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Vanishing Cultural Knowledge – the Penans of Borneo

December 08, 2013 3 min read

20131208-100813This a picture* of a man from the Penan group that now number 10,000 and is probably the last group that lives surviving solely on the produce of hunting & gathering.

No farming. No trading. No commercial activity.

And living this model in the harsh setting of the unforgiving rainforest.

Imagine spending a WHOLE day out in the rain WITH a raincoat. And then imagine doing this at night without a raincoat. day after day after day.

This is not written to make them seem deprived (for they are not) – this is just to bring home the fact that their life is deeply different from ours.

And they fight to keep it that way.

I recall a proposal from a magazine to run a lead story on the nomads that I had photographed and written about. The editor wanted me to develop it into an idea through which the readers of that magazine could ‘help and uplift’ this group.  This, to me is an absurd idea. That one world should believe that another NEEDS their help and upliftment!! Why? Just because there is more money in one world does it follow that they have better ideas on how to live?  Naturally the article with that magazine  did not materialise.

Coming back to the Penans of Borneo who live within nature and see themselves as an integral part of their ecosystem.

As modern life encroaches upon their life slowly but surely, life is changing irreversibly and important bits of data are being lost along the way – which is the lamentable part of this cultural evolution.

Hunting played a pivotal role for all the eight nomadic groups and their knowledge systems were sensitised to this particular aspect of living. And the database of experiences led to an abstraction of knowledge that they could put to use productively. That database remained passed down from one generation to the next and the knowledge needed the knowledge bearer for transmission as no ‘remote’ container of that knowledge – such as books or scripts – existed in that culture. And now with lifestyles changing drastically between one generation and the next, the strength and volume of this inter-generational transmission has weakened and data is getting lost.

Example 1:

The Penan grandfathers would keep a watch for the appearance of particular butterfly. Once it appeared, preparations were made for hunting as this butterfly foretold the arrival of wild boars. How? Why? No answers. But experience bore out that the appearance of that butterfly was followed by the appearance of boars. Scientific reasons must exist and the logical causality or correlation may certainly be found. But the Penans did not need to know the rest. They went out and hunted.

Example 2:

Blowpipes and arrows with poison were the traditional tools of hunting. The men knew which wood to use to make these pipes and where to find the poison to be used on the arrows. They even knew which plants could be used as antidote for the poison. The introduction of guns led to saving of time and effort and increased efficiency. BUT, in terms of economics this meant a reliance on that things that one did not produce oneself and had to be bought.  As guns began to replace blowpipes & poison, the knowledge of which trees and plants were useful for these, knowledge that was collected over centuries was slowly becoming redundant. In due course this knowledge will be lost completely.


These groups are slowly adopting the practice of living in settlements rather than as nomadic hunters. And since experiential education was the only way in which knowledge was being passed on, the collective knowledge of the tribe is at the risk of being completely lost.

Today with the children spending time in schools and spending time picking aggregated knowledge, time for picking up localised cultural knowledge even through family conversation is reduced. Besides, there is a snobbery that prevails that looks down on cultural knowledge as less-than-valid simply because it is handed down from families and not institutions. I have myself rejected many cultural bits of data handed down to me during my childhood out of this sense of snobbery and ‘I know better than to believe this mumbo-jumbo’ .

And so cultural data is being lost. One bit of data at a time!


december 2013

(Picture is a photo of a page from Dennis Lau’s book ‘Borneo’ that offers us a peep into the various indigenous people groups of the large rainforest island)

The post Vanishing Cultural Knowledge – the Penans of Borneo appeared first on The Art Blog by WOVENSOULS.COM.

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