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Letter From Borneo

The Landscape of Memory

Archaeology, oral history, and culture deep in the Malaysian jungle

March/April 2014

Borneo Kelabit Henry Lagang


Each day, Henry Lagang heads into the forest to hunt and forage with a machete slung over one shoulder, a gun over the other, and dogs at his heels. His mother grows rice, and so do his neighbors. For generations, people have lived and worked like this to claim the land—and survive—in the inland jungles of Malaysian Borneo.


For centuries, the Kelabits, a small tribe of hunter-farmer-foragers, lived in near isolation in the Bornean forests that straddle Malaysia and Indonesia. The tribe practiced animism and headhunting until missionaries converted them to Christianity in the 1940s. In contrast to the wealth of archaeological and anthropological research on the inhabitants of the island’s coasts, very little is known about the early history of the peoples who dwelled in these highlands. With approximately 6,000 tribe members among a total population of roughly 20 million Borneans, the Kelabits are a tiny minority, and little has been published on their history. But archaeologists working there now may offer new insights into the missing pieces of Kelabit history, as well as that of their predecessors.


Until recently, this region of the island was accessible only by plane or a month-long hike through the jungle. A new dirt logging road now connects the interior and the coast, but the locals who choose to stay still hike far and wide for food. Their lives revolve around the jungle. Kelabits measure their treks in cigarette time, 47-year-old Lagang explains. For example, it’s a “two-cigarette” hike from his mother’s rice field to a recently abandoned longhouse known as Batu Patong, through bucolic fields flanked by thick rain forest resonating with the sounds of insects.


Borneo Map Kelabit Megaliths

As he heads toward the jungle, Lagang passes a stone mound where local stories say heirless ancestors buried their belongings. Just a few yards away, beside a neighbor’s pineapple garden, sits a broken ceramic jar in what remains of a cemetery. Beyond, the rain forest shelters thousands of years of the archaeological record stacked atop itself, layer upon layer, site upon site: century-old longhouses with fruit trees planted by previous inhabitants, 300- to 600-year-old stone burial jars covered in moss and caked in dirt, now-overgrown rice and sago plots that fed the highlanders up to 2,300 years ago, and even evidence of widespread forest burning, a potential sign of arboriculture, dating back 6,000 years or more. Archaeologists have no way yet to precisely identify many of the jungle’s past inhabitants or the creators of these sites. And the more scientists find, the more questions emerge about the histories that lie hidden.



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