6 fascinating facts about the indigenous tribes of Borneo
As actor-host Henry Golding - a descendant of the Iban tribe of Borneo - embarks on a personal mission to discover his tribal roots in Discovery Channel’s Surviving Borneo, uncover some of the amazing facts surrounding the indigenous peoples of the world’s third largest island.
#1 The once feared and nomadic Ibans are now warm, welcoming and mostly semi-settled.
The Ibans, indigenous to Borneo, were one of the most feared tribes in Borneo, renowned for their aggressive territorial expansions. As recently as the 1940s, Ibanese tribesmen practiced war rituals like headhunting though these macabre traditions were eventually eradicated by the British colonialists.
An Iban tribesman back in the day, known for being fearsome warriors.
The Ibans were also masters of self-sufficiency, utilizing only the lands around them for survival. Unfortunately, the advent of urbanization meant the loss of over 30% of Borneo’s rainforests in just 40 years, ultimately shifting the community away from a primarily nomadic lifestyle to a semi-settled one.
Henry Golding enjoys a chat with his Ibanese relatives. A majority of the Ibans today lead a semi-settled life, living in houses equipped with modern day amenities.
#2 Heads collected by Iban warriors were believed to hold spiritual powers.
Skulls of numerous vanquished enemies hang suspended on a rafter
In the old head-hunting days, it was common to see a typical Iban longhouse littered with skulls wrapped in net bags and hanging suspended from the rafters. These skulls were not collected as spoils of war nor as trophies by the Ibans. They were, rather, collected with the belief that each skull held a spiritual power reflecting the deceased’s character, and that they would help to watch over the houses they graced.
Henry Golding gazes at the lone skull that remains in his Ibanese family’s longhouse.
#3 The habitats of today's Ibans are roomier and equipped with modern amenities.
Back in the day where it was a common sight to see an Iban longhouse cramped with people
Unlike their aggressive ancestors, the Ibans of today have mellowed to be a generous and welcoming people. With most moving away to larger cities and towns, the once crowded longhouses have given way to more spacious living conditions, often equipped with modern-day conveniences like telephone lines, running water and even internet access. Despite so, it is often hard to believe that the same 300-meter-long longhouses had just a century ago housed an entire village of close to 500 people.
A friendly greeting between Henry Golding and his Iban relatives at home in their longhouse. The Ibans of today have the luxury of living in more spacious conditions compared to their ancestors.
#4 Young Iban men welcome their coming of age with bejalai, a journey of self-discovery.
Iban men and boys regularly venture out on boar hunts to feed their tribe.
An ancient rite of passage still practised today, the Iban bejalai has seen generations of unmarried male youths venture far from the longhouse seeking fortune and new experiences. “A bejalai is essentially a journey undertaken for a young man to go into manhood, and each journey is yours and yours alone”, explains Henry.
In days of old, heads were typically brought back by the young adventurers, along with new ideas, knowledge and foreign goods. Today, Iban youth often travel abroad for their bejalai, working overseas in construction, oil industries and rubber plantations to send money home to their families. A typical bejalai may last up to several years, putting to test one’s resilience and astuteness towards living in unfamiliar conditions.
In Surviving Borneo, Henry has a taste of the modern-day bejalai when he teams up with his uncle Apa Tuai for a 3-day expedition into the dense Bornean jungle. Through the rigours of navigating dense rainforest to constructing a resting hut from scratch, Henry realizes that the bejalai process is also one of “non-stop hard work towards the goal of ensuring survival”.
Henry embarks on his bejalai with his uncle Apa Tuai as his guide.
#5 The Penan are masters of lethal weapons
Selflessness is also manifested by how each Penan – another tribe indigenous to Borneo - is responsible not just for themselves, but also for the survival of their nomadic communities at large. Sometimes called the “guardians of the rainforest”, their efficient method of hunting for food can be credited to the effective weapons and tools they employ.
The Penans are a close-knit community, relying heavily on each other for survival
One of the Penan's lethal hunting tools is a blowpipe called the “keleput” - a lighter and more accurate weapon than a shotgun. The accompanying darts are usually laced with poisonous latex from a tree called “Tajem” and can cause rapid heart failure to both animals and humans.
Henry tries his hand at the “keluput”, under the watchful eye of his Penan teacher.
#6 Each Iban tattoo is deeply symbolic and is inked using a unique tapping technique.
The completion of bejalai culminates in the inking of a traditional Iban tattoo, the Bungai Terung or Borneo eggplant flower. The location of each tattoo on the body also carries a unique meaning. On the front of both shoulders, the Bungai Terung signifies where one’s bag straps lie and prepares the boy for carrying the weight of the world in their manhood.
All tattoos following the Bungai Terung are a documentation of key life events, from vanquishing an enemy in the old days, to marrying and fathering a child.
An Iban man with the "Bungai Terung" tattoo - symbolic of the completion of the bejalai
To the Iban, these tattoos represent a bridge linking generations - a connection between tribesmen past and present who have donned the same patterns on their skin. They must also be inked the traditional hand-tapping way, where a mallet is used to repeatedly drive an ink-filled needle deep into the skin. Made with a mix of soot and charcoal, the ink is believed to bring protection from evil spirits.
The tapping technique – An ink filled needle is repeatedly driven deep into the skin by a stick, ensuring that the ink stays permanent
Henry had already gotten the Bungai Terung on his shoulders before completing his bejalai. Now finally having earned the right to have them, he commemorated the occasion by getting an image of a creeping fig tree. This pattern, as explained by the Iban tattooist, is symbolic of “conquering” and a fitting piece for Henry as it illustrates his next chapter in life beyond the bejalai, transitioning from manhood to his upcoming marriage.
“It was a closure, it was like completing a journey and getting a stamp in your passport, saying I’ve done that, I’ve been there and I’ve experienced that”, says Henry.
Iban tattoo artists applying their finishing touches on Henry’s new tribal tattoo – the creeping fig tree symbol
You might also be interested in