When they were headhunters, many of the people of Borneo lived in “long houses” that were built on stilts 10 to 20 feet off the ground. Measuring up to 1/8th of a mile in length, the long houses were single structures that were home to an entire clan. Between 600 to 700 people could reside in one structure. These unique buildings were crafted because the various tribes were often at war with each other, and a single homestead afforded the greatest protection.
Less than 50 years ago, the Iban people, the island’s most ferocious tribe, hunted heads not only for ceremonial and spiritual purposes - but for sheer glory. Women would not consider a suitor unless he had separated an enemy’s head from the rest of his body. Distinctive tattoos adorned the bodies of those men who had shown valor on the battlefield. The severed heads were hung in a special place of honor because the spirits captured within provided protection to the inhabitants of the longhouse. And there they hung, for seven generations, until a burial ceremony was performed that - at long last -released the spirits.
The Iban, Kayan, Kanyen, and all the other tribal people of Borneo are disappearing rapidly, as are their ways of life – good and bad. Only the old men and women have memories of the old ways. To me, this loss seems rather tragic. But when I asked the 89-year-old Iban chief pictured above what he missed most from the past, he smiled mischievously and said, “Life is good. Before, old men had to work in the fields until the end. But I don’t have to do that. I get to relax.”