Culture & People

Borneo has 19,800,000 inhabitants (in mid 2010), a population density of 26 inhabitants per square km. Most of the population lives in coastal cities, although the hinterland is occupied at most in small towns and villages along the rivers. The population mainly consists of Malays, Banjar, Chinese and Dayak ethnic groups. The Chinese, who make up 29% of the population of Sarawak and 17% of total population in West Kalimantan, originally migrated from southeastern China.

The majority of the population in Kalimantan is either Muslim or practice animism. Approximately 91% of the Dayaks are Christian, a religion introduced by missionaries in the 19th century. In Central Kalimantan there is also a small Hindu minority. In the interior of Borneo are also the Penan, some of who still practice a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. In some coastal areas of marginal settlements are also found Bajau, who were historically associated with a sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic existence. In the northwest of Borneo, the Dayak ethnic group is represented by the Iban with about 710,000 members.

Kalimantan was the focus for an intense transmigration program that financed the relocation of poor landless families from Java, Madura, and Bali. In 2001, transmigrants made up 21% of the population in Central Kalimantan.

THE HEADHUNTERS OF BORNEO

The Ibans are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo. In Malaysia, most Ibans are located in Sarawak, a small portion in Sabah and some in west Malaysia. They were firstly but now formerly known during the colonial period by the British as Sea Dayaks especially in the Saribas and Skrang regions which are near the coastline and thus they had gone on expeditions along the coastline up to the Kapuas river delta in the south and the Rajang river delta in the north. However, those Ibans that had migrated and lived inland to upper Rajang river region was further upriver and did not really go downriver to the sea as often but they became into contact with local tribes such as the Baketan, Ukit and Kayan. It is believed that the term “Iban” originates from the Iban’s own formidable enemy, the Kayan who call the Sea Dayaks in the upper Rajang river region that initially came into contact with them as “Hivan”. The Kayan mostly lives in the central Broneo region and migrated into the upper Rajang river and thus went logger-head with those Ibans who migrated from the upper Batang Ai/Lupar region and Katibas river. In fact, those Sea Dayaks in the Saribas and Skrang regions initially resisted being called Iban and insisted to be called Dayak but somehow the term Iban increasingly becomes popular later on after the European starts to frequently uses this term.

Ibans were renowned for practicing headhunting and tribal/territorial expansion, and had a fearsome reputation as a strong and successful warring tribe in the past. Since the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent colonisation of the area, headhunting gradually faded out of practice although many tribal customs, practices and language continue. The Iban population is concentrated in Sarawak, Brunei, and in the West Kalimantan region of Indonesia. They live in longhouses called rumah panjai.

Nowadays, most of the Iban longhouses are equipped with modern facilities such as electricity and water supply and other facilities such as (tar sealed) roads, telephone lines and the internet. Younger Ibans are mostly found in urban areas and visit their hometowns during the holidays. The Ibans today are becoming increasingly urbanised while retaining most of their traditional heritage and culture.

The Murut were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce headhunting. As with the Iban of Sarawak, collecting heads of enemies traditional served a very important role in Murut spiritual beliefs. For example, a man could only get married after he presented at least one head to the family of the desired girl.┬áThe Murut were shifting cultivators of hill padi and tapioca, supplementing their diet with blowpipe hunting and with some fishing. They live in communal longhouses, usually near rivers, using the rivers as their highways. Most have now converted to Christianity, with about a fifth of the population being Muslims. However they still maintain their culture.

Traditional dress for men was a jacket made of tree bark (Artocarpus tamaran), a red loincloth, and a headdress decorated with Argus pheasant feathers. Women wore a black sleeveless blouse and sarong, which fell just below the knees. Like most of the other indigenous groups in Sabah, the Murut decorated their clothing with distinctive beadwork and also made belts out of old silver coins. Another belt made of reddish-brown glass beads plus yellow and blue beads was hung loosely around the waist.