disease. But he appeared to be vain. Before I could photograph and film him, he treated his skin with the green juice of crushed leaves and then scraped the softened skin scales with his bush knife (Photo 14). After that he looked as if he had been skinned. Other diseases I could not discover. I also did not find any scabies, though they had lice. One woman and her two children had brown hair, all the others black to blue-black hair.

The material culture

The material possessions of the group were modest but included everything necessary for life in the jungle. They had six blowpipes cum quivers. They had obtained from Kenyahs by barter at the Sekatak (Kotak) River site an iron blowpipe drill with a 9 mm wide chisel-like blade, several bush knives, one iron pot, a few bead necklaces for some of the children and women and some clothing. Acquiring tobacco by barter, however, was their first priority. In exchange they offered mostly freshly-bagged game, young dogs, rattan, and sometimes, though rarely, gaharu, damar, honey, beeswax, and other forest products.

They made their own fishing cast-nets from plant fibers, fish hooks from shells, two canoes from bark and wood, a few arm and leg bands, rattan baskets, rattan mats, and bark mats. They had no tattoos or long ear lobes. Only Pusuh had modestly perforated ear lobes. This suggests that this group never was under the close patronage of a Kenyah group, but were always independent nomadic hunter-gatherers. In 1978 their roaming area, consisting of hilly primary forest, was then about 40 by 45 km and contained plenty of food for them.

When I asked them if they are Punan Tubu, they did not know, but they agreed when I called them Punan Gita because I met them at the Gita River at one of their main camps. When I asked if they wanted to be settled by the government, they vehemently denied this, pointing to the misery of the settled people downriver at Kampung Punan.

Traditional shelters and the vast roaming territory

Their stilted hut was 11 meters long and 3 meters wide. It was open on all sides. Around the hut were three loaded blowpipes positioned ready for use. The building materials were wood, bamboo, and palm leaves, and the binding material, rattan. The bamboo platform was a good meter, above the ground. The roof was thatched with palm leaves. I was told that it was one of four main camps they used. Another was at the uppermost tributary of the Sekatak River to the east, the third at one of the upper Gangsolok Rivers to the southwest, and the fourth at a left-hand tributary of the Kayan River to the south. This indicates a huge roaming area.

They remain at a main camp as long as there is enough game, fish, wild sago palms and other edible plants available within an area of several days walk. This is generally for a period of several months. Moving from one main camp to another takes some days. While on the move, they make simple shelters for one or more nights of branches, sheets of bark, and leaves. The ground is covered with bamboo sections and bark mats that they bring along with them. Numerous shelters like this are found all across their vast foraging area. When they intend to move to another main camp they send young men ahead to construct or repair these huts.

Current diet and unconventional fishing success

They ate twice a day, in the morning and evening. They all seemed well nourished. However, during my stay they put aside their sago in favor of my rice. In addition, a lot of bamboo shoots, ferns, leafy vegetables and some fruits were eaten. Their main protein source, however, was fish. In order to procure their daily food, a few people needed about three hours.

Jalung threw his fish net and caught small fish while Dingien caught big fish with his fishing pole. In thirty minutes they sometimes caught forty fish. I wanted to catch my portion myself and used my steel hook with various bait, beetles, fruit, a bit of rice, but no fish bite. Gadis showed me the secret of Jalung's success. She pulled his hook from the water. He used a self-made shell hook with a brown mass as bait. I touched it and recognized it as human excrement. A spontaneous expletive escaped my mouth. As if Gadis had understood, she showed affirmative gestures, pointing to her rear. After that I preferred to eat only the fish tails.

Pusuh's adventurous history

My two interpreters felt the strain of translating. Even Pusuh, the Punan elder, my main informant, sometimes had too much. He simply sneaked away quietly and politely. Before that, however, he related an almost unbelievable life history. He was in his late thirties, calm, patient, a little shy, but responsible and believable. To my question of whether he was always moving around in the same area, he answered "no" and said that he had come to this area "not yet fifteen years ago." He originally came from the Kutai area, from the Belayan River basin. That is more than hundred kilometers to the south. The Kenyah had hunted out all game there and had harvested all the rattan. However, the main reason for the long walk was the wish of his former band to get rich by killing and selling a Borneo rhino. They had heard that in Bulungan District (now the Province of North Kalimantan) there were still rhinos. They travelled for many months, maybe two years in all. But when they arrived at the Kayan River, they learned that there were no rhinos there either. Some members of the group died during the journey, including his first wife, while the rest settled on the Kayan River. After that, he joined this native band with his two children, Pilung and Halok, and he took Dongsen, then a widow, as his second wife.

In 1994 I took a MAF Cessna flight from Long Ampung/Apo Kayan to Samarinda which crossed the Belayan River area. There is no forest left, but villages with mosques could be seen.

