Who are the Punan?

Punan National Association (PNA) members with the few of their ancestors' klirieng or burial poles remaining at Punan River. Donny Dhwie (left in dark blue shirt).

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By Calvin Jemarang

BINTULU, Oct. 25: There is still much confusion as to who the Punan really are. In Sarawak they are often confused for Penan.

Further compounding this problem is the fact that recently a Japanese scholar, Yumi Kato perpetuated the erroneous claim that they were originally from Mandai River, in the southwest of Borneo.


In the literature, ‘Punan’ is synonymous with nomadic tribes. Merriam-Webster which started to include the word ‘Punan’ in their dictionary about a decade ago, in fact, defines the word as: “A Dayak people living as forest nomads in the remote interior of Borneo”.

Actually, looking back into its history, the word ‘Punan’ was used referring to non-nomad, but a swidden agriculturalist group distinct to the nomads found in northern Borneo.

It seems the term Punan first appeared in the early nineteenth century, in a book called “The Chinese Repository Vol. VII, 1839”. An American missionary paid a visit to the sultanate of Brunei. They requested the Pangiran (aristocrats) of Brunei to enumerate the Sultan’s subjects.

On page 133, of the report written by an anonymous author titled “Notices of the City of Borneo and its Inhabitants” reads: “Twenty-one tribes, as written down from the mouths of two or three pangerans are these: Murut, Kayan, Bisaya, Tabun, Punan, Dayak, Tatow, Kanawit, Siting, Bukatan, Sundaya, Dali, Baung, Taring, Kajaman, Agis, Tagar, Dusun, Bajow, Narun, Milanow”.

The ‘Punan’ mentioned in the report was clearly the people that anthropologists today often labeled as “Punan Bah” – to distinguish them from the nomads with whom they had little in common.

Map showing the distribution of Punan villages and longhouses in Kapit and Bintulu Divisions as at 2020.

More than a decade before the American missionary visited Brunei, a Punan chief, Saghieng Selawik had led a group, comprised Sitieng, Taytow (Tatau) and Kajaman paid their tribute to a new king in the kingdom, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II.

Saghieng Selawik died shortly after returning from Brunei’s trip at Pandan. He was according to his living descendants at Pandan bestowed with the title “Orang Kaya Saghieng”. Saghieng’s mausoleum, called klirieng, still remains in situ, in front of the row of a dilapidated Pandan bazaar today.

In the Federal Constitution Article 161A (7) and its equivalent, the Sarawak Interpretation Ordinance, the Punan is also recognised as the “Punan” part of the Kajang group. In contrast, the former nomads found in Sarawak namely, the Penan, Punan Aput, and Punan Busang or Vuhang are classified as Penan – a separate ethnic, distinct from the Punan (or Punan Bah) belonging to Kajang.

In their myth of origin, the Punan was said to be originally from the Punan River, a tributary of Ba River which means ‘rice river’. Once upon a time their population spread over much of the present-day Kapit, Mukah and Bintulu Divisions.

But Yumi Kato, in a book chapter “Multiethnic Society of Central Sarawak: An Ethnographic Analysis” reported they were originally from Mandai River.

“That is an erroneous claim,” said a Punan community leader, Penghulu Sanok Magai of Kakus. He explained, there is a place called “Davai River,” “Ava River,” that his ancestors inhabited until the early twentieth century.

On maps, Davai River is spelled as “Dabai River”, consequently “Ava River” as “Aba River” and there are two river bearing this name in upper Kakus, he clarified.

There is no history of Punan ever migrating to Mandai River, the heartland of their mortal enemies once, the Dayak Maloh, Iban and Bhuket. Punan National Association advisor, Dr Ajau Danis and Donny Dhwie believed Dr Ida Nicolaisen may have ‘misconstrued’ the story of Punan settlement at Dabai and Aba River as “Mandai”.

It seems, Ida also erred on the man said to be migrating to Mandai – named Abah. According to the surviving descendant of Payou, Puing Daud, he had no ancestor by the name ‘Aba’.

Linguistically, there were at least two main dialects spoken by the Punan. The first dialect, still spoken today was known among the people as the “loie Punan Baliu” – a dialect spoken by the group in the Rejang”. A second dialect was known as “loie Punan Lelak Baliu” or “the coast Punan”. This dialect is then subdivided into a mutually intelligible dialect spoken in Tatau, Oya-Sitieng, and Niah-Lemeting.

Somehow, into the eighteenth century, almost all these different dialects disappeared. The legend has it these peoples were under attacks by enemies from all directions – the sea by “lanun” and “naga” (pirate and dragon), the land “ulet” (larvae), “biat” (tiger) and “lejau” (river monster).

“Only the group that sheltered in a valley, Ba Valley (Rice valley) survived the onslaughts. Subsequently, peace gradually returns, they return to a different landscape. Much of the Niah-Lemeting, today Lemeting is called “Tinjar” , had been occupied by the Berawan, Kenyah, and Penan. The Oya-Sitieng are inhabited mostly by Iban.

According to Iain Clayre, the Punan dialect spoken by the group found in Kakus today was once closely related to the already extinct Melanau Sitieng dialect. And the dialect is widely spoken by these people today according to most linguists related to the group categorised as Rejang-Sajau.

The Punan River that gives the Punan people their ethnonym. It is located about 80 km south of Bintulu as crow flies.

Historically, the Punan dialect spoken in Rejang had been heavily corrupted by the languages of Kenyah and later Kayan.

These peoples were living near the Punan for centuries – the Kenyah was from the early eighteenth century into the late nineteenth century. Both Kayan and Kenyah, fled the Punan area – downstream of Belaga to Pelagus rapids, at the turn of the twentieth century.

They were chased away by Brooke forces, during two punitive expeditions conducted in 1863 and 1896.

One of the most iconic Punan cultures known today is their ‘klirieng’ often called ‘burial pole’, ‘burial post’ in many texts. It was related to an ancient custom called ‘menoleang’ or secondary treatment of death.

“It seems that they represent a cultural substratum which predates the arrival of the Kayan and Kenyah in the area,” remarked Peter Metcalf. If you wish to learn more about klirieng refer to our previous article, “Klirieng: the vanishing culture of the Punan” url: https://dayakdaily.com/klirieng-vanishing-culture-of-the-punan-people-of-sarawak/

Today, Punan population is distributed almost evenly in Kapit and Bintulu Divisions. In Kapit Division, downstream of Belaga to above Bikei rapids there are five Punan villages. The largest and oldest of these villages is the Punan Ba village.

In Bintulu, the largest Punan villages in Sarawak are located in the lower reach of Kakus River, about 50 kilometres south of Bintulu, as crow flies.

Altogether about fifteen Punan villages and longhouses in Sarawak remained today. Their population is estimated to be around 6,000 people – far less than the Penan, which totalled around 20,000 according to Hassan Sui of Petipun (a Penan association) and Dennis Ngau, Telang Usan assemblyman in a recent news report.

Confusion with Penan

However, in the nineteenth century, there was widespread confusion as to who the Punan are. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that Kayan, often sources of much literature during this epoch, simply called both groups as Punan.

According to their history, the Penan were originally from the Usun Apau plateau region – an area they shared with the Kayan and Kenyah. Then, sometimes in the late eighteenth century, a large group of these peoples started migrating northward, into present-day Kapit, Bintulu, and Miri Divisions.

The Kayan and Kenyah were the largest of these migrants. Their history is well documented in the literature, particularly in the works of McGill University’s emeritus professor Dr Jerome Rousseau.

Following closely behind or ahead of the Kayan and Kenyah, according to Jayl Langub were the Penan. Jayl is a widely known expert on Penan and is a fellow at the Institute of Borneo Studies, Unimas (University Malaysia Sarawak).

In the nineteenth century, he believed bands of Penan may have started to roam the headwaters of Kemena, Niah, Suai, and Baram rivers. Later, a band begins to settle down in the Jelalong River, becoming a close neighbor of the Punan.

The Penans are not always known by Penan though. Even today, they are often still being referred to by their neighbors as “Punan”.

A photo of a seminar on “Punan cultural heritage” held at a hotel in Bintulu a few years ago.

“The Penan are always called ‘Punan’ by the Kayan of the Baram and Kayan rivers, who maintain that this is the correct name,” Needham noted in his doctoral thesis. He added, “Penan are used to being called ‘Punan’ by the Kayan and have learned to recognise this as their designation when in contact with the administration”.

“Until 1951 no white man had ever spoken Penan, and when they are asked about the name ‘Punan’ the Penan laugh and say: ‘The white men do not know our language, and this is the name they have given us,” Needham writes.

In Kalimantan, especially in an area inhabited by Kayan, Kenyah, and related groups, Punan is still the default label they used referring to the former nomad. The works of Dr Bernard Sellato and Dr Lars Kaskija almost exclusively refer to hunter-gatherers, found anywhere in Borneo as ‘Punan’.

Dr Antonio Guerreiro, however, insisted, semantically the correct spelling should have been “Pnan” or “Pnaan” not ‘Punan’. To this, Bernard Sellato and Peter Sercombe also agreed, albeit ironically.

But the situation is much more complicated in Kalimantan. Jerome Rousseau said the nomad is known as “Punan” in areas of the Kayan and Kenyah. Elsewhere, they are referred to by a few other names.

“The name Punan is mostly found in the Kayan and Kenyah areas, Ot in the Ngaju and Ot Danum area, Dukitan in Land Dayak and Iban areas, and Basap in the area of the east coast inhabited by the Malays,” Rousseau writes.

In fact, the situation is more complicated, but this is indeed part of the truth” he said, after reviewing four theses on the nomads of Central Borneo, published in 1984 by Borneo Research Bulletin. —DayakDaily