The Borneo Headhunters - Meet The Iban Tribe!

The Borneo Headhunters - Meet The Iban Tribe!

Posted by Connor Whelan on 25th May 2016

We bring you a lot of pieces all about the different animals we work alongside here at The Great Projects, but today things are a little different. Today we want to tell you a group of people who have lived alongside the orangutans in Borneo for hundreds of years, and in this time they have become famed the world over for certain elements of their culture. The people we are talking about are the Ibans.

Borneo’s infamous headhunting tribe may be recognised the world over, but thanks to the remote nature of their forest homes, relatively little is known about them as a people. In this article we hope to tell you a little bit more about the Guardians of the Rainforest and give you an insight into their headhunting history and the role they play in the rainforest today.

A Brief History

History of Iban TribeImage credit: Wellcome Library London. Wellcome Images. Photographed 1896 by: Charles Hose. CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons. 

The Iban are a division of the Dayak people of Borneo. In colonial times they were referred to as “Sea Dayaks” by the British due to their proximity to the coastline, but as time passed the tribes moved further inland. The Iban were renowned for tribal and territorial expansion, and this created many enemies for them. One such enemy was the Kayan tribe who referred to the “Sea Dayaks” they came into contact with as ‘Hivan’, which slowly became Iban and it is thought that this is where the name came from.

The Iban are the original inhabitants of Borneo, and although many now practise Christianity and Islam as their religions, the tribe was traditionally animists. They celebrate many festivals to this day, and some of the more significant ones are the rice harvesting festival called Gawai Dayak and the bird festival Gawai Burong.

Before Western influences really began to impact on their lifestyles, the Iban were known as one of the most fearsome and successful warring tribes in the area. They believed in having as many children as possible to both continue on their bloodline and to help protect the village once they become of age. The more children they had, the bigger their army was, and the bigger their army was, the more they could head out on expeditions to expand their lands.

Headhunting

Head Hunting Skull

Where their headhunting is concerned the Iban have been tarred with a very unjust brush. Many people think of the Iban as blood thirsty savages, but the truth is they did not collect the skulls as a spoil of war or as a trophy. Warrior families who had helped to protect the village were the only ones allowed to have the skulls, and as the Iban were at their most active at a time when tribal conflict was rife in the area, this goes some way to explaining why this stereotype of the savage head-hunter came to be.

The skulls themselves were not collected without a lot of thought as they came with a heavy responsibility. The Iban thought that there were many spiritual benefits to be gained from the heads they took. They believed that the soul of the head would watch over the household it graced, but they also believed that the spiritual power that came from it was directly related to the character of the man it was taken from. It was for this reason the skulls of fierce warriors the Iban had come up against in battle were taken.

So whilst the reputation of fearsome warriors was warranted, the image of the tribe walking through the forest cutting off the heads of anyone they saw is not.

The Iban Lifestyle Now

Iban Longhouse

Nowadays the Iban, with the help of outside influences, live in homes which have all of the modern conveniences people are used to. They still reside in their traditional longhouses, but these houses have electricity, running water, telephone lines, and even internet access. The longhouse is the traditional dwelling for the Iban, and even though they have been updated in recent times, they still retain the vast majority of the elements that made them so unique to the Iban tribe in the first place. Longhouses can often be up to 500m long with anywhere up to 29 rooms in them, and each one of these rooms plays host to a family. Due to the fact they are built with natural materials from the forest, the longhouse is one of the final bastions of the traditional Iban way of life.

Their Role In The Modern World

The Iban are often called “Guardians of the Rainforest” as this is what their role in the local community has morphed into. They act as local experts for any tourists who wish to learn more about their way of life, and they do this by welcoming people from all over the world into their homes and teaching them Iban history. Many younger Iban people are becoming increasingly urbanised, working in the large towns and cities which surround their traditional home, but they still retain most of their traditional heritage and culture. Times are changing for the Iban tribe, but they won’t be letting go of their heritage without a fight.

The Iban people have such a rich and varied culture that it would take forever and a day to write about all of it, but hopefully this article has given you an insight into the history of the original inhabitants of Borneo. If you have been inspired to learn more about the Iban then why not do it first hand and visit them in Borneo? The Orangutan and Tribes Tour is the perfect way to combine a chance to meet the Iban people with the opportunity to see orangutans in their natural environment, so if you are interested then take a look here!


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Adrian moore commented 9 months ago
I was left a ceremonial knife by a friend who fought alongside the Iban in sarawak I would like to research its history

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