In 1976, I met another Kutai Punan (2) man between Balikpapan and Samarinda. He had just killed a monitor lizard (waran) and was on his way to his hut, which was built only of branches and leaves. There he lived with his seven-member family. At that time the road connecting Balikpapan and Samarinda was under construction and not yet open for public traffic. But the military commander at Balikpapan took me with him in his Toyota jeep to meet the governor in Samarinda. The primary forest was already heavily logged.

Some Punan Kutai words

According to Pusuh, the language of the Punan in Kutai differs from that in Bulungan, He gave me some examples which, with the exception of the words for blowpipe poison (upas) and eating (kuman), I had not found in other Punan word lists. Although the Lun Dayeh language is very different from other indigenous Borneo languages, the term for eating is also kuman (Zahorka 2006a: 233). This points to a common origin. Even the extinct Ngorek, whose ancestors, probably 2000 years ago, produced megalith monuments like the dolmens and stone urns at Long Pulung on the upper Bahau River (Zahorka 2001, 2004a), had a similar word for eat: ulan (Baier 1992: 171).

Here are some Punan Kutai words. (Indonesian in brackets)
father, man (bapak)                udjuk
mother, woman (ibu)                kole
infant male (laki-laki bayi)       soto
infant female (perempuan bayi)     lenum
girl (gadis)                       soke
blowpipe (sumpitan)                plad
dart poison (ipoh)                 upas
poison dart (sumpitan anak panah)  soto upas ('poison infant')
Punan hut (rumah Punan)            plaminan
canoe (perahu)                     alur
wild boar (babi hutan)             beboy
eat (makan)                        kuman

Pusuh could still count in the Kutai Punan language:

1 sen

2 nuen

3 nalu

4 napan

5 mene

6 uten

7 kolon

8 tuit

9 tolon

10 tuit (?)

Noting that the word for 8 and 10 cannot be the same, he insisted briefly, then affirmed his statement half-heartedly. But his patience was by then exhausted, and he retreated.

I must confess, they learned more English from me than I did of their language. They seemed to me very intelligent. Many researchers have already confirmed this. Carl Bock wrote in 1881: (I was) "surprised to find that they (the Punan) seemed to possess equal, if not superior, intelligence to their neighbors" (i.e. the longhouse Dayaks) (Bock 1881: 62). Also von Plessen, who was shooting a film in 1936 up the Kayan River, praised the talents of the Punan for foreign languages and said he estimates that their mental agility was higher than that of the Kenyah (Plessen 1936).

Sibling marriage of Pilung and Halok and other incestuous relationships

For nomadic Punan, it is almost impossible to get a partner from a sedentary rice farming group because the Punan are considered by the latter primitive and uncivilized. They also feel themselves to be inferior. In addition, it is difficult to find partners and arrange marriages in other Punan groups as they lack permanent settlements and are frequently moving. They must therefore look for partners in their own group. Hereditary diseases that might arise as a consequence are very likely eradicated by the fact that they live under very harsh conditions in which many individuals do not reach the age of reproduction. Selection pressure starts early with a high rate of infant mortality of about 40 to 50 per cent. Only the healthiest and most intelligent survive to marriageable age. I admired their quick perception, technical understanding (e.g. of my camera), ability to master other languages and adapt to new situations. However, their computational skills appeared poor.

Many in the group looked so similar that I could hardly distinguish them because they are so closely related. Jalung had such a double and the long-haired Dingien had a young woman who looked confusingly similar to Halok. Two other women I could only distinguish by their clothing. Jalung's wife is his cousin and the young man with the blue loincloth is married to his elderly half-sister, who had just delivered a daughter.

Also the young siblings, Pilung, about 15, and Halok, about 16, are a married couple (Photo 16). They are the children of Pusuh and his first wife Pilung. A proud father, himself still a child, he holds his healthy baby boy, Haes, in his arms for a photograph. "Punan know no incest taboo" (Zahorka 1978, 1986). So far only one observer has extensively noted this: PC. Pauwels (1935), who wrote that the term "incest" does not appear to exist among the Punan Batu. I quote:
Idang was the mother of three sons, Ambaliung, Ambakiring and Sidjun,
and the daughter Siluit. After the death of her husband, her elder son
took her to wife, and later her third son, Sidjun, took her. She gave
birth to two children, Maibis and Mlahu, of which one does not know
whether Ambaliung or Sidjun is the father. Ambaliung then took his
sister Silu to be his wife and had four children, one of whom was
Merap, who is still alive, while the other three children died. Maibis
and Mlahu married two sisters, Makuma and Makumang. Makumang was
previously married to Tatai, a son of the third marriage of Ambaliung.
Tatai later married his niece Ngalagu. Ambakiring, the second son of
Idang, married Grahi, a daughter from the third marriage of his brother
Ambaliung, consequently his niece. Matua is married to Nagline, both
are real cousins, as are Ngasimi and Mabudia, who are similarly
blood-related. One wonders that under these circumstances in the
community of 89 souls, 20 mothers had 98 pregnancies. (Translation from
Dutch by the author)

