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The Dayak
Inhabitants of the inland

The first discoverers were surprised by the people which lived in the heart of Borneo at that time, and are named Dayak all together. Just like the modern travelers and tourist, European adventurers and ethnographers were mainly impressed about the big longhouses on pillars, and the remarkable and beautiful expressions of art and last but not least, the headhunting. That the Dayak were physically attractive, made their already interesting image even more extraordinary. Before talking about these assets, we first introduce the Dayak and other populations.

A heterogeneous population

Borneo's population of twelve million consists of Dayak, Malay and more recent migrants: Chinese and some Javanese, Madurese and Bugis. The Dayak are considered the 'local' population of Borneo. Behind this name, there are a big variety of populations and ethnic groups, which differ from each other in lingual and cultural way as much as the American Indians.

The separation of the different populations has cost a lot of time. Criteria like economical activities, technological knowledge, social organization and religion didn't bring up as much difference as was needed. The 'confusion' can be found in the big internal movements, which were caused by the overpopulation of some areas or war. In this process, different populations have mixed up and taken each others' languages and cultures as well. Even the distinctions which were created by the people themselves, still was very relative.

Illustrating thi, is the much made difference between Dayak and Malay. The name 'Dayak' (inland, upstream) is mainly used by the Islamic coastal population for 'animistic' people of the hinterlands (for a long time this was also the name for the retarted, while the word Malay (Melayu) was used by the Dayak to name the Islamic population which spoke Malay languages. This as a base there are about three million Dayak, and six million Malay on Borneo.

Ninety per cent of the Malay however, are slamised Dayak, which were thought to speak Malay. Ethnically these ex-Dayak, which were named Malay after they started speaking Malay, are related (as as local as) the current Dayak. In a cultural way (language and religion) they are related to the other Malay people of Borneo, originally from Sumatra and mainland Southeastern Asia. To make is even more complicated: not all Malay speaking Muslims call themselves Malay, just as much the Dayak use this name for themselves originally.

In this story we use the name Dayak for the people who inhabit the coastal plains of Borneo, as a collectional name for the non-Islamic and non-Malay-speaking inhabitants for the inland, which still have big differences among them, but have several important similarities: they live along rivers, grow rice and share the same view of the world and religious rules. This makes the distinction between them and the other people who live in the forest, for example the Punan, who are hunter-gatherers.

With in your mind the previously named problems for what concerned the distinctive criteria, we split up the local population in the following three groups: the Northeastern Dayak; the Lun Dayek and Lun Bawang Dayak in North Kalimantan; the Kayan and Kenyah in then highlands of East Kalimantan and the Mahakan estuary the Dayak of the Barito river; the 'Land-Dayak' of West Kalimantan, the Iban from Sarawak and northeastern West Kalimantan; the Punan and Malay.

The northeastern Dayak

Most of the ethnic groups of this groep lives in Sabah. In Northeastern Kalimantan are the Tidung and the Bulungan, Islamised rice-cultivators which life along the downstream of rivers. Their languages are related to those in the Philippines.

The Lun Dayeh and Lun Bawang

The Lun Dayeh and Lun Bawang in the northeastern part of Kalimantan are related to the Kelabit from Sarawak and the Murud from Sabah. In the south of their habitat there are also Keyan and Kenyah. They grow ladang-cultures and use locally irrigated fields in the swamps.

Before the Kayan settled in the area, the area wa populated by a big variety of ethnic groups with a rich megalith culture, which founded big stone grave monuments and stone structures. The only surviving groups - the Lun Dayeh and Lun Bawang - probably took the way of growing rice from the Kayan; before they used to grow tubers and harvested sago. Their communities have some layered structure, most likely also an heritage of the Kayan.

The Kayan

The Kayan mainly live in the central highland of East Kalimantan and several villages along the upper stream of the Kapuas river. They probably came from overseas, before settling in Apokayan. In the 18th and 19th century they spread from Apokayan to Sarawak, the Mahakam estuary and the Kapuas River. But for what language and culture concerned, they are still a single group.

The society of the Kayan was strongly layered and was made up from four classes; the maren, the highest aristocracy, the hipuy, the lower nobility, the panyin, the normal people and the dipen, the slaves. The classes had their own rights and duties, which were described explicitly. The aristocracy practiced a monopoly on political, economic and religious fields, and had the duty to protect their slaves. Slaved which were captured during enemy attacks worked on the open fields and could not be missed. Every family worked on their own piece of soil, but the rice was stored in a communal storage room in the longhouse.

The nice longhouses of the Kayan mirror their social culture. Around the best and most central room of the head of the village are the rooms of the nobility. The slaves lived in the most external rooms of the house, the most dangerous in case of any attacks.

However the government has limited the power of the aristocrats dramatically, but they still have much respect. In the common situations they still have high political positions and in important village events they are still consulted. It's not uncommon that the villagers do some unpaid labor on their fields, or they are given free firewood, or the first choice from the hunt. As well as in economical (rice), socially (mandau and woodcarvings), the influence of the Kayan on other populations in Northern Borneo are visible.

The Kenyah

The Kenyah form a kind of heterogeneous population from a diverse background. They speak different languages. Some originally were forest nomads, which settled in Apokayan, where they slowly overruled the Kayan. Later on, many of them followed the trails of the Kayan by moving to Sarawak and the Mahakam estury. Just like the Kayan they grew rice and their society was built up from layers. Their villages usually have more than one longhouse and over 2000 residents. The Kenyah are famous because of their remarkable, colorful woodcarvings and costumes and their music and dances.

The Barito

The Barito live in the southern half of Borneo and form the biggest population of Dayak in Kalimantan. The mighty Ngaju live in Central Kalimantan, the Ot Danum in the Schwaner Range, the Siang and Murung in the upper stream area of the Barito and the Tunjung, Benuaq and Bentian along the middle stretch of the Mahakam River.

By the Brito spoken languages belong to three different groups of languages, but linguistically and cultural differences are very small. All Barito know difficult rituals for their diseased, when water buffalo's are sacrificed. In several areas there are ritual re-burials, where bones, or ashes are put in special graves. Many people support the kaharingan religion.

The Tebidah, Kebahan and Limbai who are living in the Melawi area, know these rites, but they speak Malay dialects. Most of the Barito Dayak live in scattered villages, which consist of one longhouse.

The 'Land-Dayak'

The so-called 'Land-Dayak' live in Northwestern Kalimantan and the neighboring part of Sarawak. They probably have left Southeastern Borneo in the 18th century. They have their own language, except the Selako, which speak Malay. The Land-Dayak used to live in longhouses. Their villages also had a round house for the men, which met there. The society of the Land-Dayak is fairly equal. They are most known for their wooden statues, which were used during burial rites.

The Iban

The Iban moved from Western Borneo to Sarawak over the last couple of hundred years, where they formed a population of 35,000, and to the Kapuas lake district where there are about 7,000 Iban. In the same area live related Mualang, Seberuang, Desa and Kantuq. The languages of these populations are related to Malay.

The Iban live in longhouses and have ladang, with the preference of a new ladang in the primary forest. The Iban were fierce headhunters and were feared in the wide area. They lead attacks on land as well as on seas, they were named 'Sea-Dayak' and were the most feared pirated of the 19th century.

The Punan

The Punan - also known as Penan, Beketan, Ukit and Bukat - life in the central mountain ranges and around the upper streams of big rivers. They are almost self-sufficient hunter gatherers, which travel around in the jungle in groups of about 35 people. They get everything they need - from food to construction materials - from the forests, without damaging this. Whenever the resources are exhausted, they simply move on.

The Punan collect fruits, mushrooms, honey and edible marrow of the sago tree (Eugeissona utilis), which is their main source for carbohydrates. When hunting, they collect wild pigs, which can weigh up to 200 kilograms, which are most loved, but other animals can also be served. When hunting, the Punan use traps and dogs for scaring the wild animals. Their ultimate weapon is the poison arrow.

