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Reprinted from Studies in Borneo Societies: Social Process and Anthropological Explanation, G. N. Appell, Editor. Special Report Number 12 DeKalb: Center for Southeast Asian Studies Northern Illinois University. Pp. 1-6, 1976.

G. N. Appell

Borneo is the third largest island in the world; only New Guinea and Greenland are larger. The island is divided politically into four parts. Kalimantan, the Indonesian section, occupies approximately two-thirds of the area. In the northwest region are the states of Sabah and Sarawak, originally founded by British interests and now part of Malaysia. Finally, there is the Sultanate of Brunei, a British Protectorate, that lies between Sabah and Sarawak. ...

Ethnographically Borneo is an unusually rich and varied region that offers unique opportunities to test theories of social process. Borneo societies vary widely in their level of sociocultural integration. One might rank these various types of societies along a continuum on the basis of social and technological complexity. However, no pejorative valuation is implied by this as to which society solves better the universal human concerns for physical security, food, and sex; physiological and psychological health; personal freedom and responsibility; the expression and receipt of agape or altruism; the rearing of children; the management of aggression; and the inspiration of human creativity. Such a continuum of Borneo societies would include the following five types.

First, and at the least complex level, are the nomadic hunting and gathering groups that can still be found in the interior forests. These groups, found primarily but not exclusively in Kalimantan and Sarawak, are collectively referred to as Punan. However, this should not be construed as indicating that these groups are more closely related to each other ethnically or linguistically than to their more settled neighbors. On the contrary, there is evidence that many Punan groups have distinct and separate sociocultural roots. Furthermore, King (1974) reports that in West Kalimantan there exist other hunters and gatherers, or former hunters and gatherers, called Peninhing, Bukat and Bukitan (Ketan), in addition to those referred to as Punan.

These hunting and gathering groups of the interior Bornean forest are rapidly disappearing under the impact of modernization. Bornean governments for reasons best known to themselves are trying to settle these nomadic groups into permanent villages. These groups are also being displaced by various international corporations in the wood products industry that are cutting the forests of their traditional territories. Unfortunately, social anthropologists generally have neglected the study of these peoples. Only in Sarawak has the culture of such hunters and gatherers been studied, originally by Rodney Needham (1972) and now by Johannes Nicolaisen, of the University of Copenhagen.

This first level also includes various groups of sea nomads living in boats along the coasts where they engage in littoral and maritime fishing and gathering. There has been only one study of these groups of sea nomads, that by Clifford A. Sather. However, H. Arlo Nimmo has investigated a related population in the southern Philippines. As a result of this neglect, as with the Punan, the distribution and cultural affinities of these various groups of sea nomads are uncertain.

Some populations of these sea nomads have come ashore and taken up livestock raising and/or agriculture. But there has been no full-scale study of the processes involved and the structural entailments of this change in cultural ecology.

At the second level of complexity are a variety of societies based on swidden agriculture (primarily rice) that are found widely distributed throughout the interior. Some of these have egalitarian social systems such as the Iban (see Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr.), the Rungus, and the Berawan (see Peter Metcalf). Others have highly developed systems of social stratification involving at least three classes such as the Kenyah and Kayan. These latter groups represent a more advanced level of sociocultural complexity.

Research in these societies has been carried out in Sarawak among the Iban (originally by J. D. Freeman), the Bidayuh Land Dayak (W. R. Geddes), the Selako Dayak (William M. Schneider), the Kayan (Jérôme Rousseau), the Berawan (Peter Metcalf), the Punan Bah (Ida Nicolaisen), and the Kenyah (Herbert L. and Patricia R. Whittier). The Kenyah, like many ethnic groups in Sarawak, extend into Kalimantan, where they have also been studied by the Whittiers. Other swidden groups that have been studied in Kalimantan include the Ma'anyan Dayak (Alfred B. and Judith Hudson), the Ot Danum (J. B. Avé), the Maloh Dayak (Victor T. King), and the Ngaju (most recently by Douglas Miles). In Sabah, Rungus society has been studied by G. N. Appell.

Although this second level of sociocultural integration has received the most attention from anthropologists, there remain a large number of ethnic groups yet to be ethnographically described. In addition, the problem of the nature and function of a well-developed system of social stratification in swidden societies still has to be resolved. When it is, we might find that highly stratified swidden societies should be classed at a higher level of sociocultural integration than the egalitarian ones, perhaps equivalent to or even higher than some of the irrigation societies which have been tentatively classed at the next level.

