Hidden heritage |

The Invisible People of Punan

Hidden Heritage | 17 June 2017

When I first heard the rumour that there was a Dayak Punan tribe living in caves deep in the forests of Borneo, I was naturally very curious to confirm if this news was true and if so to find a way to meet these people and learn more about them.

I had spent the past few weeks trying to find out more information about the Punan tribe, but there is very little known, especially in Indonesia. The Penan who live in Malaysia have been well documented, unfortunately for the wrong reasons as they have been fighting to prevent the desecration of their homelands for the past thirty years.

The Penan from Malaysia are nomadic and similar to the Punan of Kalimantan, however they do not share the same language and live quite a distance from each other. The Indonesian Punan live almost entirely in the province of North Kalimantan, mostly in settled modern villages around the district town of Malinau.

The Punan have a reputation for being gentle, kind, selfless, peaceful people, deeply connected to the natural environment in which they prefer to live. Others view them as primitive and backwards.

Part of my curiosity was to meet them in their environment and form my own views, but how?

Around two years ago I attended a prominent Dayak cultural festival in North Kalimantan and came face to face with the Punan for the first time. I was fortunate at this event to meet Thomas Miter who was chief of all the Punan tribes in Kalimantan.

“One day I will take you to meet my tribe,” he said to me at that time. “I am happy that you are interested to learn about my people and our culture. It is very rare that anyone from the outside takes an interest in my people, especially a bule (foreigner)”.

“I need time to arrange this, especially to meet the nomadic Punan, who often move from place to place and often they are difficult to track down”.

That conversation happened two years ago, and last month, I boarded a small motorised canoe with Thomas and his Dayak friends, and our journey to find the Punan had finally begun.

As we made our way up the small river, we soon started to enter into the extraordinary biodiversity of the world’s third largest island. There are 20,000 flowering plants in the world, and one-third are found exclusively on the magnificent island of Borneo. As we continued up the river, we were accompanied by a variety of bird species. They seemed to be leading us further into the jungle. I gave up trying to identify them, as there are 475 different species of birds that call Borneo home.

The trees seemed to encroach in thicker patches as we travelled up the river and the forest got darker and even more beautiful as we made our way to our unnamed destination.

We negotiated a series of small rapids, and two hours later we tied up the canoe and started our hike deeper into the forest in the direction of the caves to finally meet the true nomads of the forest.

We slashed our way through the thick ancient rainforest, unsure of what we would find until I heard the sound of children’s voices.  

I  heard the Punan before I saw them.

As I walked up to the first group of people with a friendly hand extended along with a warm friendly smile, I was greeted with looks of utter disbelief and shock, and one of the young children burst into tears and simply ran in the opposite direction!

There were many questions asked of Thomas and our accompanying Dayak Punan guide, and these questions were mostly about me. There was a great deal of tension, and many rapid words fired back and forth. As the shock of seeing a white man began to dissipate, I gradually started to become accepted into the community - but at a distance.

We were soon interrupted by the arrival of a pig. A dead one, attached to the back of a euphoric and very happy hunter who wandered in from the forest.

There are approximately fifty people still living nomadically in the forest in this area, sleeping either in caves or in temporary shelters called Lapu, but nobody knows for sure as they are not covered in the Indonesian census, and there is no official record that they exist.

The clans have little to do with each other and do not encroach on each other’s territory.

The nomadic Punan have been practising shifting cultivation for thousands of years as they still do today. Their principal source of protein is wild game and fish, and they are deeply connected to the land, believing in a great spirit called Natala. They are animist and consider themselves not owners of the land but trustees and take no more from the land or forest than what they need.

Wild boar is a major source of food and is also a source of fat, which is stored in containers high up in the caves. By cooking the oil, it stabilises and can be stored for several weeks.

The Punan have many dogs and use them for hunting. I was shown their hunting tools which include blowpipes, poison arrows and a few guns, although bullets are expensive and the Punan have little or no money.

Everything is shared equally in the Punan community even when food is scarce. If only a little is available, it is distributed evenly. Also, there is no such words as “thank you” in the Punan culture.

In the small settlement, we visited the village elder who told us they did not grow rice but farm root crops called Keriting and also Jarenang, which tastes a bit like a cross between potatoes and sago.

The Meranti tree is paramount for the survival of the Punan, as they use the strong wood for their shelters, for boat building, and with great skill, they craft highly durable bush knives. At certain times of the year, the Meranti tree produces seeds that attract the wild boars, which the pigs devour in significant volume and then grow very fat. “This time of the year is a real celebration for us,” the village elder told us. “It provides great feasts, and everyone is well fed.”

It was a real honour to spend time with these peaceful, highly capable and skilled people of the forests and I wonder about their future. For now, they are content and happy to live in the forest but perhaps it is inevitable that change will come. Some of the young Punan I met were very curious and fascinated by my iPhone and camera, commenting they had never seen one.

These people are very original and pure. As the dialogue continued between Thomas, the guide, myself and the Punan, I sensed their sharing community way, which seemed to be devoid of selfishness, jealousy and greed, as all is shared equally - large or small.  It seems they have much to teach us.

David is involved in a programme to try and preserve the Punan culture and way of life. Please e-mail [email protected] if you are interested to know more.

David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Java, Bali, India, Myanmar and USA. David operates Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali.  By taking a workshop or tour with David you help support education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan.