The Penan Tribe’s Poison-Dart Specialists Hunt the Old-Fashioned Way

No 32

Of all Borneo's indigenous tribes, the Penan of Sarawak, in the northern part of the island, remain most connected to traditional forest living. Their homeland (now part of Malaysia) has been massively deforested over the last half-century, making this an increasingly threatened way of life. Among the old customs that have remained, in pockets, is that of the deadly blowpipe.

It's used nowadays to hunt forest game, not enemies. In any case, the Penan—“the only indigenous people in Borneo with no history of headhunting," according to ethnologist Wade Davis in Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest—have generally been of more peaceful temperament than their neighbors.

Recent decades have seen snares and guns replace the blowpipe and its poison-tip darts. But some hunters—older men, mostly—still use the traditional weaponry, especially for killing smaller prey.

One advantage is the stealth factor: the blowpipe fires in silence, and so a missed shot can be retaken. But it also takes many years to master, and handling the poison can be dangerous. Veterans have missing front teeth to prove it.

And there is the making of the blowpipe, a painstaking task. It involves boring a narrow channel into a tree trunk by hand, millimeters at a time. The Penan now use iron rods in lieu of bones for this step, but it still requires days of forearm-burning labor.

The favored wood for a blowpipe is belian, or ironwood, a slow-growing hardwood so dense that it sinks in water. In more developed parts of the Baram, flooding caused by man-made dams have all but eliminated this precious wood. But it still flourishes in the Upper Baram, particularly in the intact forests along the Selungo River.

After hollowing out the trunk, the blowpipe maker carves it down to a slender tube. He takes the edges off using sandpaper, then uses leaves to rub it to a pristine smoothness. A full-length pipe often stands taller than its user.

The poison applied to the dart tips comes from the sap of the antiaris toxicaria plant. It is a very handy poison, in that it kills an animal without contaminating the meat. Without it, the blowpipe—a product of some of the oldest rainforest knowledge left on earth—wouldn't be quite the formidable tool it is.

This excerpt was edited using footage shot for Sunset Over Selungo (2014), directed and edited by Ross Harrison.


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