Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.

– Mark Twain, American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer

Genealogy in Iban community has played very important roles in various aspects of their lives.

Known as tusut, it is pivotal in determining relationships, especially whether there is any kinship between the subjects concerned, such as being cousins and other aspects of being relatives.

In the olden days when travelling to an unfamiliar longhouse, visitors and hosts would usually trace their descent and more often than not, looking back at five or more generations, there was that likeability of discovering a common ancestor, real or fictional, and thereby providing a basis for their relations. 

In those days, the Iban tribe would prefer marriage of their children to children of kinsmen, far enough away to avoid breaching incestuous marriage, considered as taboo.

That is why for the Saribas and Krian Iban, tusut is considered a must during marriage ceremonies. This is to determine, among others, that the couple tying the knot is not involved in some kind of incestuous taboo, namely between an uncle and niece or vice-versa as well as other “wrong” relationships.

Most couples then were third or fourth cousins, a kind of close kinship where they would be quite familiar with each other. This, however, changed with new friendships and horizons brought about by education and modernity. And not to mention in the new millennium, there remains only a few, if any, who are tusut experts.

For that matter most modern Iban parents might be able to trace their ancestors up to three or four generations only. A huge majority of their children, especially those growing up in towns and cities may not even know the names of their grandparents.

On my first marriage in 1984, our tusut caught the big crowd at a popular government quarters in Sibu by surprise. Two famous Iban genealogy experts of Krian and Saribas basins were specially arranged to do the tracing of my ancestors and that of my spouse JK, who was 10 years my junior.

My uncle Mathew Banyin Nyaru (my dad’s second cousin and mom’s third cousin) represented our team from Kedap, Saratok whereas Penghulu Ganja was his opponent representing Betong.

Both these two exponents (now deceased) traced that JK and I were paternal fifth cousins and maternal ninth cousins. Among dignitaries of the Rajang basin attending the event were Senator Joseph Unting, Joseph Kudi (then Ngemah rep), Datuk Ignatius Angking, Datuk Temenggong Sandah of Durin and a huge number of senior government officials.

Most of these people were really astonished by the expertise of Banyin and Ganja who did not use any note or reference. Both are now deceased.

For my own individual use and knowledge, I have been collecting relevant tusut materials over the last 30 or so years. One interesting discovery after reading various sources is that the Iban elders of old were able to trace their origins to farming and war deity Sengalang Burung, also known as Aki Lang, and beyond.

There may be some discrepancies in these tracing steps but it is really an astounding item. For example, according to Vinson H. Sutlive Jr in his book Tun Jugah of Sarawak, the first Iban Paramount Chief Temenggong Koh Jubang was the 21st generation descendant of Aki Lang.

So his children, Datuk Kenneth Kanyan, Mindun and Sagura were 22 generations from the deity. However, from my tracing, I am 23 generations from Sengalang Burung and so are the children of Dunging Gunggu (the popular Iban alphabet inventor).

My tracing of our ancestors goes beyond Sengalang Burung whose wife was Endu Sudan.

There was another possibility whereby Iban parents of old would choose to do away or skip the tusut part when it came to tying knots of their children, saying they lacked such knowledge or expertise.

In some cases, this was a good excuse but there were cases whereby parents purposely skipped such arrangement because they were worried that at certain levels of their ancestry, there might be the possibility their forebears were slaves.

This was true as during the olden days, there was such thing as slavery among the Iban community, especially during the pre-Brooke and headhunting era.

My aim, however, is to show that we Iban are descendants of Sengalang Burung, the revered deity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.