Exactly how those first people got to Borneo is also unclear. Their time of arrival coincided with a time of low sea levels, and Borneo was likely connected to the Malay Peninsula or to Sumatra. In this case, the first people of Borneo probably arrived on foot. Other studies, based on language similarities, however, have suggested that Borneo was settled through Taiwan and the Philippines. These areas were never fully connected to Borneo, which would then suggest that the first Borneans came by boat.
What is obvious from the many studies on human genetics, archaeology, language and culture is that Borneo is a bit of a human melting pot, with people arriving at different times from the Asian mainland, Sulawesi and the Philippines, and bringing along with them their own habits and languages. These movements were not just in one direction, as people left Borneo as well. The settlement of Madagascar from Borneo, a minor 10,000-kilometer boat trip to the west, is a well-documented example. Up until now, all Malagasy languages have close similarities to those spoken in the southeast part of Borneo.
Now, these Bornean people didn’t all get along fabulously. Historic accounts and other evidence indicate a relatively violent past for the island’s people, although probably no more violent than people elsewhere in the world. Inter-tribal warfare occurred frequently, and villages were often barricaded to withstand attacks from raiding parties.
It would have been a pretty scary time to live on Borneo, although these dangerous days seem to have benefited wildlife. Some early writers suggested that species like the rhinoceros survived in such large numbers until the early 20th century, because it was pretty dangerous for hunters to be out in the forest. After forests became safer for people, rhinos rapidly declined.
Obviously, reintroducing war into Borneo is not a conservation strategy I would recommend. The constant wars on Borneo were a great source of suffering and a major concern to Borneo’s people as well as the Dutch and British colonial governments.
Intriguingly, these people and governments managed to do something that has rarely been repeated since. They brought together people from all over the island into one location to discuss and settle the issue of ongoing inter-tribal wars.
Of course, these days, people from different parts of Borneo quite often meet, as do the respective governments, but in those days, there were no airplanes, comfortable hotels and air-conditioned meeting facilities. Instead, the people of Borneo paddled and walked for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers through uninterrupted tropical rainforest. No small feat indeed.
The first such major meeting was the peace conference in Tumbang Anoi on the Upper Kahayan River, deep in the interior of Borneo, in May 1894. After long preparations, Dayak representatives from across the island came together in this relatively obscure village on the border between Dutch West and East Borneo.
Some 418 people attended, representing 116 different villages and ethnic groups. The meetings reportedly took 4 months to complete. Hundreds of buffaloes had to be brought to the village for sacrificial purposes and to feed the people. But, after much talk, an agreement was made that ultimately resulted in a significant decrease in inter-tribal wars and raids.
But the problems weren’t quite solved, so a second and third meeting occurred 30 years later, first in Long Nawang (in what is now East Kalimantan), then in Kapit Fort (in Sarawak). Sporadic hostilities between Ibans, Kayan, Kajangs and the Kenyah, which reached a peak in 1921, brought these people together in 1924 under the presence of Rajah Charles Brooke and the Dutch “controleur” Molenaar.
First, Brooke’s officials took the effort to take the 500-kilometer round-trip journey to Long Nawang, and on Nov. 16, 1924, the favor was returned when a party of 960 men traveling in 97 boats journeyed from their home towns to the Sarawak coast.
A Straits Times article from that year provides a great report on this gathering of 4,200 indigenous people in one spot to address the common war problem. And it seems that this time they really cracked it. I guess they had worked out that peaceful co-existence benefited everyone. In the words of the reporter who was present at the event, the ultimate idea was to “encourage freer intercourse between Sarawak and Dutch Borneo to the benefit of the inhabitants of these rivers, in that they will be able … [to] open up the vast country … for the working of forest products and to peacefully trade.”
I see a pattern there. A meeting in 1894, two meetings in 1924, and if you keep counting in steps of 30 years, you eventually get to 2014. And indeed, in that year once again, the people and governments of Borneo got together to discuss the future of their island in a large Heart of Borneo meeting in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
People have been on Borneo for around 50,000 years. At least some have worked out that they need to collaborate to achieve a peaceful co-existence between the people of island and the living ecosystems on which their lives depend.
Not everyone is on board, though, and plenty of people remain who see Borneo as an easy place to fill their pockets. More effective collaboration is needed between Borneo’s people and governments to ensure that sustainable development is not just preached but also practiced. Let’s not wait until 2044…
Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative.