Dayak refers to any non-Muslim living on Borneo. There are something like 200 distinct Dayak tribes. From an outsider’s perspective, most of the scattered ethnolinguistic groups inhabiting the interior of the vast island of Borneo have been referred to as Dayak. The word is a collective term used by outsiders since 1836 to indicate the indigenous peoples of Kalimantan in Indonesia and Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysia. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Dayaks are a collection ethic groups that have traditionally lived in the forests in both the Malaysian and Indonesian sides of Borneo. They are distinguished from the Malay population in that for the most part they are not Muslims. Sometimes they distinguished from the Penan in that have traditionally been settled while the Penan were nomadic.

See Separate Articles on the Iban and Penan

Kalimantan Dayaks

Among the people labeled as Dayak in Indonesia are the Ngaju, Danum, Maanyan, and Lawangan. The Kalimantan Dayaks live in Kalimantan. They are also known as Biadju, Bidayuh, Dajak and Daya.

The Ngaju Dayaks are the largest central Kalimantan group. They have traditionally lived along the larger rivers and resided in two or three family houses rather than long houses. They rely more on fishing than hunting Sometimes villages are politically united under the same chiefs. Tattooing and teeth filing have traditionally been practiced. Slavery was reportedly practiced until recently. In some cases slaves were killed at the funerals of chiefs. They regard the Danum as their cultural ancestors.

The Danum Dayaks live on the headwaters of rivers and speak a dialects of the same language, which is similar to the one spoken by the Ngaju. They make dugout canoes and gather and trade rubber, lumber and forest products. The Danum raise dogs, pigs and chicken; cattle are raised for celebrations. Iron forging is done with bamboo double-piston bellows. They own, buy and sell land. There are approximately 30,000 of them.

The Maanyan Dayaks live in the drainage system of the Patai Rive and share a common language but live in separate sub groups, each with its own set of “adat”. They do not live in longhouses. Each nuclear family has its own dwelling and fields. Shaman preside over funerals, treat illnesses through spirit possession, entertain with dances, and keep track of the past with myths, histories and genealogies. There are about 35,000 Maanyan Dayaks.

The Land Dayaks are a heterogenous group that inhabits western Kalimantan and southern Sarawak. They have traditionally lived in villages with 600 people living in one or a few longhouses. They used to live along fortified hilltops but now largely live along streams. Their villages have a head house, which serves as a men’s house and council house. In the old days hunted heads were stored below it. The Land Dayaks also have a long tradition of trading with the Chinese.

Different Dayak Groups in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “1) The Dusun, or villagers of the northern extremity of the island, are a race of which Mr. Brooke knows nothing personally; but the name implies that they are an agricultural people: they are represented as not being tattooed, as using the sumpitan, and as having a peculiar dialect. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)-]

“2) The Murut inhabit the interior of Borneo proper. They are not tattooed, always use the sumpitan [blowgun], and have a peculiar dialect. In the same locality, and resembling the Murut, are some tribes called the Basaya.-

“3) The Kadians (or Idaans of voyagers) use the sumpitan, and have likewise a peculiar dialect; but in other respects they nowise differ from the Borneons, either in religion, dress, or mode of life. They are, however, an industrious, peaceful people, who cultivate the ground in the vicinity of Borneo Proper, and nearly as far as Tanjong Barram. The wretched capital is greatly dependent upon them, and, from their numbers and industry, they form a valuable population. In the interior, and on the Balyet river, which discharges itself near Tanjong Barram, is a race likewise called Radian, not converted to Islam, and which still retains the practice of "taking heads."

“4) The Eayans are the most numerous, the most powerful, and the most warlike people in Borneo. They are an inland race, and their locality extends from about sixty miles up the country from Tanjong Barram to the same extent farther into the interior, in latitude 3̊ S(f n., and thence across the island to probably a similar distance from the eastern shore. Their customs, manners, and dress are peculiar, and present most of the characteristic features of a wild and independent people. The Malays of the n.w. coast fear the Kayans, and rarely enter their country; but the Millanows are familiar with them, and there have thence been obtained many particulars respecting them. They are represented as extremely hospitable, generous and kind to strangers, strictly faithful to their word, and honest in their dealings; but on the other hand, they are fierce and bloodthirsty, and when on an expedition, slaughter without sparing. The Kayans are partially tattooed, use the sumpitan, have many dialects, and are remarkable for the strange and apparently mutilating custom adopted by the males, and mentioned by Sir Stamford Raffles.-

“5) To the southward and westward of Barram are the Millanows, 1 who inhabit the rivers not far from the sea. They are, generally speaking, an intelligent, industrious, and active race, the principal cultivators of sago, and gatherers of the famous camphor barus. Their locality extends from Tanjong Barram to Tanjong Sirak. In person they are stout and well made, of middling height, round good-tempered countenances, and fairer than the Malays. They have several dialects amongst them, use the sumpitan, and are not tattooed. They retain the practice of taking heads, but they seldom seek them, and have little of the ferocity of the Eayan.-

“6) In the vicinity of the Kayans and Millanows are some wild tribes, called the Tatows, Balanian, Eanowit, &c. They are probably only a branch of Kayans, though differing from them in being elaborately tattooed over the entire body. They have peculiar dialects, use the sumpitan, and are a wild and fierce people.-

Differences Between Different Dayak Groups in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “The Dyak Laut do not tattoo, nor do they use the sumpitan; their language assimilates closely to the Malay, and was doubtless originally identical with that of the inland tribes. The name of God amongst them is Battara (the Avatara of the Hindoos). They bury their dead, and in the graves deposit a large portion of the property of the deceased, often to a considerable value in gold ornaments, brass guns, jars, and arms. Their marriage-ceremony consists in two fowls being killed, and the forehead and breast of the young couple being touched with the blood; after which the chief, or an old man, knocks their heads together several times, and the ceremony is completed with mirth and feasting. In these two instances they differ from the Dyak Darrat.[Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)-]

“The locality of the Dyak Darrat may be marked as follows: The Fontiana river from its mouth, is traced into the interior towards the northward and westward, until it approaches at the furthest within 100 miles of the north-west coast; a line drawn in latitude 8̊ n. till it intersects the course of the Fontiana river will point out the limit of the country inhabited by the Dyak. Within this inconsiderable portion of the island, which includes Sambas, Landak, Fontiana, Sangow, Sarawak, &c, are numerous tribes, all of which agree in their leading customs, and make use of nearly the same dialect.-

“It must be observed that the Dyak also differs from the Kayan in not being tattooed; and from the Kayan Millanows, &c„ in not using the national weapon— the sumpitan. The Kayan and the Dyak, as general distinctions, though they differ in dialect, in dress, in weapons, and probably in religion, agree in their belief of similar omens, and, above all, in their practice of taking the heads of their enemies; but with the Kayan this practice assumes the aspect of an indiscriminate desire of slaughter, whilst with the Dyak it is but the trophy acquired in legitimate warfare. The Kadians form the only exception to this rule, in consequence of their conversion to Islam; and it is but reasonable to suppose, that with a slight exertion in favour of Christianity, others might be induced to lay aside this barbarous custom.-

“We know little of the wild tribes of Celebes beyond their general resemblance to the Eayans of the east coast of Borneo; and it is probable that the Eayans are the people of Celebes, who, crossing the Strait of Makassar, have in time by their superior prowess possessed themselves of the country of the Dyaks. Mr. Brooke (from whom I am copying this sketch) is led to entertain this opinion from a slight resemblance in their dialects to those used in Celebes, from the difference in so many of their customs from those of the Dyaks.-