At the third level of complexity are those societies whose cultural ecology is based on wet-rice agriculture such as the Kadayan, Kelabit, and many Dusunic-speaking groups in Sabah. This is a tentative conclusion based largely on the fact that these irrigation societies have a more advanced cultural ecology than the stratified swidden societies. Whether or not many of them are more complex socioculturally is open to question. For the degree of sociocultural elaboration of the irrigation societies is not clear, particularly those elaborations that one might expect to arise in response to the technology of irrigation. For example the Kelabit, wet-rice cultivators of the interior highlands of Sarawak, appear to have a highly stratified society, but many of the other wet-rice societies, such as those in Sabah, do not.

This level might also be expanded to include those societies representing a transitional state between swidden and wet-rice agriculture or between a swidden and a cash-crop economy. Research in this type of society has been carried out among Kadayan by Allen R. Maxwell in Brunei, the Bisaya by Roger D. Peranio in Sarawak, the Lun Bawang by James L. Deegan in Sarawak, the Melanau of Sarawak by H. S. Morris, the Lun Dayeh by Jay B. Crain in Sabah, and the Ranau Dusun of Sabah by Robert Harrison.

At a higher or fourth level of indigenous sociocultural complexity are the Islamic sultanates that arose primarily along the coast to control trade with the interior such as Brunei (see D. L. Brown). An extremely interesting variation in the cultural ecology of the Islamic sultanates occurs among the Muslim populations that occupy the lakes region of the great Kapuas River system in West Kalimantan. These groups have not yet been studied.

Finally, at perhaps the most complex or fifth level, are the various plural societies that arose as a result of the onset of colonialism. Although H. S. Morris (1967a) has delineated some of the issues in the study of plural societies, little research has been done on these with the exception of research on the Chinese of Sarawak by Richard C. Fidler and T'ien Ju-K'ang; on the Chinese of Sabah by David Fortier; and on the Malay of Sarawak by Tom Harrisson and Zainil Kling.

In addition to Borneo's cultural complexity, the next unique feature of the anthropology of the island is its relative neglect in comparison to other regions of the world. Little anthropological research has been undertaken in Borneo, particularly in Sabah and Kalimantan (Appell 1969a, 1974b, and 1976a). As a result, not only are we now just beginning to understand the complexity of the various questions posed by Bornean social processes, we are also just beginning to fill in the ethnographic map. The crucial question is whether the necessary research to deal with these problems will be undertaken before the landslide of change erases the distinctive features of the cultural map. At this point the answer appears to be negative (Appell 1976a).
The third feature of the anthropology of Borneo is that all societies to the best of our present knowledge are cognatic. I discuss the impact that this feature has had on research and the development of social anthropological research in the next chapter where the status of social science research in Sarawak is summarized.

The final feature of Borneo that merits attention is the fact that anthropological research plays such a fundamental part in the development of research and understanding in all the social sciences (Appell 1974b). Political scientists, economists, folklorists, and historians turn to the anthropologist to sort out the ethnic complexities of the region and to identify the cultural contours and processes so that they can adequately interpret their own data. Nevertheless, while anthropological research may in one sense be more fundamental, only by a continuing interchange of ideas and research results from all social science disciplines can progress in each be sound. This is well exemplified by the chapters of this Special Report.

Contributions to this Volume

In the first chapter I discuss the status of social science research in Sarawak and the interdependence of the various disciplines in this endeavor. Sarawak is unique in terms of its explicit support of social science research, particularly anthropological research, and in the significance of the results produced. In this respect Sarawak suggests a paradigm for the other political units in Borneo.

I. D. Black, a historian of the British North Borneo Chartered Company's rule, analyzes in the next chapter the structure of the Company's administration and its impact on the indigenous societies. The research of Black illustrates nicely the importance of sound historical interpretation for the development of the anthropological knowledge of the region. He shows how the Company contributed to the rapid disintegration of indigenous societies, even before they were subjected to any direct contact with Europeans, because of the lack of proper administrative controls.

In this and other publications Black (1968, 1969, and 1971) draws attention to the consequences of the misuse of indirect rule. He has detailed the employment of Iban in the Company's police force and shown how they misused their government position to continue their headhunting and political expansion.

This discovery helped explain to me what appear at first in my research to be anomalous behavior among the Rungus. At one point it was found that the Rungus were remaining close to their settlements because there was a wide-spread rumor that the government had hired headhunters to attack them. Originally this rumor was dismissed merely as a projection of their own repressed aggressive drives until I read Black's work. It was then realized that there was a kernel of truth behind their behavior, albeit a half-century out-of-date.

