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LAST NOMADIC PENANS

Produced by the SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE

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“I know there are other spirits, but I do not belong to them anymore. Every living thing has a spirit, and humans can harness it. The hornbill spirit can make people walk very fast. Normally what takes two, three days to walk, they do it in one. The leopard spirit is even more powerful.”

 

Borneo’s epic rainforests are being cleared at a faster rate per acre than the Amazon’s. This might seem like a minor concern, since the island accounts for only 1 percent of the earth’s land. But according to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo’s forests hold 6 percent of the planet’s plant and animal species. Many are now being driven toward extinction, or being extinguished before they can even be identified—all because of consumer demands around the world.

The Penan are a nomadic indigenous people living mainly in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo and are one of the last such peoples remaining as hunters and gatherers. They are noted for their practice of 'molong' which means never taking more than necessary. They eat plants, which are also used as medicines, and animals and use the hides, skin, fur, and other parts for clothing and shelter. Penan communities were predominantly nomadic up until the 1950s. The period from 1950 to the present has seen consistent programs by the state government and foreign Christian missionaries to settle Penan into longhouse-based villages similar to those of Sarawak's other indigenous groups.

Today, the Penan number around 16,000. Only approximately 200 still live a nomadic lifestyle.

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