Tumma Dyaks in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “This cruise being over, I established myself quietly at Sarawak. The country is peaceable; trade flourishes; the Dyaks are content; the Malays greatly increased in number — in short, all goes well. I received a visit from Lingire, a Dyak chief of Sarebus. At first he was shy and somewhat suspicious; but a little attention soon put him at his ease. He is an intelligent man; and I hail with pleasure his advent to Sarawak, as the dawn of a friendship with the two pirate tribes. It is not alone for the benefit of these tribes that I desire to cultivate their friendship, but for the greater object of penetrating the interior through their means. There are no Malays there to impede our progress by their lies and their intrigues; and, God willing, these rivers shall be the great arteries by which civilisation shall be circulated to the heart of Borneo.-

“4th. — The Dyaks of Tumma, a runaway tribe from Sadong, came down last night, as Bandar Cassim of Sadong wishes still to extract property from them. Bandar Cassim I believe to be a weak man, swayed by stronger-headed and worse rascals; but, now that Seriff Sahib and Muda Hassim are no longer in the country, he retains no excuse for oppressing the poor Dyaks. Si Nankan and Tumma have already flown, and most of the other tribes are ready to follow their example, and take refuge in Sarawak. I have fully explained to the Bandar that he will lose all his Dyaks if he continues his system of oppression, and more especially if he continues to resort to that most hateful system of seizing the women and children.-

“I had a large assembly of natives, Malay and Dyaks, and held forth many good maxims to them. At present, in Sarawak, we have Balows and Sarehus, mortal enemies; Lenaar, our extreme tribe, and our new Sadong tribe of Tumma. Lately we had Kantoss, from near Sarambowi in the interior of Pontiana; Undops, from that river; and Badjows, from near Lantang — tribes which had never thought of Sarawak before, and perhaps never heard the name. Oh, for power to pursue the course pointed out !

“6th — The Julia arrived, much to my relief; and Mr. Low, a botanist and naturalist, arrived in her. He will be a great acquisition to our society, if devoted to these pursuits. The same day that the Julia entered, the Ariel left the river. I dismissed the Tumma Dyaks; re- warned Bandar Cassim of the consequences of his oppression; and had a parting interview with Lingire. I had another long talk with Lingire, and did him honour by presenting him with a spear and flag, for I believe he is true, and will be useful; and this Orang Kaya Pa-muncha, the most powerful of these Dyaks, must be mine. Lingire described to me a great fight he once had with the Kayans, on which occasion he got ninety-one heads, and forced a large body of them to retire with inferior numbers* I asked him whether the Kayans used the sumpitan ? he answered, c Yes.' c Did many of your men die from the wounds ?' * No; we can cure them/ This is one more proof in favour of Mr. Crawfurd's opinion that this poison is not sufficiently virulent to destroy life when the arrow is (as it mostly is) plucked instantly from the wound.-

“26th. — Lingi, a Sakarran chief, arrived, deputed (as he asserted, and I believe truly) by the other chiefs of Sakarran to assure me of their submission and desire for peace. He likewise stated, that false rumours spread by the Malays agitated the Dyaks; and the principal rumour was, that they would be shortly attacked again by the white men. These rumours are spread by the Sariki people, to induce the Sakarrans to quit their river and take refuge in the interior of the Kejong; and once there, the Sakarrans would be in a very great measure at the mercy of the Sariki people. This is a perfect instance of Malay dealing with the Dyaks; but in this case it has failed, as the Sakarrans are too much attached to their country to quit it. I am inclined to believe their professions; and at any rate it is convenient to do so and to give them a fair trial.-

