Archive Content

Please note: This page has been archived and its content may no longer be up-to-date. This version of the page will remain live for reference purposes as we work to update the content across our website.

Mirroring the island’s natural diversity and the tides of change that have swept through over the centuries, Borneo’s people are a mosaic of culturally distinct indigenous groups scattered across the landscape.

This fascinating make-up has been shaped by internal warfare, shifts in settlement and centuries-old trading relationships.


The Human Heart of Borneo

The Human Heart of Borneo is a publication that explores the vast range of traditions, practices, and local knowledge that can greatly benefit the world’s understanding of the rich biodiversity of this area.

An estimated 18 million people live on the island, with the majority based in the coastal lowlands and cities. The forests of the Heart of Borneo area are of high value for people’s livelihoods and the environment. There is a strong interdependence between Indigenous Peoples and the resources as well as the services the forest provides.

The peoples of the Heart of Borneo

The indigenous peoples of the Heart of Borneo are commonly known as Dayak. The term was coined by Europeans referring to the non-Malay inhabitants of Borneo.

There are over 50 ethnic Dayak groups speaking different languages. This cultural and linguistic diversity parallels the high biodiversity and related traditional knowledge of the Heart of Borneo.

Diverse Dayak languages

Many of Borneo’s languages are endemic. It is estimated that around 170 languages and dialects are spoken on the island of Borneo and some by just a few hundred people, thus posing a serious risk to the future of those languages and related heritage.

Cultural tradition and arts

Borneo culture and art are reflected and expressed through custom, dance and music, food and drink, and even tattoo.


Traditional tattooing has been customary among men and women in several groups of Dayak Peoples. They use motif designs of snakes, birds and plants, sometimes combined, to symbolise meanings such as bravery, patience and beauty. The motifs are symbolic of the social class, and of individuals of a certain social standing that are allowed to be tattooed with particular motifs.


The traditional Dayak hornbill dance is named after the bird with a big casque, long down-curved bill and black and white feathers. The hornbill is both an important species and cultural symbol for Dayak peoples.

The hornbill dance, the most well-known traditional Dayak dance, is performed in stylised movements of the arms to resemble a flying hornbill. Both men and women wear an adorned headdress, women dancers hold hornbill feathers tied to their hands which will open up when the hands move, while men dancers will hold a shield and a ritual knife. The dance is usually accompanied by sape music.

Originally, dances were performed as part of a post-warfare ritual, to greet returning warriors who fought the enemy or came back from successful head-hunting expeditions. Nowadays, dances are commonly featured during the rice harvest season, New Year and other celebrations, or to greet important visitors to the community.

The sape’, (also known as sampe or sapeh), is a traditional lute played by many of the Dayak communities in the Heart of Borneo during celebrations, like harvest festivals (gawai) and rituals. One string carries the melody and the accompanying two strings are struck rhythmically to produce a drone.

Community living

Some Dayak people once lived mostly in massive communal structures known as longhouses. These could be up to 12 metres high and house over 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 moved into individual houses – either because of government pressure or because inter-tribal warfare has stopped.

Managing natural resources – traditional knowledge

For centuries, the Dayak indigenous people in the Heart of Borneo have managed the forests in sustainable ways. Their practices, supported by customary regulations and traditional knowledge, have contributed to the maintenance and preservation of the rich and extraordinary biodiversity of the Heart of Borneo.

Communities living in the interior of Borneo are still largely regulated by customary law or adat which govern their daily affairs and management of natural resources within their customary territory.

Communities in the Heart of Borneo have long used zoning as a land management tool, where the forest territory of each village or settlement is divided into areas for non-timber forest product (NTFP) collection, hunting, agriculture (rice paddies and swiddens), gardens, old settlements and sacred sites.

Managing natural resources – Dayak customary regulations

Local regulations specify the rates and means of collection of forest resources that stress sustainability and minimise stress to the environment. For example, there is emphasis on not wasting animals or forest products by collecting more than needed or harvesting them in ways that would hamper their future reproduction or growth.

All Dayak communities ban the use of chemicals and sophisticated technology for catching fish and only traditional tools like nets, rods and fish traps may be used. All customary regulations state that trees at the headwaters of rivers may not be cut and recommend that salt springs in the forest and common hunting grounds not be damaged.
Kenyah Dayak people. Women collecting medicinal plants in Kayan Mentarang National Park East ... 
© Alain Compost / WWF
Kenyah Dayak people. Women collecting medicinal plants in Kayan Mentarang National Park East Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia
© Alain Compost / WWF
Sape' music in Long Berini 
© WWF-Indonesia / Arif D. Kusuma
Sape' music in Long Berini
© WWF-Indonesia / Arif D. Kusuma
Dayak woman weaving rattan into a mat. Near Berau, East Kalimantan. Indonesia 
© WWF / © Edward Parker
Dayak woman weaving rattan into a mat. Near Berau, East Kalimantan. Indonesia
© WWF / © Edward Parker