This fascinating make-up has been shaped by internal warfare, shifts in settlement and centuries-old trading relationships. In Kalimantan alone it is believed that 142 different languages are still in use today.
East meets westIn Borneo, contrasting religions and lifestyles live side by side. At least 15 million people are thought to live on the island, and more than half are Muslim (mainly in coastal riverside areas and in cities).
The rest are non-Muslim indigenous, consisting of inland farmers, former nomads and people working in cities or government service, along with Chinese, who are often Buddhists. Very few people are still nomadic.
The Dayak, Borneo’s native farming populationThe native farming population of Borneo is usually referred to collectively as Dayak, a generic term that encompasses a broad range of very distinct peoples.
It is believed that there are about 4 million Dayak in Borneo. The 7 main groups include: The Iban (also known as Sea Dayak); the Bidayuh (Land Dayak); the Kayan-Kenyah group; the Maloh; the Barito; the Kelabit-Lun Bawang group; and the Kadazan-Dusun-Murut group.
The term Dayak is sometimes used inaccurately to refer to the nomadic people of the interior - the Penan or Punan. Most formerly nomadic groups have become rice-farmers.
Living off the forestRice is the staple food, supplemented by several other field crops, hunting, fishing and collecting from the forest (e.g. rattan, used for daily objects in agriculture, house building etc.).
In some communities, these methods have changed very little over the past centuries. Cultivators of 'hill rice' – also referred to as 'shifting cultivators' or 'swidden farmers' – practice traditional shifting cultivation in a setting where forest is usually preserved.
Deer and bearded pig are typical animals hunted for food, usually with the help of dogs. Although the use of guns is now widespread in Sabah and Sarawak, the blowpipe used to be the weapon of choice, especially for obtaining monkeys and hornbills. Spears are used for the bearded pigs, which sometimes travel in huge herds and provide a major protein-source for many rural people.
Lifestyles from the pastSome Dayak people once lived mostly in massive communal structures known as longhouses. These might reach up to 12 m in height, at times bringing more than 100 families under one roof, affording safety from attacks during times of warfare. Inside, families lived in separate apartments arranged along a central corridor, which served as a communal area.
While some groups still live in longhouses, many have abandoned this system in favour of individual houses – either because of government pressure or because inter-tribal warfare has long ceased.
A village territory is commonly divided into several designated areas, including a settlement area, several farming areas, and a restricted forest area (tana’ ulen). The remaining area, the village’s open communal forest, is used for various purposes like hunting, fishing, harvesting fruit and plants, gathering building materials, and collecting commercial forest products.
Once, life in the village was administered by rules and regulations that governed the customary territory, village territory, modes of harvesting the forest products, and the dues to be paid to the village. In many places, such systems are being eroded by outside influences.
Managing the forestIndigenous groups generally consider old growth forest that surrounds them as their property. Because there are not always markers to demarcate that territory however, this makes it convenient for outsiders to challenge that ownership.
Access to natural resources is mostly territorial: for example, most communities claim the right for any of their members to fish within a specific stretch of river, but they exclude non-community members. Community members usually seek approval from others before cutting down old growth trees within the community limits, as some may be owned by other families or individuals.
Dayak faithThe indigenous peoples of Borneo were once generally characterized as animists and polytheists. According to these practices, worship focuses on a supreme god of the upper world and a god of the underworld, while numerous spiritual entities - good and bad - roam the jungles.
Nowadays however, many groups have converted to Christianity and some to Islam, while some local traditional religions are included under Hinduism.