The Penan

© Robin Hanbury-Tenison/Survival


"The government thinks we are animals, like the animals in the rainforest. We are not wild savages. We are the Penan, we are human beings", said one of their spokesmen.



In which countries and in which natural environment do they live?

The Penan live on the island of Borneo, in Sarawak, a Malaysian province since 1963. Some groups have been settled near the coast, and others have remained nomadic, isolated deep in mountain valleys covered by the clouds and hard to reach because of the dense rainforest.



The Penan know the rainforest like the back of their hand. Their land is marked by hunting footpaths, scattered with game traps. Rivers are the only accessible routes, and the rocks and mountains have indigenous names. Rare plant species are native to the rainforest, like the rafflesia, a parasite plant that has the largest flower in the world, its diameter measuring up to 1 meter.


What is the size of the population? 

There are 10,000 Penan. Roughly 500 are still nomadic or semi-nomadic and the majority has been settled despite their wishes. They live in groups ranging from 25 to 75 people.


What languages do they speak?

Even though there are few Penan, they speak different languages depending on whether they have been settled or have remained nomadic, whether they live on the coast or in isolated valleys. Their languages belong to the Austronesian family of languages.


How do they dress?

The Penan live naked, with only a bit of fabric strapped around their waist. The men pierce their ears, and wear a flat round jewel, stretching the hole in their lobe until they can wear a decorative earring that is so big it touches their shoulders. The women prefer to wear a little stud with a jewel at the bottom of their hanging ear lobes. They all love to wear lots of bracelets made out of rattan.


© Robin Hanbury-Tenison/Survival


What are their houses like?

The Penan are nomadic, and live in huts built above the ground. They use giant palm leaves for the roof, and weave mats out of plant fibres for the walls and ground. In the hot and humid climate, this type of habitat allows a breeze to blow through, making it feel cooler. Where they have been settled, the Penan have built long collective houses out of wood, often on stilts, copying their neighbours the Dayak.


What do they eat?

Traditionally the Penan live of hunting and gathering, which provide them with one of the most balanced diets in the world. The sago palm, a wild palm-tree, is one of their staple foods. They cut the tree down and scrape out its trunk. The plant’s flesh is then grated, wrung, drained and cooked.

They pick fruit from the rainforest, like scarlet-red rambutan, durian, a thorn-covered fruit that can weigh 1 kilo or 2, and jack-fruit that grow on tree trunks and hang like breasts: it is said that jackfruit are women who have been turned into trees.

Settled Penan clear parts of the rainforest to grow mountain rice, which is dry rice and does not need to be grown in rice paddies with its roots in water. After a year or two, they leave the clearing fallow, so that the rainforest grows back, go and clear a little further off.


Which animals live around them?

The wildlife in the rainforest is particularly rich, with lots of rare species. The Borneo bay cat (Catopuma badia) is the smallest feline in the world. In 1998 a specimen was captured and then released in a secret location. The Sumatra rhinoceros, the Malaysian bear, the clouded leopard, the Borneo gibbon and the wild banteng ox are species that have probably become extinct because of the deforestation in Sarawak.


How do they hunt?

Hunters set traps along the footpaths that lead through the dense rainforest. Helped by dogs, they catch bear and deer and shoot poisoned arrows at monkeys and birds with their blowpipes.


© Robin Hanbury-Tenison/Survival


The meat brought back from a hunt is always carefully shared out between everybody. In fact, the word “thank you” does not exist in their language, because it is useless. Even the youngest children follow the men and learn by observing and imitating adults to hunt yet also to share.


What are their beliefs and their rites?

The Penan traditionally believe in omens, observing and interpreting birds’ flights. During the nineteenth century, missionaries converted them to Christianity, but they have preserved their ancestor’s rites and beliefs. They are very fond of certain values, such as non-violence, equality and sharing.

Nobody can force anybody to do anything; parents give a lot of freedom to their children. During conversations nobody shouts and nobody ever interrupts. A Penan does not own any land for himself, and never lets anyone go hungry. Throughout their history, they have practically never been at war.


What does Penan art look like?

They make varied and sophisticated objects out of wicker, like bags and baskets made out of rattan, with vegetal designs, mats with geometrical designs, necklaces and very light bracelets.


What problems do they face today?

Since the 1970s, their land has been confiscated, to exploit the trees and to underground mines, to plant large areas of oil palm or to build dams. The state has forced the Penan to settle, making them abandon their traditional way of life.

Chased off their land, they seek refuge on the outskirts of towns where they live in slums and are under-nourished. They are considered inferior, and suffer from racism.

The destruction of the rainforest has been more violent than anywhere else in the world. To voice their opposition, the Penan set up road blockades, but are often arrested and imprisoned. They have started court cases against large logging companies, and in 2001, for the first time, their neighbours the Iban won a court case. Blowpipes versus bulldozers: who will win?


Kindly translated by Alice Hertzog.


From Les Nouvelles de Survival and Dictionnaire des peuples, J.-C. Tamisier, Larousse.