David Hiser on the Nomadic Penan Hunter-Gatherers of Borneo

 © David Hiser

By David Hiser

In my 20 years as a National Geographic freelancer I’d often been on the unwelcome side of various weapons but this was my first experience with a poison-dart-shooting blowpipe.The Penan hunter in this scene, Asik Nyelit, is using the traditional hunting tool of the Penan which shoots a dart coated with an extremely poisonous latex collected from a tree in the surrounding forest. They told me that a monkey or boar {or a man) shot with a dart would die within five minutes.

In 1993 I was a guest of the nomadic Penan of the Ubong River in  Borneo, Malaysia. I was on an assignment for Wade Davis’ Endangered Peoples Project to document the threatened  existence of one of the last cultures of truly nomadic hunter-gatherers. They are distinct from other surviving hunter-gatherer groups which live in fixed locations and practice some agriculture.

The Penan prepared food in their treehouse-like dwellings, open sided huts erected on four stout poles with a floor about five feet above the ground. A hearth is made by piling red clay on the log floor over which an iron pot, one their few tools from the "outside", is suspended. Wild meat and fish are a relatively small part of their diet which relies mainly of gathered plants, fruits, and sago, a flour they refine from the pith of the sago palm.  A picture in the no strangers exhibit shows a family displaying  an assortment of these foods in their hut.

Besides a few cooking pots and machetes these Penan possessed little from the modern world. Almost everything they needed came from the surrounding forest .They kept few possessions as they moved their camps frequently to let the forest regenerate the resources they lived on and they carried everything themselves They had no beasts of burden so, every few weeks, they would pack everything in woven rattan packs and baskets and take to the trail.

The Penan culture is based on sharing and as their guest I was given my own hut to sleep in and was expected to join in their meals. I had brought rice to share with them but but it was quite an adventure when I was presented with a platter of steamed rice and monkey parts.

Living below a tall, continuous forest canopy, near the equator, the Penan do not often see the stars or experience the passing of seasons. Time there is not measured but flows as a continuous stream No one knows how old they are and specific times in the past are remembered only by unique events such as when an accident occurred or a child was born.

Photography in the soft diffused light of the forest understory went easily as the light was always agreeable and there was none of the usual waiting for “the magic hour” at sunrise and sunset that often drives the schedule of outdoor  photography.  I occasionally used a small electronic flash to augment the light from the hearths in the huts.  The people, having no mirrors or expressed interest in their own appearance, let me shoot freely with little interest in the results of my work.

The Penan have lived well in the primary rainforest for thousands of years but in recent decades their homeland has been disappearing as Borneo endures the world’s highest rate of industrial deforestation. They live under a government which has denied them basic human rights, licensed their land to corrupt logging concessions and considers them a national embarrassment. “We don’t want them running around like animals” said a state minister. 

The Penan group I photographed were in the  protected Gunung Mulu National Park but  distant sounds of logging operations were growing louder. Asik, the man with the blowpipe, had participated in road closures and demonstrations organized by the Penan in their attempts to keep the logging  companies from pushing further into their ancestral  homelands.

I visited the Penan with Ian MacKenzie, a linguist who is compiling a dictionary of the Penan language and is transcribing a history of the culture so that their future generations will better understand the life of their ancestors. He continues to work with these same Penan, who by now, because of pressure from the government and loss of habitat, have moved to fixed communities. Although they still take some sustenance from the forest they live in rough plank-sided longhouses and tend nearby rice fields. Most now wear the shorts and teeshirts so commonly worn by the dispossessed of the tropical world. 

Ian told me recently that when he and I were there in 1993, we were the last to document a vanishing way of life, much like Edward Curtis did with the original inhabitants of the American West. For myself, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel back in time to see how man once lived in balance with the natural world.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about David Hiser here.

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