The two to three meter long 'gun' which is used to shoot arrows over a distance of 100 meters, is the best in the world. In contrary to the 'guns' which are used elsewhere - made from hollow bamboo or soft wood - this one is made from a very good kind of wood, which is made hollow by a long iron tool.

The collected products (besides the already names also rattan, raisin, camphor, aloe wood and bezoar stones) are partially traded in the neighboring Dayak villages, in the form of baskets and mattresses. In trade, the Punan receive tools, salt, tobacco and textile. The relation with the Dayak is not too good all the time. The Dayak sometimes look down on the Punan, and in the past the Punan regularly were victim of headhunters. The first travelers on Borneo reported that the Punan left their goods with the Dayak and only got their traded goods when the Dayak had left.

From this time, there are also several fantastic stories about the Punan and their skills to survive in the forest: the shy forest inhabitants should live in trees and could smell people from kilometers away. Some 'eyewitnesses' told that they had a long tail. But outside their shyness and legendary skill the Punan profited from the introduction of trade - especially the Chinese were interested in the forest products - and the introduction of metal industry with that, which made them even stronger against wild animals.

The Indonesian government has made many efforts to 'standardize' the Punan by trying them to change to modern agriculture. Meanwhile most are formally settled, but they still have adaption problems.

On the fields they don't feel at home and the yields on the whole are low. Most of their time is spend in the forests by gathering all kinds of forest products.

The Malay

The Malay form an heterogeneous population, in which language (Malay) and religion (Islam) are the strongest elements. They live along the shore and in the center of most big rivers and life of trade, fishery and rice. Their conversion to the Islam started somewhere in the 15th century.

A world full of spirits

The Dayak were confident with the tale that the natural environment was populated by spirits, which were not only more powerful than humans, but in the first place dangerous as well; they had the power to damage the spiritual power of every human, animals and crops, until death follows, when they are not protected enough.

Because of that, the Dayak places images of protectional spirits around villages, fields and paths, and they left on signs of birds in the sky - messengers of the gods - and on advice of belian ('sjamans') and priests, as intermediary between humans and the supernatural world. Besides that they carried talismans and decorated their tools, clothing and themselves ('tatoos') with protecting motives.

The art of the Dayak had a strong ritual meaning. An artist which carved a dragon out of wood, created a place for the dragon spirit which he made real, while he placed himself under protection of the most mighty protectional spirit: the goddess of the dragon or water snake. Of source it was very important to treat all the gods well, so they won't abandon the humans. This is also the meaning of the rice cycle with all it's rites, which were meant to please the protectors of the rice.

During bad times (death of a leader, a bad harvest or epidemic) sacrificed were needed to restore the cosmic order. Most precious were the human sacrifices (death symbolized the start of life and fertility) and the need for 'victims' was large. Main target for headhunting trips were those human sacrifices.


Not a single habit of the Dayak shocked the colonial rulers as much as the headhunting. It was considered as 'the most uncivilized' side of the 'wild humans'. Even the Brooke-dynasty of 'white raja's, which were very charmed of the Dayak culture, prohibited headhunting on their territory. However some sources say that Brookes allowed big headhunting expeditions when it was politically of military needed.

The headhunting trips of the Dayak however, had a strong ritual meaning. They brought up slaves, which were later on used as sacrifice for the gods. Beheaded people played an important part in dozens of rites: marriages, funerals, approval of longhouses, planting of rice and the completion of a woodcarving. On the whole a human sacrifice brought the village better times. Some heads - after being stripped, boiled and sometimes decorated - even served as temporary stay for spirits, which were praised during special sacrifices.

By beheading someone, young men showed their courage and also showed themselves to young females and their colleagues. Once he had beheaded someone, he was allowed to wear special tattoos and decorations, like the teeth of a leopard. Headhunting trips formed the best test in which talented people of the village were remarked.

