Penan Basap – the last Kalimantan cavemen

The most common trait of all primitive peoples is a reverence for the life-giving earth, and the Native American shared this elemental ethic: The land was alive to his loving touch, and he, its son, was brother to all creatures.

– Stewart Udall, American politician

As an investigative reporter, I’ve come across dozens of sensational reports, the most interesting leading to my search for the last cavemen of Borneo.

Like the Tasaday of Mindanao, the discovery of the Moyong Usai Penan tribesmen of Baram in 1982 appeared a too farfetched tale – too tantalising to miss.

The only problem was that I had to fly 3,500km or half way around Borneo from Kuching in the West to the ‘Nose of Borneo’ at the Eastern tip of the island to reach my destination.

The ‘hop-skip and jump’ journey began with a Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Boeing aircraft to Kota Kinabalu and Tawau in Sabah to Tarakan island in Indonesia.

After meeting Samarinda-based pastor Pak Yohanes Sakai in Tawau, the 16-seater MAS Twin Otter ride continued to Tarakan where we chartered a 1955-type four-seater single-engine fixed wing for the flight across the Bay of Sulawesi.

After a night at the Tarakan, an infamous WW2 oil town where hundreds were killed or cruelly decapitated – ‘Samurai style’ – I anxiously waited for the second leg of the trip.

The ‘cavemen’ story was first published in Indonesia; the Samarinda newspapers had the story and pictures of semi-nude women and loincloth-clad natives with spear-tipped ‘blowguns’ in a cavern at Telok Sumbang.

The first of the three-part series started by saying: “Bertemu dengan suku Basap Punan di Teluk Sumbang, saya olah olah benarbenar berada di Zaman Batu (Meeting with the Basap Punan at Teluk Sumbang, was to me like going back to the Stone Age)”.

One headline read: “Adoh Repotnya, Mereka Jarang Mandi (Oh what a hassle, a People Who Rarely Bathe)” while another stated: “Laksana Masuk Ke Zaman Batu Lagi (Like Entering the Stone Age Again)”.

The Indonesian writer who visited the location a year earlier said that watching the topless Penan women reminded him of Bali’s Kuta beach where sun-seeking European women lay on the beaches topless.

“We are used to seeing tourists without bras, the only difference is that in Kuta beach one would not feel anxious…(but) while seeing our own Basap women bare-breasted brought about great sympathy,” he added.

Another story by an American missionary publication, typically wrote the exaggerated version of the ‘last cavemen’ saying their ancestors ate their hunted game raw until they learned how to make fire.

From Tarakan our Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) Cessna piloted by American trainee pilot Larry Whiting flew us across the Bay of Sulawesi to the remote corner of Teluk Sumbang.

We took off on a bright sunny day across the magnificent blue sea over 30 or so islands, including the famous Derawan, Kakaban, Maratua and Sangalaki – now famous tourist resorts.

Landing on a sandy Biduk Biduk airstrip, we hopped on motorcycles to travel along the coastal road to Cape Mangkalihat across the Celebes (Sulawasi) Islands.

In the 1960s, the Tanjung Mangkalihat was virgin jungle until the government sent the first batch of Bugis settlers to develop the land.

One of the first to arrive at Teluk Sumbang was headman Kepala Desa or ‘Pak Lurah’ Andachong who met his first ‘Basap’ nomads.

“They were poverty-stricken and some wore nothing more than bark clothing. Initially, we were afraid but we got along and persuaded them to leave the caves, build jungle huts and how to grow crops,” he said.

Initially, the Basap, who lived on a hill overlooking the bay, were sickly but by the early 1990s with the arrival of medical facilities, they were a thriving community of 130 people.

After pictures of the Basap hit the headlines, the Indonesian authorities banned reporters from visiting Teluk Sumbang.

Biduk Biduk ‘Camat’ or district officer Syamsul Abidin said the newspaper reports gave the impression that the Indonesia government did not care about the tribe.

I promised to write a balanced story as I have always championed the Penan of Sarawak and other minority tribes and he let me through.

The first nomadic Basap I met was Mariam, the wife of the Chief Findusan who had recently died in a hunting accident.

Mariam said before becoming a Christian, she joined her husband on hunting trips.

But after he died, the family had to make ends meet by living off forest produce and wildlife with blowpipes.

She said: “As far as I know we have always cooked our food so I don’t know how the journalists said we don’t … that we eat meat raw, cavemen style.”

Another Basap, Manuel Suriman, recalled that a TV crew brought his people to an ancestral cave and filmed the Basap for a documentary.

Some Basap women were paid to strip semi-nude and filmed ‘Red Indian’ style for the Western audience.

Manuel added: “We told them in the old days our ancestors practised a form of fire worship called ‘arghama’ (agama or religion). The fire ceremony is conducted at night after someone has a dream.

“The shaman burnt wood chips and other materials in a wooden bowl while the others then performed a ceremony called ‘kami balian’.

“We circled around the bowl of fire and chanted. I witnessed this rite only once when I was small.”

Manuel, who now wore Western clothes added: “We don’t live in that cave any more. Our people still celebrate our lifestyle in several old caves once a year.

“We hunt and cultivate around the area, by growing hill padi. Each cave can accommodate five to 10 people in a family.”

Manuel said that the people of Teluk Sumbang are the last of the nomadic Basap.

Basap are a coastal people and were close to nomadic Bajau sea-gypsies and other sea traders in the early days.

In fact, Bernard Sellato in his book ‘Hornbill and Dragons’ states that since time immemorial, the Basap collected bird’s nests as a tribute to the Sultans of Berau.”

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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