Visiting the Lundu Dyaks in the 1840s

Henry Keppel wrote in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “We found the Samarang off the Morotaba entrance, when' Mr. Brooke and myself became the guests of Sir Edward Belcher for several days, during which time we made excursions to all the small islands in that neighbourhood, discovered large quantities of excellent oysters, and had some very good hog-shooting. Afterwards, accompanied by the boats of the Samarang, we paid a visit to the Lundu Dyaks, which gave them great delight. They entertained us at a large feast, when the whole of the late expedition was fought over again, and a war-dance with the newly-acquired heads of the Sakarran pirates was performed for our edification. Later in the evening, two of the elder chiefs got up, and, walking up and down the long gallery, commenced a dialogue, for the information, as they said, of the women, children, and poorer people who were obliged to remain at home. It consisted in putting such questions to one another as should elicit all the particulars of the late expedition, such as, what had become of different celebrated Sakarran chiefs? (whom they named) how had they been destroyed? how did they die? by whom had they been slain? All these inquiries received the most satisfactory replies, in which the heroic conduct of themselves and the white men were largely dwelt upon. While this was performing, the two old warriors, with the heads of their enemies suspended from their shoulders like a soldier's cartouch - box, stumped up and down, striking the floor with their clubs, and getting very excited. How long it lasted none of our party could tell, as one and all dropped off to sleep during the recital. Mr. Brooke has given so good a description of these kind and simple people that I need not here further notice them. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)-]

“Shortly after our return to the Samarang, she, getting short of provisions, sailed for Singapore, and Mr. Brooke and myself went up to Sarawak, where the Dido was still lying. Great rejoicings and firing of cannon, as on a former occasion, announced our return; and after paying our respects to the Rajah, we visited the Tumangong and Patingis.-

“A curious ceremony is generally performed on the return of the chiefs from a fortunate war expedition, which is not only done by way of a welcome back; but is supposed to ensure equal success on the next excursion. This ceremony was better performed at the old Tumangong's than at the other houses. After entering the principal room, we seated ourselves in a semicircle on the mat floor, when the old chiefs three wives advanced to welcome us with their female relatives, all richly and prettily dressed in sarongs suspended from the waist, and silken scarfs worn gracefully over one shoulder, just hiding or exposing as much of their well-shaped persons as they thought most becoming. Each of these ladies in succession taking a handful of yellow rice, threw it over us, repeating some mystical words, and dilating on our heroic deeds, and then they sprinkled our heads with gold-dust. This is generally done by grating a lump of gold against a dried piece of shark's skin. Two of these ladies bore the pretty names of Inda and Amina. Inda was young, pretty, and graceful; and although she had borne her husband no children, she was supposed to have much greater influence over him than the other two. Report said that she had a temper, and that the Tumangong was much afraid of her; but this may have been only Sarawak scandal. She brought her portion of gold-dust already grated, and wrapped up in a piece of paper, from which she took a pinch; and in reaching to sprinkle some over my head, she, by accident, put the prettiest little foot on to my hand, which, as she wore neither shoes nor stockings, she did not hurt sufficiently to cause me to withdraw it. After this ceremony we (the warriors) feasted and smoked together, attended on by the ladies.-


The largest ethnic group of Sabah, the Kadazan Dusuns form about 30 percent of the state's population. Actually consisting of two tribes; the Kadazan and the Dusun, they were grouped together as they both share the same language and culture. However, the Kadazan are mainly inhabitants of flat valley deltas, which are conducive to paddy field farming, while the Dusun traditionally lived in the hilly and mountainous regions of interior Sabah. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

The Dusun are the largest of Sabah’s 12 indigenous groups. Also known as the Idaan, Kadazan, Kalamntan, Kadazandusans, Kiaus, Piasau, Id’an, Saghais, Sipulotes, Sundayak, Tambunwhas, Tuhun Ngaavi, they are former headhunters and are outnumbered in Sabah only by Malays. Some Dusun are Christians. Some are Muslims. Many retain their traditional animist beliefs. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Dusun have traditionally lived in villages with an average of 300 to 400 people. In the old days most lived in longhouses or “divided longhouses” (closely grouped single-family houses), and grew wet rice as their principal crop, using water buffalo to prepare their fields. They raised a variety of vegetables in home gardens. They also caught fish with traps. Men and women worked together in the fields with the men usually doing much of the heavy work. Today, most Dusun work in normal jobs. Some are civil servants.