An headhunting expedition on the whole was a well-prepared expeditions, in which many warriors participated, under the rule of an experienced commander. Some armies counted several thousand soldiers, but smaller groups operated more effective and were more common. Free-lance headhunters were rare, but they did exist, especially among the Iban. A big attack usually was a big social event in which the entire village or several allied villages participated.

Attack on a longhouse

Before arming an expedition, the signs were over-viewed, especially by the signs of the 'birds of omen'. When those looked good, the canoes of war were put in the water. The sometimes thirty-meter-long, single-tree canoes contained a maximum of 70 warriors, which moved the boats quickly. The boats were left behind a couple of hours walking from the target.

The attackers were armed with mandau, a machete-like sword made of very good, local metal. After the inventors, the Kayan, the different populations developed their own style of mandau. For their protection, the warriors trusted the small shields of soft wood, sometimes tied up with rotan to stop breaking. With the shield, the hits of opponents were stopped, until their mandau gets stuck in it and the defender had all time to kill him.

Rattan war-heads, jackets of leopard-skin and other objects offered little resistance. The gear was heavily decorated with magical motives, hair teeth and claws to scare the opponents. In the dawn, the attackers burn the house and the population was simply killed. This did not always happen, because the defenders offered resistance with javelins, poisonous arrows and stones.

The defenders were always prepared, even though, an attack always came unexpected. The longhouses were always located on the banks of a river on a forest of ironwood pillars which were three to six meters high. The stairs were pulled in at night and on strategical places, weapons were always ready. When they heard an attack was to happen soon, the defenders created an ambush. On several places, trees were almost shopped down, so they could be brought down with a single slash of a mandau, so it would fall on the river and the attackers.

A successful attack brought in several fresh heads, as well as women and children which filled harems of became slaves, and loot usually consisted of old beats, copper drums and the very precious old Chinese pots with dragon motives. The warriors were seen as heroes on their return. Young girls showed the heads with an erotic as well as rude show, before the skulls were used in a long ritual.

Not all Dayak were headhunters. The Kenyah only made slaves, while the Kayan mainly headhunted. Other Dayak bought the slaves they needed. The most known headhunters were the Iban from Sarawak. Successful warriors were highly ranked and the Iban collected more heads than they needed for their rites. When the government allowed local warriors to practice their traditional culture at the end of the 19th century, the only problem thar raja Brooke had was a tremendous surplus of volunteers.

Christianity and tradition

With the introduction of Christianity and the halt for headhunting, the traditional religions and the well-known Dayak-art lost their fundamentals. The mission especially, which came as far as the deep inland areas of Borneo under the name of the American evangelists, is branded by an intolerant approach of the Dayak culture. They mainly aim at the spiritual life of the 'pagans' and most of their work is seen as work of Satan. The strong-catholic mission mainly organizes social work among the 'needing' (founding of schools and hospitals) and is more connected to the traditional culture.

There is no doubt that the arrival of the missions has had a deep and sometimes disastrous influence on the Dayak culture. Still, the Dayak are very traditional in many ways, but they do not comply to the 'noble wild men', as described in several old travel reports.

The Dayak clear their lands following the very old, but handy principal of field-changing and still they are hunting for products from the forests as well. During ceremonies (sometimes also in the daily life) they wear traditional clothing and in some areas they still life in longhouses. On the whole, whenever you travel further inland, the evidence of the original way of life are more on the surface.

In some areas there can even be sensed a revival of the traditional culture because of the strong pressure of the missions.

Especially the Ngaju Dayak from Central Kalimantan fought for the acknowledgment of their traditional Dayak religions. In 1980 the kaharingan (power of life) - in an adapted form - was recognized by the Indonesian government. The religion is practiced in Central- and Northern Kalimantan and in the neighboring parts of East- and West Kalimantan.

Outside the unavoidable influence of Christianity, there still is a strong sense of culture under their western clothing. The believe in good and bad spirits still lives among all populations and cultures.

Last revised on November 26, 2010
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