D. E. Brown, in the next chapter, summarizes his research on the Brunei Sultanate. Showing the close relationship between history, historiography, and social anthropological inquiry, he has produced extremely significant findings on the nature of social processes. His data are relevant not only for the analyses of highly stratified societies but also for the analysis and understanding of all social systems.

First, using historical materials Brown concludes (1973a) that the persistence of an element in a social system will vary with respect to the "fundamentalness" of its status in that system. "Fundamentalness" is defined in terms of the degree to which a status includes other, more particular statuses. In other work summarized in his chapter Brown (1973b) distinguishes between the concepts of "office" and "commission". He concludes that in governmental hierarchies spanning ethnic boundaries, the positions occupied by and associated with the affairs of subordinate groups are more likely to be commissions than offices. He also tests and confirms a hypothesis that a sound sense of history is unlikely to develop in a society with an entrenched system of hereditary ranking (n.d.). Brown finally develops an extremely interesting hypothesis as to the function of closed systems of stratification in generating ethnic differentiation (also cf. 1973c).
The next contributor to this monograph, Jay B. Crain on the Lun Dayeh, deals with representatives of a linguistic and cultural grouping that is as yet ill-defined. The problem arises because the term "Murut", an exonym (Appell 1968a),1 has been applied to two distinctively different groups of peoples. The Lun Dayeh belong to the more southerly grouping, tentatively termed "Southern Murut" (Appell 1968b) until its ethnic and linguistic contours are more satisfactorily delineated.

To the north of these peoples, there exists another grouping who has also been referred to as Murut and whose concentrations are more in Sabah. These peoples are linguistically more closely related to the Dusunic speakers of Sabah. They have now been distinguished by the term "Idahan Murut" (Appell 1968a). The Southern Murut, in contrast, seem to have originated in Kalimantan near the region where Sabah, Sarawak, and Kalimantan meet. Within the last century and a half, or longer, they have been moving northwestward from the interior ot Kalimantan towards the coasts of Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei.

Crain's analysis of Lun Dayeh social organization presents the calendar of their cultural ecology which is based on a system of mixed agriculture involving both wet rice and dry rice as well as cash crops. He shows how this is symbolized in the ngerufan feast and in the metaphorical meanings of rice throughout the agricultural cycle.

For several years Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr. has studied Iban society, particularly its urban manifestations. His chapter presents an analyses of the role of the shaman and illustrates how it provides an alternative role for Iban who do not find the more normal male role congenial to their personalities.

Peter Metcalf has studied the Berawan, an important interior group
of swidden cultivators in Sarawak. He describes the nature of secondary burial among these people. He also analyzes their belief system and rituals supporting this treatment of the dead. He compares this approach with the interpretation advanced by Robert Hertz many years ago and reaches an unexpected conclusion.

Finally, Robert McKinley's chapter is an unusually stimulating exploration in symbolic anthropology. In analyzing the rituals of headhunting in Borneo and neighboring regions, he arrives at some startling conclusions on the ritual symbolization of the human head. Through headhunting and the incorporating ritual, he argues, the enemy is now made a friend. He asks why the head functions as this sort of symbol in contrast to other parts of the body. He concludes that it is the face which is the symbol for social "personhood" and through the face one is drawn into social relationships. He concludes that headhunting is one institutionalized method of dealing with the existential human concerns over in-group death, misfortune, and confrontation with threatening, strange cultural systems which, nevertheless, are carried by other humans who keep asserting their common humanity with one's own group.


1 I have introduced the term "exonym" to contrast with "autonym": "Terms used for ethnic identification that are derived from the folk classification of peoples foreign to those being identified might, for convenience, be referred to as 'exonyms"'(Appell 1968A:2). This terminology was adopted by LeBar (1972).


Appell, G. N.
1969a Social Anthropological Research in Borneo. Anthropologia (Ottawa) 11:45-57.

1978d The Status of Social-Anthropological Research in Borneo. In The Status of Social Science Research in Borneo edited by G. N. Appell and Leigh Wright. Southeast Asia Program Data Paper 109. Ithaca: Cornell University.
King, Victor T.
1974 Notes on Punan and Buka in West Kalimantan. Borneo Research Bulletin 6:39-42.

Morris, H. S.
1967a Some spects of the concept plural society. Man 2:169-78.

Needham, Rodney
1972 Penan. In Frank M. LeBar (editor and compiler), Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Volume I: Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.