Both arranged marriage and love matches occur. Couples often decide to marry in secret and go through an elaborate procedure to bring their parents on board. The groom’s family usually pays a substantial bride price. Divorce requires interdiction by community leaders

Priestesses known as bobohizans, who communicated with spirits, have traditionally been consulted when tribe members fell ill, had bad breath, or were having problems with their crops. They have also been asked to check for omens when a major decision was made such as moving a longhouse. The Dusun have a reputation for not preserving their culture. As of the early 2000s there were only a couple of dozen bobohizans left and many of them were no longer passing their skills on to the younger generation.

Sumazau is a traditional dance of Sabah's Kadazan people. Usually performed at religious ceremonies and social events, it is traditionally used to honour spirits for bountiful paddy harvests, ward off evil spirits and cure illnesses. Male and female dancers perform this steady hypnotic dance with soft and slow movements imitating birds in flight.

Dusun Headhunting

Headhunting was practiced by the Dusun up until World War II even though the practice was outlawed by the British in the late 19th century. It was usually the climax of a conflict between communities that was solved through raiding and hand to and combat.

Conflicts often were the result of a perceived imbalance, disharmony or ill fortune in one community believed to be the caused an individual in another community. The community that was in disharmony felt it had to conduct a raid to restore harmony. The object of the raid was to secure trophies,, preferable the heads of enemies killed in close combat.

Heads taken in this way were treated with great reverence and special care. They were usually stored in a special place and were used for special rituals in which they were the focal point and regarded as integral to maintaining harmony.

Monsopiad, the Legendary Headhunter

The famous warrior Monispiad is said to have taken 42 heads about 300 years ago. According to ThingsAsian.com: “Legend told that many centuries ago, a lady named Kizabon was pregnant. She lived in a house with her husband, Dunggou. On the roof of their house, a sacred Bugang bird made its nest and stayed there throughout Kizabon's pregnancy.When the child was due to be born, the Bugang birds hatched as well. The father of the child took the sign as a good omen and that this was a sign that his newborn son would have special powers. He named his son, Monsopiad. The father paid special care to the birds as well, and whenever his son took a bath, Dunggou would take the young birds down from their nest to have a bath with his son. When done, he later returned them to the safety of their nest. This was done diligently until the birds were strong enough to leave the nest. [Source: thingsasian.com ]

“The young boy grew up in the village Kuai (which is the grounds of the Village). His maternal grandfather was the headman of the village. However, their village was often plundered and attacked by robbers and due to the lack of warriors in the village, the villagers had to retreat and hide while the robbers ransacked their homes. But for Monsopiad, things were different. He was given special training and he turned out to be an excellent fighter and grew up to become a warrior. Well-equipped, he vowed to hunt down and fight off the warriors that had terrorized his village for so long. He will bring back their heads as trophies, he claimed, and hang them from the roof of his house!

“All he wanted in return was a warrior's welcome, where his success will be heralded by the blowing of bamboo trumpet. In order to prove that he really did as promised, three boys went with him as witnesses. Just as he had promised, Monsopiad's journey to rid his village of the robbers was a huge success and upon coming home, he was given a hero's welcome. He was so honored by the welcome that he proclaimed he will destroy all enemies to his village. Over the years, Monsopiad soon attained a reputation and there were no robbers or evil warriors who dared to challenge him. However, the urge to kill had gotten into Monsopiad's head and he simply could not stop himself from beheading more people. Very soon, he started provoking other men into fighting him so that he would have an excuse to kill and behead them.

