The Dayak peoples of Borneo are a group of over 200 related ethnic groups, the most famous of which were the Iban, or Sea Dayak, of Sarawak, a fierce warring tribe that had acquired a fearsome reputation among neighbouring tribes.

When the British colonial powers arrived to claim Borneo, the Iban were the greatest thorn in the flesh of their ambitions and were only finally subdued after three arduous attempts and the considerable assistance of fellow indigenous warriors.

After their defeat, however, they subsequently became faithful allies of their conquerors, but the traditional warring nature of the Sarawak tribes continued to destabilise the area until the ‘Great Peacemaking’ of 1924.

The traditions of the Dayak people included the ancient practice of headhunting, whereby a warrior ritualistically takes and preserves the head of his enemy. An important feature in the ritual and ceremonious aspects of traditional Dayak tribal life, the practice was subject to established rules and regarded as a noble aspect of the prevailing culture.

Skulls became highly valued commodities, bestowing supernatural strength upon the owner of the head, believed to enlist the services of the dead warrior both in this life and the afterlife. Heads were also widely regarded as fertility talismans, both human and agricultural.

Naturally enough, head ownership also became a measure of tribal status, often reflecting the potency and bravery of the warrior, greatly increasing his sex appeal to women, and consequently became used as a currency in the payment of dowries.

The animist beliefs of the Iban are augmented by the wide use of amulets and omens, which are interpreted from dreams, the behaviour of animals and birds, and divination practices. A host of chanting poems has been orally transmitted through generations, with ritual offerings and incantations used to summon the gods or the ancestors.

In the modern era, headhunting has long since been banned and most tribespeople have adapted to accommodate Christianity and Islam, and the practice is only occasionally now rumoured to continue in the remotest parts of Indonesia.

Today’s Iban are a peaceful people, long reconciled to the changes which have affected their culture, which they nevertheless continue to hold dear. Skulls from the former era remain a treasured heritage of the Iban, and are still kept in pride of place in the longhouses.

Whilst some modern Catholic Iban have advocated a Christian burial for the heads, many others regard them as the underpinning of their ancestral past and have vowed never to relinquish them.

Due to the clearance of many areas of the rainforest by logging and plantation interests, hunting as a way of life is diminishing and farming is now increasingly becoming the principal source of nourishment. Some of the old fighting spirit, albeit political, has returned as Iban tribespeople frequently block roads in an attempt to halt the juggernaut of ‘progress’ taking what remains of their forest havens.

A visit to an Iban longhouse today will find you welcomed with their traditional Tuak rice wine, an offer that should never be refused if you want to avoid the impression of offence to their generosity. Indeed, if you stay overnight in the tribal household, copious quantities of this ceremonial drink will ensure a night to remember.

The Iban are happy to share what remains of their culture with you, and will happily teach you the skilful art of using the traditional hunting blowpipe, a superbly effective and virtually silent tool in the deep leafy green of the forest.

Less happily, the young of the villages are increasingly leaving the longhouses to find their futures outside of tribal life and, nowadays, in many villages, you will mostly find only the elderly and children in the community.

While it is difficult to lament the passing of the headhunting era, a sadness at the seemingly inevitable loss of their way of life and their remarkable traditional crafts, music and dance, lavish headdresses, tattooing skills, shamanic traditions and storytelling is the inevitable emotion left behind from a visit.