Penan Naikas Bushmen

The Penan

Nomadic hunter-gatherers living in remote upriver areas of the Borneo jungle.

Join me in my search for the last true jungle nomads of SE Asia.

Jungle training with the Iban of Brunei...

A 4x4 journey to find the last remaining Penan in Brunei...

A journey deep into the jungles of Limbang province, Sarawak, to stay with the nomadic Penan...

And searching for any remaining nomadic Penan in the Tutoh watershed, Baram province, Sarawak...


Most of the Penan now live a settled existence in longhouses built either by the government or the logging companies.

They are still allowed to hunt and gather from the forest, but their settled lifestyle means that resources are becoming scarce around their settlements.

Almost all of the jungle outside the national parks has now been selectively logged. So-called 'selective' logging actually means that every single large tree has been felled for timber. The resulting secondary forest has much less wildlife and is more difficult to hunt in due to reduced visibility. The Penan find it very difficult to sustain themselves in secondary forest and must turn to agriculture and wage-labour to get enough food.

Logging roads now penetrate even the remotest areas of jungle, so contact with the outside world is now unavoidable for the Penan. Most now wear modern clothes and carry wristwatches, flashlights and cigarette lighters. Only on the older people will you still see the traditional chawat (loincloth) and the long, extended earlobes. Chawats are now made from market-bought cloth rather than pounded tree-bark.

In many areas the forest has been clear-felled for palm-oil plantations and a huge hydro-electic dam project. In such areas the Penan can no longer live off the land at all and have no choice but to work on the plantations for subsistence wages.

However, there are a handful of Penan who still manage to maintain an authentic nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, despite pressure from government, missionaries and aid workers for them to settle down. An admirable stubborness and a relatively tollerant government is all that currently keeps this ancient way of life alive.

Most Penan have now been converted to Christianity and so no longer make offerings to spirits or read omens, but their vast and ancient knowledge about the jungle and it's healing and harmful plants still survives.

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Copyright 2008 Robert H Taylor