“With his changed attitude, all the villagers and his friends became afraid of him. Left with no choice, the village got a group of brave warriors together and they plan to eliminate Monsopiad. Much as they respected Monospiad for his heroic deeds, yet they had no choice for he had slowly turned into a threat. One night as planned, the warriors moved in for the kill as Monsopiad was resting in his house. As they attacked him, he fought back fiercely but realized that he had lost his special powers that were bestowed upon him by the Bugang bird. By abusing his gift, he was left powerless and it was that very night that Monsopiad's life ended. Despite his downfall, the villagers still loved Monsopiad for all that he had done for them. All in all, he collected 42 heads and a great feat that was! In honor and memory of a once great warrior, a monument was erected and the village was renamed after him.”

Dusun Activism

In 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Adrian Lasimbang, 33, belongs to the Kadazan tribe of Sabah State, Malaysia, located in the north of Borneo Island. In 2010 he joined the COP10 conference as a representative of the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia. In Sabah, vast swaths of tropical forests have been destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations. Oil palms are used to make detergents and biofuel. The number of oil palm plantations in Sabah has increased sixfold in the past 20 years. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 20, 2010]

On Borneo, any number of plans to construct aluminum factories have been launched since Asia's biggest hydroelectric dam was constructed on the island. Producing aluminum requires huge amounts of energy. But the aluminum produced by such factories and the detergents made from oil palms are consumed by people in developed countries, Lasimbang said. He wants advanced countries to realize the extent to which nature in developing nations is damaged as a result of their consumerism, and reconsider their practices.

Kayan, Kenya and Kajang

The Kayan. Kenyah and Kajang refers to a complex group that has traditionally lived on rivers in Sarawak. Also known as the Kenya and Bahau, they have traditionally lived in longhouses and used to be headhunters. The Kenyah and Kayan are the main groups. The Kajang is comprised of a number of small groups.

The Kenyah live in the drainage area of the Aop Kayan river. The Kayan live on mid sections of the major central Borneo rivers: the Kayan, Mahakam, Kapaus, Rajang and Baram. The Kajan live on the mid portions of the Rajang River.

Rice, corn, yams, pumpkins, cucumbers and tobacco are the primary crops. The Kayan are skilled metal workers, canoe builders and wood carvers. Their knives and swords are sought after by other groups. The Kenya grow rice in fields controlled by women and fish with poison and hunt with blowguns. Chickens are raised for sacrifice.

Kayan, Kenya and Kajang Life

The Kayan are famous for their longhouses which can reach 300 meters in length and house 500 people. They are usually well built with ironwood planks. Unmarried older boys and male slaves have traditionally slept on the veranda while unmarried girls, women and female slaves slept with their families. The Kayan also have reputation for fierceness. They were formidable headhunters in the past and enslaved many Murut.

Kenya storehouses are distinguished by the curly-cue carvings and paintings on the roof and the walls. Their territory in the rain forest is marked by grave markers that double as border demarcations. ♢

Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang societies are highly stratified. Aristocrats have a lot of power and wealth has traditionally been measured in gongs, beads, mats and caves where edible bird’s nests are gathered. Commoners are mostly farmers and craftsmen. Slaves are the descendants of prisoners of war. Each longhouse has a headman. In the old days the social calendar revolved around the head feats, which required a new head. This feasts are now rare for obvious reasons.

Marriages generally take place within one’s class and longhouse community, Grooms often did a bride service in lieu of a bride price. Marriages between first cousins are forbidden except among the aristocracy who can marry anyone they like. If the spouse is from a lower rank their children of an intermediate class.

Datun Julud: The Hornbill Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak's Kenyah women. Created by a Kenyah prince called Nyik Selong to symbolise happiness and gratitude, it was once performed during communal celebrations that greeted warriors returning from headhunting raids or during the annual celebrations that marked the end of each rice harvest season. Performed by a solo woman dancer to the sounds of the sape, beautiful fans made out of hornbill feathers are used to represent the wings of the sacred bird.


Some 130,000 or 6 percent of the population of Sarawak are Melanau, believed to be among the original people to settle in Sarawak. Their language has different origins to the other ethnic groups of the state and today they are found mainly along the rivers and coastal plains of central Sarawak. Originally animists most have converted to Islam although some of the inland communities are Christian.