Although all the couples at the Gita River camp were monogamous, polygamy appears to be present among other Punan groups. The French expedition of 1956/57 to the remote upper Bahau River described a Punan Kubu group consisting of three families; one man had three wives, another two, while the third had only one (Pfeffer 1965). The Kenyah Lepo'Keh at Long Kemuat were a kind of patrons to this group, but apparently exploited them in return for a little tobacco. These Punans, however, had already adopted some Dayak cultural elements and were tattooed and wore glass beads. The headquarters of the four French scientists was at Long Kemuat on the upper Bahau River. I was there in 1999 with the late cultural anthropologist Dr. Rolf Roth from Tubingen University. He played a tape of recorded conversation made by the French expedition some 45 years earlier. But the inhabitants of the village, Kenyah Lepo'Keh, now 198 individuals in 25 families, could hardly understand the language. Perhaps it was Punan being spoken. There were no longer any nomadic Punans living in the area.

I had a similar encounter with Punan polygamy in 1980. South of the Mahakam River, about 40 km from Tenggarong, I met an elderly Kutai Punan with a blowpipe in the forest. He carrying a bagged macaque monkey in his rattan backpack. He led me to his hut, built of planks, where he lived with his two wives. He complained that because of the increasing population, there was now less and less game, and so the young people of his small group now worked in Samarinda.

When all of my stock of rice at the Gita camp was eaten after eight days, we had to return downriver. My stock of tobacco was exhausted much earlier. The longhaired Dingien and a few others accompanied us in their two tiny canoes to the first rapids, while the others on the banks waved us goodbye (Photo 19). A word for "Goodbye" they do not know.

Although during my nights in the hut probably no intercourse took place, I should not conceal an unusual observation. I spent two days hunting in the jungle with Jalung and Dingien, including a cold night spent in the mountains. Our booty was just a single lean macaque monkey. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Dingien showed me a thin propeller-shaped wooden plaque, which stuck transversely in a perforation of the frenulum skin at the bottom of his penis. It is intended, he pointed out, to heighten the feelings of his wife during intercourse. To be introduced into the vagina he has to turn it so that it was parallel to his penis. Jalung also showed me his frenulum insert. It was different. It was made of a bunch of stiff hairs of a wild boar, tied in the middle. It protruded several centimeters on either side of the frenulum (Figure 1). I had already reported about penis inserts in German (Zahorka 1986:78). After this publication appeared, a Dutch scientist pointed out to me that the penis of the rhinoceros also has two lateral lobe-like appendages.

Later observations

Twenty-one years later, in 1999, I had a low flight on a MAF Cessna from Tarakan to Long Alango, on the upper Bahau River. The flight crossed over the territories of the Bengalun and Gita Rivers. There was no primary forest left. I saw only state transmigration settlements, old logging roads, secondary bush and scattered single houses with ladang fields: a deforested and destroyed landscape. In 2003, I flew by a MAF flight from Tarakan to Long Bawan in the Kerayan Highlands via Malinau and over the mouth of the Bengalun River into the Sesayap River. Malinau had become a city with extensive building on both sides of the Sesayap River, connected with two bridges. There is a small airport and Malinau has been upgraded to the capital of Kabupaten Malinau. There is no longer any forest near the mouth of the Bengalun River. I saw only government settlements for Javanese transmigrants, secondary bush, and grassland.

2. The Penan Benalui at Long Belakan on the Lurah River in 1999

The people

In 1999 I had an opportunity to explore the upper Bahau River with its prehistoric urn dolmens, traditional Kenyah villages, and the Penan Benalui village of Long Belaka on the Lurah River, a right-hand tributary of the Bahau River.

The Penan Benalui are a subgroup of the Western Penan of Sarawak. Needham (1954) was the first to coin the terms Eastern and Western Penan to describe two dialect groups. The Penan Benalui migrated about 1890 from the Benalui River in Sarawak to Kalimantan, following their trading partners and protectors, the Kenyah Badeng. They started to become sedentary in the mid-1950s at Long Belaka on Lurah River (Koizumi 2005, 2009). From the Kenyah, they acquired many cultural and technical traits, such as tattooing, extended earlobes, new tools, beaded jewelry, rice cultivation, house construction with planks, chain saws, boat engines and related Kenyah vocabulary. They have no tempayan (antique Chinese ceramic jars). An extraordinary feature of this group is that the men do not smoke, but the women constantly smoke hand-made cigar-like cigarettes, even when breast feeding (see Photo 20).

