The Penans - Sarawak, Borneo Malaysia

Penan Huts

The Penans ancestral grounds are in the dense jungle forests where the controversial Bakun Dam is located. The Penans are nomadic people and are one of the very few nomadic tribes in Borneo . In the 1860's Odoardo Beccari, a renown botanist remarked that the Penans were man-hunters which is to say that they had no qualms about slaying any human beings in which they had no dealings with. The Penans only took belongings of the slain person and since they were nomadic, had no use for head trophies.

They build basic structures that resemble a makeshift hut which is used from a few weeks or some months until their food supply around the area runs dry especially the wild sago palm which is their staple diet. Unlike all the other natives, the Penans do not cultivate padi or perform any form of cultivation. They support themselves by hunting with the blowpipe, gathering the wild jungle fruits and sago, and by collecting the jungle products and bartering. A group normally numbers between 20 to 30 people ie the chief and his descendants. The penans are fiercely proud of their heritage and existence. Unfortunately, their ancestral grounds are under constant threat of diminishing due to its diversity and natural bounty. Many remain true to their lifestyle and would like to see some of their ancestral ground protected from the logging and expansion of palm oil plantations that are eating up the rainforests and their ancestral lands. For more information on the Penans, log onto Friends of the Earth,Malaysia. The Penans are losing their identity not by choice and your voice can make a difference to them. Help give them a voice.

The Sumpitan or Blowpipe

The Blowpipe or Sumpitan as called in Malay is made by Kayans, Kenyahs, and Penans but rarely by Ibans. The highly valued sumpitans are made from the Jagang tree. Hardwoods like the Jagang tree are normally difficult to carve. Generally, a large girth tree is felled, and the trunk is cut to long pieces of about 8ft. The piece is shaped cylindrical with an adze and reduced until 3 - 4in in diameter. The craftsman then erects a platform about 7ft above the ground. Charles Hose describes the process,' the prepared rod is fixed vertically with the upper end projecting through the platform, its lower end resting on the ground. Its upper end is lashed to the platform, its lower end to a pair of stout poles lashed horizontally to trees, and its middle to another pair of poles similarly fixed. The next operation, the boring of the wood, is accomplished by the aid of a straight rod of iron about nine feet long, of slightly smaller diameter than the bore desired for the pipe, and having one end chisel-shaped and sharpened. One man standing on the platform holds the iron rod vertically above the end of the wood, and brings its sharp chisel edge down upon the centre of the flat surface. Lifting the rod with both hands he repeats his blow again and again, slightly turning the rod at each blow. The rod soon bites its way into the wood. An assistant, squatting on the platform with a bark-bucket of water beside him, ladles water into the hole after every two or three strokes, and thus causes the chips to float out. This 0peration steadily pursued for about six hours completes the boring. By boring the lower part, the craftsman aims at producing a slight curvature of the tube by very slightly bending the pole and lashing it in the bent position; the pole on being released then straightens itself, and at the same time produces the desired slight curvature of the bore. This curvature is necessary in order to allow for the bending of the blow-pipe, when in use, by the weight of the spearblade which is lashed on bayonet-fashion.'

The shaft of the poisoned dart is made from the wood of the NIBONG and wild sago palms. It is about nine inches in length and one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch in diameter. The poison is made from the sap of the Ipoh tree(ANTIARIS TOXICARIA). The sap is heated over a fire until it becomes a dark purple paste.


The native cloth, worn by almost all natives in the Borneon jungle was called the chawat. It is made from the bark of trees namely the KUMUT, the IPOH, and the wild fig. The material used is the fibrous layer underneath the outer bark. The fibrous layer is beaten with a heavy club until is pliable and then the piece is cut according to shape and size. Today, such material has been replaced with cotton.

Being nomadic, the Penans eat almost anything the jungle has to offer except the omen birds, birds that the natives believe bring them warning signals etc. however, the one beast - the crocodile seems to be regarded as a god by the Penans. It's been recorded that the Penans do sometimes carve crude wooden structures of the beast and hang it at their hut or shelter. At any time that anyone should fall ill, the medicine man would hang the blossom of a betelnut tree with the wooden image to aid him in calling back the wandering soul of the patient.

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