The Melanau live in Sarawak, mainly around northwest parts of Borneo and up the lower Rajang River. Also known as the A-Loko, Kelemantan, Malanow, Melano, Melanu and Milano, they are closely related to the Kajan who traditionally resided further inland while the Melanau resided close to the coast. They number around 100,000 with three forths of them being Muslims, 15 percent Christians and a small number of animists.

The Melanau traditionally lived in villages with about 1,000 people, divided in two or three longhouses with about 300 people each and a few single-family houses, and subsisted of sago palms which grow well in the swampy lowlands where they reside. Some of their longhouses were built on piles as high as 10 meters off the ground. This made the longhouses safe from high water and easier to defend. Sago was a cash crop as well as a stable food crop. Fishing and collecting forest products have also been important economic activities. They traded extensively with inland Kajang tribes.

The Melanau are divided into aristocrats, commoners and slaves. Marriages have traditionally been done with a second cousin of similar rank and the payment of a pride price by the groom’s family. Villages have traditionally been ruled by a council of elders . Social control is exerted from “adat”.

Muruts and Kelabit

The third largest ethnic group in Sabah the Muruts make up about 3 percent of the state's population. Traditionally inhabiting the northern inland regions of Borneo, they were the last of Sabah's ethnic groups to renounce headhunting. Now, they are mostly shifting cultivators of hill paddy and tapioca, supplementing their diet with blowpipe hunting and fishing. Like most indigenous tribes in Sabah, their traditional clothing is decorated with distinctive beadwork.

The Muruts live in central Borneo in Sabah and Sarawak. There are two main groups: the Sabah Murut, with maybe 50,000 members; and the Sarawak Murat, with around 2,000 members. Sabah Murut are also known as the Idahan, Tagal, Taggal, Tagol, Tagul. The Sarawak Murut are also known as the Kelabit, Kemaloah Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Lun Daya, Lun Daye, Southern Murat. Marut means “hill people.”

The Sabah Maruts used to live in large longhouses set up along a confluence of a river but now live is smaller longhouses set up on tributaries. The Sarawak Muruts traditionally lived longhouses up to 75 meters long set up on alluvial plains. The Muruts are regarded as a fun loving tribe who have a lansaran, or trampoline in all of their villages. When they get drunk on tapai, a rice wine, Murat warriors sing and dance and jump all night on their trampolines. Apparently the Murats don't need much of an excuse to do this either.

The Kelabit (Sarawak Muruts) live in villages at an elevation of 1,000 meters without phones or reliable sources of electricity. They traditionally have survived by planting rice and papayas, hunting wild boar, fishing and weaving baskets. They have generators for electricity but they are expensive to run because fuel has to be flown in. For that matter anything that the Kelabit can not produce themselves is expensive for the same reason.

In the early 2000s, as part of an experiment, the Kelabit were give computers and taught how to send e-mail and use the Internet. The computers were powered by diesel- and solar-powered generators and connected to the Internet with satellite dishes. The tribe members used the Internet to communicate with family members that have moved to the cities and live abroad, find markets for its fragrance rice and attracted tourists for jungle treks.

Murut Society

The Murats still use blowguns for hunting. They used to hunt heads. The Murats have traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and grown rice, corn, bananas, tobacco and citrus fruit. Fishing is done with traps and poison. Dog are used in hunting and pigs are raised for sacrifices.

Marriages have traditionally taken place after the payment of a bride price. A bridal feast was paid by the groom’s family. Rules on these matters are not a strict as they once were. There are strict taboos on sex between first cousins. In the past people who violated this taboo were speared to death. These days they pay a hefty fine.

The Muruts have traditionally had no political organization above the village level. In the old days there were three classes of slaves, with prisoners of war being the lowest of the low. Aristocrat as well as commoners engaged in headhunting.