The total number of Penan Benalui is estimated at about 450 (Soriente 2012). Their best known settlement is the small village of Long Belakan on the Lurah River, Long Pujungan Subdistrict, Province of North Kalimantan. The location is 450 meters above sea level. A lot of research has been carried out there since my visit (Koizumi, Soriente, Puri). Access is very difficult because of the many dangerous rapids in the Lurah and Bahau Rivers (Photo 22). Downstream, in the small hamlet of Long Peliran, I found 72 Kenyah Badeng and 36 Penan Benalui living there at the time.

When I was in Long Belaka in 1999, the village consisted of 15 houses, where 159 people lived, including 35 school children. Babies and toddlers were extremely numerous and were probably not all counted in the census. At the time, there was a one-room elementary school where children of different ages were taught by a Javanese teacher, Rudy Hartono, who also taught Christian matters. His wife, a Christian Kenyah Uma Kulit, was also a trained teacher. That they were successful in teaching literacy was demonstrated by the fact that the Penans were already writing letters. For lack of stationery, the backs of cigarette boxes were used. The letter shown in Photo 25 is even divided into paragraphs and includes Indonesian and Kenyah words.

Cultivated crops

Somewhat upstream from the settlement the villager cultivate a banana plantation. Here can still be seen one of their original huts on high stilts (Photo 26). They also propagate three species of sago. The vernacular names of these are sago nganga, sago jaka, and sago lose. The quality of each is equal, Dauet, my village guide told me. Sago is still the prevalent food for most families. They also plant manioc, papaya, sugar cane, corn and gather various "vegetables" from the forest. The ethnobotanist, Koizumi (2005), found that the men could identify more plants by name than the women because they spend a great deal of time hunting in the forest. Although they know of wild medicinal plants, in the case of serious illnesses, accord to Rudy Hartono and his wife, they perform singing rituals. They also cultivated a small amount of ladang rice. The young women pound and husk it, but appear not to be very skilled at it yet. The small pounding pits are overloaded and rice grains jump out. There is also much broken grain. They are better at winnowing.

Activities: Dog breeding, rattan plaiting, hunting and the downriver trade

They breed hunting dogs because the men are passionate hunters. Other domestic animals include chickens and a few cats. The women are extremely skilled at making patterned natural colored and black-dyed rattan mats, back strapped carrying bags, and baby carriers (belanyet), decorated with different traditional Dayak designs (Photo 31).

Their relative prosperity derives from trade with the downriver administrative city of Long Pujungan. The lower Bahau, from Long Peliran to Long Pujungan, is without rapids. At Long Pujungan the Punan Benalui sell chickens, eggs, bananas, mats and other rattan products, freshly-caught fish and occasionally young dogs, gaharu, bush meat, rattan, and medicinal plants. They bring home tobacco, rice, metal objects such as pots, tools, nails, dishes, also cloths, salt, fuel for outboard motors, and smuggled cartridges from Sarawak for their hand-made shotguns.

Cultural and economic conditions of the Penan Benalui at Long Belaka

These former hunter-gatherers settled down some generations ago and adopted a relatively prosperous lifestyle by trading with the Kenyah. They are on the way to becoming swidden agriculturalists, but are still somewhat reluctant about rice farming. This is because the men still prefer hunting. Their skilled hunting techniques and knowledge of game animals make them excellent jungle hunters even when using only a spear. Today, they hardly use the blowpipe anymore, because they have homemade shotguns with barrels made of iron water pipe, which exactly fit 12-gauge shotgun cartridges. Their hunting culture is well documented (Puri 1997, 2005). But they remain relatively isolated from modern developments; they have no toilets but use the river, no pipe or spring water for drinking, no electricity or modern telecommunication. Travel is by boat or on foot. Photos 31 32

The language of the Penan Benalui has been thoroughly investigated in recent years (see Soriente 2012). It is a "mixed language," with much of its vocabulary borrowed from Kenyah-Kayan languages (Soriente 2013). Because of their long relationship with the Kenyah, the Punan-Penan, according to Soriente (, do not represent a coherent linguistic grouping. Instead, she notes: "a number of descriptive projects have been carried out, involving three languages of the hunter-gatherers: Penan Benalui, Punan Tubu, and Ma' Praan aka Punan Malinau (Segah)... these three Punan languages are not related to each other and therefore cannot be classified together" (Soriente in

This is reflected in the names given to the poison tree Antiaris toxicaria and dart poison in Penan, Punan and various Dayak languages. The difference is striking (see Zahorka 2006b). (3)

Palang--the penis pin

Palang (Indon.) means bar or crossbar. This term is widely used for penis inserts, which were formerly in wide-spread use all over Southeast Asia (Pigafetta 1906 [1525?], Pires 1944 [1515], Zahorka 1990, 2004). Usually the glans penis and urethra are perforated transversely so that the palang can be inserted. In some cases it is designated to block the urethra during intercourse in order to prevent unwanted pregnancy. In other cases, it passes through the glans penis without perforating the urethra. Among Punan/Penan, its use is still common. The Penan call it utang and the Kenyah Lepo Ma'ut adja. Insertion and removal of the penis pin is practicable only when the penis is flaccid. Penan men with this equipment have a special tattoo on their shoulders. To ensure that the perforation does not close, a narrow pin is worn outside of intercourse which I call a "placeholder" or "sleeper." Photo 37 shows a simple utang in situ. The wearer is a Penang Benalui man from Long Peliran. The photo was taken in 1999 and the shoulder tattoo indicates that he is the owner of a penis pin (Photo 38).

