CHAPTER V

MEETING PUNANS, THE SHY JUNGLE PEOPLE - DOWN THE RIVER AGAIN - MY ENTHUSIASTIC BOATMEN-MALAYS VERSUS DAYAKS

At my request the raja, with a few companions, went out in search of some of the shy jungle people called Punans. Seven days afterward he actually returned with twelve men, who were followed by seven more the next day. All the women had been left one day's journey from here. These Punans had been encountered at some distance from kampong Bruen, higher up the river, and, according to reports, made up the entire nomadic population of the lower Kayan River. Most of them were rather tall, well-made men, but, as a result of spending all their lives in the darkness of the jungle, [*] their skin colour, a pale yellowish brown, was strikingly lighter, especially the face, than that of the Kayans.

[Footnote *: In von Luschan's table, Punan 15, Kayan 22.]

They actually seemed to hate the sun, and next day when it broke through the mist for a little while they all sought shelter in the shade of trees. As a result of their avoidance of direct rays from the sun they have a washed-out, almost sickly pale appearance, contrasting strangely with the warm tone of light brown which at times may be observed among the Dayaks. This is probably the reason why they are not very strong, though apparently muscular, and are not able to carry heavy burdens. They began at once to put up a shed similar to those of the Dayaks, but usually their shelters for the night are of the rudest fashion, and as they have only the scantiest of clothing they then cover themselves with mats made from the leaves of the fan-palm.

On the Upper Mahakam I later made acquaintance with some of the Punans who roam the mountainous regions surrounding the headwaters of that river. Those are known under the name Punan Kohi, from a river of that name in the mountains toward Sarawak. The members of the same tribe further east in the mountains of the Bulungan district are called Punan Lun, from the River Lun, to whom the present individuals probably belonged. According to the raja, there are two kinds of Punans here, and his statement seems to be borne out by the variations in their physical appearance.

These nineteen nomads had black hair, straight in some cases, wavy in others. Most of them had a semblance of mustache and some hair on the chin. Their bodies looked perfectly smooth, as they remove what little hair there may be. Some of them had high-arched noses. The thigh was large, but the calf of the leg usually was not well-developed, though a few had very fine ones; and they walked with feet turned outward, as all the Dayaks and Malays I have met invariably do. The only garment worn was a girdle of plaited rattan strings, to which at front and back was attached a piece of fibre cloth. Although dirty in appearance, only one man was afflicted with scaly skin disease. Visits to the hill-tops are avoided by them on account of the cold, which they felt much in our camp. Their dark-brown eyes had a kindly expression; in fact they are harmless and timid-looking beings, though in some parts of Borneo they engage in head-hunting, a practice probably learned from the Dayaks. Those I talked with said the custom was entirely discontinued, although formerly heads of other Punans, Malays, or Dayaks had been taken.

These natives, following no doubt an observance prevalent among the Dayaks, had some of their teeth filed off in the upper jaw, the four incisors, two cuspids, and two bicuspids. Our Kayans from Kaburau had no less than ten teeth filed off, the four incisors and three more on either side. The operation is performed when a boy or girl becomes full-grown. For the boys it is not a painful experience, but the girls have theirs filed much shorter, which causes pain and loss of blood.

The Punans make fire by iron and flint which are carried in a small bamboo box. They are expert regarding the manufacture of the sumpitan (blow-pipe), and are renowned for their skill in using this weapon and can make the poisonous darts as well as the bamboo caskets in which these are carried. Subsisting chiefly upon meat, their favourite food is wild pig.

At the birth of a child all the men leave the premises, including the husband. The dead are buried in the ground a metre deep, head toward the rising sun. The Punans climb trees in the same manner as the Kayans and other Dayaks I have seen, i.e., by tying their feet together and moving up one side of the tree in jumps. The Kayans in climbing do not always tie the feet.

These shy nomads remained in camp two days and allowed themselves to be photographed. One morning seven of them went out to look for game, armed with their long sumpitans and carrying on the right side, attached to the girdle, the bamboo casket that contained the darts. They formed a thrilling sight in the misty morning as in single file they swung with long, elastic steps up the hill. Though the Punans are famous as hunters and trappers, they returned in a few hours without any result. Next morning when I ventured to begin taking their measurements they became uneasy and one after another slipped away, even leaving behind part of their promised rewards, rice and clothing for the women, and taking with them only tobacco and a large tin of salt, which I rather regretted, as they had well earned it all.

We made a trip of a few days' duration to the next elevation, Gunong Rega, in a northerly direction, most of the time following a long, winding ridge on a well-defined Punan trail. The hill-top is nearly 800 metres above sea-level (2,622 feet), by boiling thermometer, and the many tree-ferns and small palm-trees add greatly to its charm and beauty.