Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

PUNAN "GITA," PENAN BENALUI, PUNAN APUT: FROM HUNTER-GATHERERS TO AVERAGE CITIZENS: Early and Later Experiences of the Author in East Kalimantan

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

PUNAN "GITA," PENAN BENALUI, PUNAN APUT: FROM HUNTER-GATHERERS TO AVERAGE CITIZENS: Early and Later Experiences of the Author in East Kalimantan

Article excerpt


In this paper I briefly describe daily life in three Punan groups in East Kalimantan. The three groups differed significantly from one another in socio-cultural terms when I first visited them and these difference have persisted. Their development at the time, from the late 1970s through the 1990s, appeared to have depended on the extent and duration of their past trading contacts with sedentary swidden agriculturists.

The first group was found living near the small Gita River in the mountains that were then covered in primary forest lying between the Sesayap River to the north and the Kayan River to the south. Because of their location, I call this group the "Punan Gita." They were still nomadic hunter-gatherers in 1978 and had only very rare contacts with longhouse people on the Sekatak River to the east. One of the few signs of this contact was an iron cooking pot they had obtained from Sekatak.

The second group are the Penan Benalui, who were settled when I first visited them in 1999 at Long Belaka on the Lurah River, a right-hand tributary to the Bahau. In recent decades this community has been well researched culturally and linguistically (Puri 1997, 2005, Koizumi 2005, 2007, Soriente 2012, 2013). They have been in close contact with the Kenyah Badeng for many decades and have adopted much of the latter's culture and agricultural technology.

The third group, which I first visited in 1994, are the Punan Aput who then occupied the twin villages of Long Sule and Long Pipa on the upper reaches of the Kayanyut River, a right-hand tributary to the Kayan. According to the Kepala Adat of Long Sule, Pahila Pakila, they have lived in the neighborhood of their patrons, the Kenyah Ma'ut (a synonymous term for the Kenyah Badeng) for 200 years and have always followed the latter whenever and wherever they have moved. They fully adopted their patrons' material culture 80 years ago and today better preserve it than their patrons. They enjoy many benefits provided through their US-based GKII mission church, the Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia, including single-band radio phone communication and flight connections via the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) with other landing strips and airports in Kalimantan, especially Tarakan. The Long Pipa air strip is shown in Photos 45 and 46. Owing to these benefits and through their industrious trade, the Punan Aput have achieved considerable prosperity and enjoy a standard of living better than that of most rural Indonesians.

The different levels of development between these groups suggest that hunter-gatherers are generally willing to adopt the benefits of a sedentary way of life when they have the opportunity to do so. There is no evidence of the reverse process having occurred, that is, of any hunting-gathering group having, as some Borneo scholars have argued, "devolved" from people who were formerly sedentary agriculturalists. Here, in this essay, I include some short word lists to show that the languages spoken by these Punan groups differ from one another, including a brief word list of Kutai Punan, which appears to be particularly divergent from the others. I also briefly touch on some sexual practices of these groups and in an appendix indicate why there are no traditional longhouse cultures in northeastern Kalimantan.

Finally, during the last forty years the rainforests in East Kalimantan has been increasingclearedfortimberexploitation, plantations, mining, government transmigration settlements, and industrial and infrastructural developments. As a consequence, those who were still hunter-gatherers when I first visited the region have been deprived of the possibility of carrying on their former way of life and their unique culture is now rapidly disappearing.

Preliminary remarks

In 1976 and 1978, for three months each time, I was a private consultant on a project studying the impact of logging to the then Governor of East Kalimantan, Abdul Wahab Syahranie (Photo 1). …

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