Photo 39 shows the same utang as is shown in situ in Photo 37. The removal took him at least 20 seconds. Photo 39 shows his intercourse palang, which he keeps in his bedroom. To urinate, the placeholder must be removed and the lateral holes must be kept closed with the fingers to avoid the stream of urine going in three directions.

The language of the Punan Aput appears to differ notably from that of the Penan Benalui as can be seen from the Word List below. For comparison, I also include in this list Ot Danum because Ot Danum speakers is thought to have once been hunter-gatherers who have today been largely assimilated by the Ngaju. My informant for Punan Aput was Kepala Adat of Long Sule, Pehila Pakila. (insert Word List Punan, Penan and Ot Danum)

3. The Punan Aput at Long Sule/Long Pipa in 1994

Long Sule and Long Pipa are "twin villages" in the sense that they are located close together and share a single Kepala Adat. Long Sule is the older settlement and is built on the right bank of the small Sule tributary of the upper Kayanyut River, a right-hand tributary of the Kayan, while Long Pipa is younger and is built on the opposite bank of the river. The two settlements are 550 meters above sea level, in the Kayan Hulu Subdistrict of North Kalimantan. The hilly area in which the two villages are situated is bounded on the east and northwest by mountains up to 2000 meters high. It is an extremely remote area. The next village, Long Lebusar, also very remote, can be reached by a seven-day walk over difficult terrain.

At the time of my visit, access was only possible by air. In 1973-74 an air strip was built, which has been serviced since 1978 by MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) with Cessnas from Tarakan (I came by MAF from Batu Butih, Mangkalihat Peninsula).

Migration history

The Punan Aput in Long Sule/Long Pipa form an egalitarian society, but have a Kepala Adat who is responsible for maintaining traditional law and rules. This Kepala Adat, Pehila Pakila, was at that time about 70-years old and had experienced Dutch rule as a child. He said in the early 20th century the Punan Aput still lived in the forest on the left bank of the Kayan River. But they had had close contacts with the Kenyah for over 200 years. They settled about 50 years ago at Long Sule on Kayanyut River, formerly the site of a Kenyah Ma'ut longhouse. Long Pipa is new. The Kenyah have now moved to the Mahakam River.

In 1932, the famous Dutch filmmaker and photographer Hendrik Tillema (1870-1952), sailed down the Kayan River coming from a filming expedition in the Apo Kayan. He wrote that there were two groups wandering through the forest independently of one another between Nahakramo and Long Heban on the left bank of the Kayan River known as the Punan Musang and Punan Aput. They spoke a single language, but with distinct dialects (Tillema 1989 [1938]: 126ff). Whittier also mentioned Punan Musang (Busang) and Punan Aput in his 1970 survey of Punan in East Kalimantan (Whittier 1974: 42ff).
Figure 2. Word List of Punan Aput, Penan Benului, and Ot Danum.

English           Penan Menalui  Punan Aput       Ot Danum Dayak

father, man       tamen, mam     mak              amai
mother, woman     nen, wek       inak             ine
child             anak           nak              anak
baby m/f          anak balo      pikop            anak ingam bakas m
                                                  anak ingam bawi f
girl              danak redu     klofioro         -
blowpipe          kelabut        mopit            sepot
blowpipe dart     tad, tadiem    tage             tolop
quiver            -              -                pengan
dart poison       tajun          upun             konyong
poison tree       puntajem       tajuk            sadiron
dog               aso            ahu              asu
fish              botolu         jen              ojin
I, me             ako            ok               aku
you               kau            kou              iko
house             umo            lahu             lopou
street, way       malakan        keap             jalan
chicken           -              -                manuk
tattoo            botek          kalung           totang
head              ulun           uyok             kuhung
arm               penguang       beq              longo
eye               maten          -                mata
forest            mbak           lapou            himba
spear             ujep           ushuk            lunju
eat               kuman          kaman            kuman
drink             sep, siap      misuk            ngorih
male genitalia    nyek           acat (*)         bula
female genitalia  oke            ten, sebulek     poki
penis pin         uteng          acing (**) acat  -
               1  ja             ge               ico (*)
               2  dua            luo              duo
               3  telu           tolu             tolu
               4  pat            pat              opat
               5  loma           limo             limo
               6  nem            nom              jahawen
               7  tujek          tujuh            uju
               8  aia            ean              hanya
               9  pian           julan            jolotien
              10  jejap          puluh            sepulu
              11  -              -                sabalas

(*) c = tsh (**) acing = wheel

At Long Heban, Tillema visited the Punan Aput. "We found the people pleasant and sympathetic" (p. 129). Their number was about 80, which is a lot for the Punan, he wrote. "We distributed among them some shag tobacco, which they were very pleased with."

