The Last Basap Cave Dwellers in the Mangkalikat Karst Mountains, East Kalimantan-A Brief Report. (Brief Communications)

By Zahorka, Herwig | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Last Basap Cave Dwellers in the Mangkalikat Karst Mountains, East Kalimantan-A Brief Report. (Brief Communications)


Zahorka, Herwig, Borneo Research Bulletin


Introductory remarks

For three months in 1976 and, again, for another three months in 1978, I was assigned as a consultant on forest ecology to the Governor of Kalirnantan Timur, Abdul Wahab Syahrany. During these six months, I had the opportunity to travel extensively across the regencies of Bulungan, Kutai, and Berau by seaplane, helicopter, speedboat, and on foot. My mission was to promote and support the use of technical and operational methods of "less impact logging" and promote "Indonesian selective cutting" to the logging companies, which, at the time, were operating along the lower rivers. I spent much time in the areas where Basap, Punan, and Berusu tribes were living. I published reports on my experiences there, particularly with the Basap and Punan people, ten years later (Zahorka 1986a,b).

In 1976, when I was visiting a Japanese logging company operating on the southeastern tip of the Mangkalihat Peninsula, I was guided to a cave which was said to be inhabited by Basap cave dwellers. It was situated not far from a logging road in limestone mountains ("karst," formations of porous limestone originating from fossil coral reefs), high above Teluk Sumbang Bay, latitude roughly 1[degrees] N. When we arrived at the cave, however, not a living soul was there. It seemed that the dwellers had hurriedly left, probably in fear of the approach of my not-so-small entourage of logging company employees, forest experts, and military bodyguards. Somebody warned me not to enter the cave because it was infested with fleas. So, standing at the entrance, I looked in and could see a large temp at tidur (sleeping platform) in the cave, rags, and one or more tempayan (large antique ceramic jars).

Eighteen years later, in 1994, I happened to be there again, this time in the company of several friendly native cave dwellers-and obviously welcomed by the old fleas.

The location of Basap settlements in 1976/78 and the environment

Basap, or Bassap, is an exonym. When asked for their tribal affiliation, they professed to be Basap. I found the Basap, of whom two-thirds were settled, and one-third semi-settled, lived throughout the area east of a curved line stretching from Samarinda to Tanjung Redep, but excluding these two cities (see map). Those who were semi-settled lived in solitary huts raised on stilts, which they abandoned after several years of use, while those who were settled lived in villages, in small wooden houses, and had begun shifting cultivation. Only a few coastal settlements, accessible solely by sea, were inhabited by Malays or Bugis, and some offshore islands by Bajau. Bontang at the time consisted of a short row of fishermen's huts and was accessible only by sea.

The Kutai National Park at that time was totally undisturbed, with orangutans, crocodiles and leeches in abundance, and a few semi-settled Basap (Zahorka 1986c). A landing strip existed in Batu Butih, constructed by the former Philippine logging company, P.T. Gonpu Indonesia. Small areas of lowland primary forest had already been selectively logged over. But there were not yet any commercial clearings, let alone the transmigration settlements which dominate the lowland today.

There were a few small Basap villages like Domaring, Batu Lopok, Kampong Baru and others, but I think that the majority of Basap were still living in temporary, small, solitary houses on high stilts, with walls and roofs thatched with nipa palm leaves. These houses were built in the forest on small plots cleared of vegetation and planted with manioc (Manihot esculenta), taro (Colocasia esculenta), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), and banana trees. They grew no rice at the time. All the men were keen hunters. Their domestic animals were limited to chickens, cats, and dogs, the latter used for hunting. The people were of short stature and looked a little frail, being accustomed to a protein-poor tuber diet. Most women were practicing a sort of family planning, using panjarang, a medicinal plant (Zahorka 1986a: 51), stating, "we can't afford (to feed) more than two children. …

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