The Murats don't bury their dead. They put them in houses covered with brightly colored flags which are scattered throughout the jungle. Each house comes complete with tools, utensils and perhaps a blowpipe which, you never know, might come in handy in the afterlife.

Murut Headhunting

Flyingdusun.com reported: The Murut, though having a reputation as fierce headhunters, are being considered less ‘noble’ by the Kadazan. Every young Murut man would need a head to prove his manhood and in order to get married. This is in stark contrast to the Kadazan who trained warriors to defend their territories and who collected the heads of their enemies as proof of victory. Mostly, that is! A head was still prestigious and might win you that sweetheart you covet. [Source: flyingdusun.com ]

Young Murut men would go on headhunting raids, and any head would do – an old lady collecting vegetables from the jungle, or an unsupervised child near a rice field would do just as nicely as the head of a young warrior. I fear that it was probably easier for many young men to ‘hunt down’ an old lady – and thus not risk their own lives – than to face another headhunter, hence the perception of other tribes in Sabah that the Murut were maybe fierce headhunters, but at heart cowards nevertheless.


Modang is a generic term used to describe a culturally related group of Dayaks that live around the Mahakam River and its tributaries in Kalimantan. There are five Modang groups— Long Belah (Medeang), Long Glit (Long Gelat), Long Way, (Medang), Menggae (Segal), Wehea (Wahau)—and together they number no more than 5,000.

From 1810 to 1840, the Modang ruled over a large swath of Borneo. The challenged the Malay sultanate for control of the area and practiced headhunting on a large scale and continued do so until the 1920s. Today they are regarded as more conservative and resistant to change than other Dayak groups. They retain many of the old taboos and some villages still have men’s houses and chief’s houses. Their chiefs also have more power and carry greater respect than other Dayak groups/

The Modang are primarily subsistence farmers and rice is their main crop.. They also fish, gather forest products and hunt with dogs and spears. In the dry season men migrate to find jobs or pan for gold.

Modang Society

Each Modang village is regarded as a separate, independent political unit and is headed by a chief who makes decision in conjunction with a council of elders and aristocrats in a great house. In the men’s house is a dormitory for unmarried young men and meeting areas for aristocrats.

There are five hereditary ranks: 1) chiefs; 2) aristocrats; 3) commoners; and 4) and 5) two classes of slaves, which in the old days were enemies who were captured rather than beheaded. Some of these groups are viewed in terms of two categories: 1) those who speak; and 2) the populace.

The Modang universe is divided into an upperworld, divided into seven layers, and a lower world, regarded as the dwelling place of deities. The supreme deities are a pair of goddesses named Doh Ton Tenye and Dea Long Meleum. In addition to them there is a host of other deities, spirits and ghosts. The Modang believe in two souls: one for the living and one for the dead. The souls of people who died a violent death, it is believed, go up to antoher place and they are buried separately.

The Modang calender is full of ritual and ceremonies. Life events such as births, namings, marriages and funerals are also marked, residing over these are ritual specialists who also act as spirit mediums. For head hunting rituals pieces of old skull are used. Taboos are given great importance. Broken taboos or the mockery of animals are punished by supernatural sanctions from the thunder gods.

Modang Life

Modang villages have 200 to 600 residents and are usually set up on high river banks near the confluence of rivers with longhouses with three to six apartments or individual dwelling linked by plankways and oriented so the ridge beam follows the flow pattern of the river. Their houses have an ironwood frame with two levels: a low platform and living quarters connected by a notched log. A taboo forbids non-relatives from occupying longhouses occupied by relatives.

Marriage entails the payment of a bride price—usually in the form of cash and heirlooms like china, fine cloth, gongs, old beads, swords and jars—set to terms of the parties involved. Sometimes chiefs practice polygamy. There are prohibitions on marrying first or second cousins and uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.

The Modang are regarded as skilled craftsmen. They produce elaborate carved wood houses, pots, doors, boards and staircases filled with spirit, animal and ornamental designs. They also have masked dances and epics.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.