Tillema's photograph of the Punan Aput in 1932 shows they had already adapted the cultural appearance of the Kenyah Lepo Ma'ut who were their trading partners and patrons, though, the sedentary Kenyah looked down on them. They had also adopted from the Kenyah swidden rice cultivation and cooking in metal pots. A retired Kenyah Lepo Tau priest, living at Long Sule, described the Punan as having been "the dogs" of his tribe (Punan anjin suku kami). He said that in the past they had even adopted the Kenyah custom of headhunting.

The twin village and its people

In 1994 the two villages had about 750 residents in 160 families. There was a primary school and since 1978, a secondary school. Throughout the Apo Kayan, the government has yet to establish a high school. The people speak Punan Aput and Kenyah Lepo Ma'ut, and the younger generation understand Bahasa Indonesia.In their gardens they grow bananas, papaya, pineapple, manioc, taro, pumpkin, and spice plants but few coconut trees and no fruit trees. As pets, they keep dogs for hunting, chickens, ducks and cats. They have no cattle or pigs. Despite the remote area they have achieved an unexpected degree of wealth by trade in gaharu (agarwood, eaglewood), rattan mats, rattan baskets, raw rattan, and bezoar stones. These goods are transported by plane to Samarinda. The largest income comes from gaharu. They claim they can artificially stimulate the production of this fragrant resinous wood. (4)

There were three shops in Long Sule, two belonged to Kenyahs and the other to a Toraja from Sulawesi. The latter also operated a simple meteorological station with a SSB radiophone (side single band frequency) with which he sent weather condition information to the MAF pilots. Several houses had generators for lighting and radio. The school had a diesel-powered generator which also supplied a rice husking machine. There were two satellite dishes for TV reception, one government-owned, the other private. The village has many boats with outboard engines. They also had chain saws and they were accustomed to electro fishing but also used nets and tuba poison (Derris elliptica). The river is home to only small fish. They have cooked for many generations in iron pots, a practice they learned from the Kenyah. The people were all well-dressed. They had squat toilets, some in the form of latrines. The children played badminton and football. I saw a few brown-haired children. Most adults were still tattooed, even young women, but only the older women had extended ear lobes.

Rice had to be flown in because local production was insufficient. Occasionally they processed wild sago. Sago palm trees grew upriver. During fruiting season many wild boars congregate and were hunted with dogs using spears (tombak) or blowpipes.

The church

Long Sule has a large church of the evangelical GKII denomination (Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia, or "Kingmi" for short). A powerful generator supplied an electric organ with two loudspeakers and electric guitars. The Pendeta, Wilson Lainh, a Lun Dayeh from the Kerayan, preached using a microphone. There were good guitar players and the congregation performed three-part singing very harmoniously. The Sunday sermon was always well attended (Photo 47). After church services were over, the women carried their small children home in precious bead-worked back carriers with images depicting Kenyah protecting figures like tigers, hornbills, anthropomorphic crouching figures, aso-dragons, decorated with animal teeth and antique silver coins. Church members, I was told, are expected to contribute one-tenth of their income to the church.

During my stay, three men brought gaharu from the forest for which a trader had paid them 1,000,000 rupiah (at the time about 485 USD). On the same day they donated 100,000 Rp. to the church. The Pendeta announced it in his sermon. They bury their dead in a Christian way.

Traditional customs

The people in Long Sule/Long Pipa have access to the outside world through their GKII church which is associated with the USA. Through these connections, they were able to obtain cultural goods that their Kenyah patrons did not yet have. Nevertheless, they have retained some traditional customs. According to Punan Aput wedding custom, the groom marries into the family of the bride. Consequently, parents with only sons have no one to care for them when they are old. There is no bride price and no celebrations are performed during births or deaths. Engaged couples may sleep together before marriage. In olden times, the parents managed the marriages of their children, today "love marriages" are the norm. Senior Punan men and women were highly respected by their juniors. The men were great leaders and hunters and models for the young. Many of them are equipped with a palang. On the left, in Photo 51, is the wife of the Kepala Adat of Long Sule. Elderly men and women never attend church and continue to live traditional lives and are greatly respected by the young.

A prehistoric monolith, the last rhino and a hidden waterfall

At the foot of the suspended bridge between Long Sule and Long Pipa is a 60 cm high and 55 cm long monolith of granite-like rock (Photo 52). The front and highest part of it is sculptured in the form of an anthropomorphic crouching figure with elbows placed on its knees. On the back is also a figure with a phallus about 26 cm long. Both are protecting figures that also appear on baby carriers. On one side there is a conical recess in which a beam might have been clamped. The monolith probably came from a prehistoric stone chamber. The Punan brought this monument with them from their earlier downriver settlement at Data Benuang, which no longer exists.

Banging, a Punan Aput from Long Sule, a man of at least 70, told me that just after WWII he killed a badak (rhinoceros). He had to ram the lance 10 times into the animal, because its skin was so thick and hard. It had two horns, a long and a short one, for which he got a lot of tobacco, cloth, and beads from a Kenyah dealer.

Men of Long Sule took me on a motorized boat an hour up the Kayanyut River and into the tributary Marang Dua (Dua because there are three rivers with the same name). After a short hike through the forest with many leeches we reached a huge waterfall, which was at least 40 meters high and fell down from basalt rocks into a small but deep lake (Photo 53). This kind of natural phenomenon is unusual in Kalimantan. In the future, maybe a hydroelectric power plant could be installed here.

Acing acat, Punan Aput penis pin

The Punan Aput used sophisticated devices for sexual intercourse. One rounded end of the pin is removable so that a bar can be inserted into the perforation of the glans penis. During intercourse the round protuberances spin with the effect of enhancing the woman's pleasure. They called them acing acat (acing = wheel, acat = penis, c = ch) but they also know it as palang. During intercourse, the large diameter of these pins blocks the perforated urethra, thereby preventing ejaculation. (5)

Men with an acing acat are recognized by a special tattoo (kalong) on their shoulders. A similar tattoo design is known to the Iban in Sarawak and looks like a large blossom with a spiral in the center (Photo 57). The design is known by the Indonesian name bunga terong. (6) Bunga means blossom or flower and terong is the name of the eggplant (aubergine, Solanum melongena). Many Southeast Asian eggplants are phallus-shaped. Hence, terong is also a common nickname for the male member. The bunga terong design also symbolizes for the Punan Aput the flower-like little wheels on the sides of the pin, the "flowers of the penis." Today the placeholders or sleepers are kept very short because of modern underwear. (7) The uppermost palang in Photo 55 I acquired from a proud 70-year old Punan, Nyelegon. He had kept the device in a small carrying container. A group of children, who always accompanied me, were present when I acquired it. I asked them if they knew what it was. Yes, they said, and two or three of them said that their grandfathers also had something like it. For these people, sexuality is something quite natural and nothing obscene. Nyelegon told me that in these twin villages every fourth man over 40 years has an acing acat. Women were very fond of such men, he confessed, because they knew, if they slept with them they would not become pregnant.


In this paper I have described three Punan/Penan groups as I personally encountered them between 1978 and 2013. My experience with these groups suggests that hunter and gatherers are generally willing to develop culturally by settling down, adopting the lifestyle of swidden agriculturalists, and elements of their culture and even their language. The longer their association with settled groups, the more they adopt a settled way of life. Abandoning their old subsistence system offers safer living conditions, health benefits and higher social standing. In addition, it should be noted, however, that nomadic Penan/Punan are under immense pressure from the government, logging and mining companies, and other external interests to settle down, whether they wish to or not.

That longhouse dwellers might have "devolved" to become hunter-gatherers is, in my opinion, highly unlikely. There are no historical examples that I know of where this has happened in Borneo. Whoever is accustomed to eating rice is not likely to change to wild sago. Of course, there are groups of young men who stay for weeks in the forest while hunting or looking for gaharu, rattan and damar. But in their iron pot you will always find rice. Their home is a longhouse or a village. Those who permanently leave a longhouse either find accommodation in another longhouse or village, or they establish a new settlement. They do not become permanent hunter-gatherers. To take a recent example, in the early 1960s there were clashes between two groups in Long Apung, a remote Kenyah community in the Apo Kayan. Starting in 1963, a group migrated on their own initiative down to the Telen River, a left-hand tributary to the Mahakam River. Here they settled and founded a new village made up of single houses and a small longhouse. Today this village is known as Long Segar. The Kepala Adat, Pelibut, guided their migration (Photo 59). In 1980 the community was connected to a landing strip for small planes. (8) It was a prosperous community and has been studied by an American cultural anthropologist, Carol Colfer (Colfer 2008). (9)

The tough, much admired Punan/Penan hunter-gatherers who once roamed the tropical rainforest no longer exist. Equipped only with a bush knife and a blowpipe, they could survive because they knew all the secrets of a once magnificent nature. In fact, they were a natural member of that habitat. But the original rainforest is now largely destroyed, not by the Punan/Penan themselves but by others, and they no longer have a choice as to what kind of way of life they would prefer. Those who have long lived in close association with settled agriculturalists have generally made a successful transition to a more settled way of life and the longer this association, generally the more complete the transition. The Ot Danum are an example of this, having been formerly hunter-gatherers, who have now largely adopted Ngaju Dayak culture (Corby 2016).

In the forty years that I have visited East Kalimantan, the province has changed almost beyond recognition. Nearly all of the great rainforest that once covered most of it is now gone and with it has disappeared the kind of environment that made a hunting and gathering way of life possible. In 1976, flying on my first assignment to the PT. Gonpu Indonesia logging site on the Mangkalihat Peninsula, our plane flew over the small, isolated fishing village of Bontang between Samarinda and Sangkulirang. Photo 59, which I shot from the plane at the time, shows the village as it was then. Since then, a natural gas field has been discovered and today Bontang is an industrial city, the site of the largest petrochemical installation in the whole of Indonesia, see Photo 60.

Appendix - A brief comment on indigenous non-longhouse groups and areas in Borneo where there were no hunter-gatherers

Longhouse construction is not present in all of Borneo. Groups in northeastern Kalimantan, such as the Basap, Berusu (also Burusu), and others, have no tradition of longhouse residence. They lived, and still live, in individual houses erected on stilts in scattered settlements. However, like longhouse-dwelling groups, but unlike nomadic hunter-gatherers, they possess highly valued Chinese ceramic jars. In these areas there have been no reports of hunter-gatherers in historic times.

The Basap (sometimes mistakenly assigned to the Punan group) in the 1970s still practiced limited hill rice farming, and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), eggs and bananas were often their staple food. They kept dogs for hunting, chickens and cats. They were still zealous hunters. The Berusu had no dogs and hunting was no longer common because they were extensive dry rice farmers. Their peculiarity was that, while hill rice is commonly sown by dibbling and casting seeds into the holes, the Berusu planted their fields with rice seedlings. That was the situation in 1976 and 1978.

With my later tours in 1994 and particularly in 2002, I found that the Mangkalihat Peninsula, formerly a purely Basap settlement area, was totally deforested and that a network of poor earth roads now connected a dense system of state-subsidized settlements for mostly Javanese transmigrants. Traditional Basap society, which was already mentioned several times at the beginning of the 20th century (Spaan 1901, 1903, 1918, "Bassap") had dissolved. One group in the Dumaring area, Talisayan Subdistrict, now called themselves the Balui Dayaks and another further south, the Ahih Dayaks. This is today the fate of many indigenous groups in large areas in Kalimantan.


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Herwig Zahorka

(1) The settlement of the Punans by the government was mostly carried out. not so such for their social benefit as to get the people out of the forest so that it could be declared state-owned with the aim of creating concession areas for logging and plantation companies. Indeed, in Kalimantan, forests are regularly declared state-owned even when they are occupied by settled swidden farming communities such as the Kenyan.

(2) I refer to them here as Kutai Punan in reference to the general area in which they lived.

(3) Even the late Bruno Manser found himself unable to communicate when he accompanied the Austrian antiquarian collector Edmund Grundner to visit Punan on the upper Kelai River. He was amazed that he could not communicate with them using the language spoken by the Penan in Sarawak. The language spoken in the upper Kelai is probably a Basap language ( by Dr. Martin Baier).

(4) A tree develops this fragrant resinous wood as a defense reaction when it is infected with a fungus by an Abrosius beetle. Mostly gaharu develops in trees of the Aquilaria sp. (7 species), but also in the genera Gyrimops, Aetoxylon and Gongystylis. In Japan, China and the Arab world it is highly valued and used as a ritual incense.

(5) When the urethra is not perforated the penis insert is generally of a smaller diameter. By contrast, these types of penis pins are not meant to prevent pregnancy.

(6) Its Iban name is also bunga or bungai terung. However, the traditional Iban buah terung (egg plant) is a distinctive cultivar, quite different than Asian market varieties of eggplant, characteristically bitter and usually round in shape. The familiar long purple eggplants are associated by rural Iban with Chinese market gardening (Editor).

(7) Carol Colter (personal communication, 2017) reports that in East Kalimantan in the 1980s some Kenyah men used the plastic inserts in Bic ball-point pens as placeholders.

(8) Constructed in the late 1970s by TAD, a German aid project. In the early 1980s there were no road connections linking Long Segar to Samarinda or other urban areas (Colfer personal communication, 2017).

(9) Dr. Colfer's colleagues have returned to the village since, most recently in 2015 (see Elmhirst, Siscawati, and Colfer 2016, personal communication 2017).
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Author:Zahorka, Herwig
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Date:Jan 1, 2017

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