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ETHNONYMS: Idäan, Kadazan, Kalamantan, Kiaus, Piasau Id'an, Saghais, Sipulotes, Sundayak, Tambunwhas (Tambunaus), Tuhun Ngaavi


Identification. The Dusun live in northern Borneo and speak several regional dialects of a language belonging to the Austronesian family. The Dusun name for themselves, in the Penampang regional dialect, is "Tuhun Ngaavi" (the people). Dusun commonly have recognized differences among themselves through the use of geographic designations (e.g., Tambunan, Penampang, Tempassuk, etc.) and on the basis of dominant subsistence activity in rice agriculture, employing the descriptors tuhun id ranau (people of the wet rice fields) or tuhun id sakid (people of the hill rice fields) to note a distinction between subsistence based on irrigated rice and on swidden rice cultivation. The term "Dusun" has been used by Europeans, who, in the nineteenth century, adopted the colloquial Malay language usage, orang dusun (people of the orchards) as a standard reference term. The recent ethnological literature refers to this population as "Dusun," or has grouped the culture with a larger entity, the Kalimantan nation, which includes the Kalabit, Milanau, and Murut peoples of northern Borneo. In the years following the inclusion (on 16 September 1963) of the former British colony of North Borneo into the new nation of Malaysia as the state of Sabah, the Dusun people began to employ the term "Kadazan" to refer to themselves and to distinguish their culture and society from other indigenous populations in Sabah. Today many Dusun view the name "Dusun" as a legacy of European colonial domination and as a disparaging ethnic identification that discounts their long cultural history and knowledge as a people well-adapted to a demanding local environment.

Location. The Dusun population is found in the Malaysian state of Sabah, which comprises an area of 73,710 square kilometers on the northern tip of the island of Borneo between 4° and 7° N and 115° and 119° E. Dusun communities are located along Sabah's narrow eastern and northern coastal plains and in the central mountain interior ranges and valleys, with a few communities located in the headwater areas of the Labuk and Kinabatangan rivers. Sabah's climate is marked by a high average annual temperature (27° C) and humidity, seasonal heavy rains, gusty winds, and bright sunshine. These climatic factors vary somewhat with altitude and location in Sabah. Annual rainfall in the two yearly monsoon seasons (May to October, November to April) may total between 254 and 520 centimeters, depending on local topography. There may be dry periods of two to four weeks each year when the monsoon winds change direction. Monsoon rainstorm winds sometimes blow at gale force, while heavy rainfall often brings widespread flooding, particularly in Sabah's lowlying areas. The monsoon seasons are characterized by a period of several months when days have hot, sunny, and humid mornings followed by afternoon thunderstorms.

Demography. The 1960 census of North Borneo conducted by the British colonial government reported a total population of 454,421 persons with 306,498 individuals noted as members of "indigenous tribes." The Dusun were the most numerous of the twelve indigenous groups counted in that census, totaling 145,229 persons or approximately 47 percent of the indigenous population and 32 percent of the total population. A 1980 government census notes a total Sabah population of 955,712 persons. However, the census does not provide specific figures for the twenty-eight groups listed under the heading of pribumi or "indigenous" peoples, totaling 742,042 persons. It is possible to estimate, however, that in 1980 the Dusun population comprised at least 101,000 more persons than in 1960, based on an average annual rate of growth in Sabah of approximately 4 percent. A more accurate estimate of the 1980 Dusun population, based on a higher rate of population growth (approximately 6 percent annually) would place the total Dusun population at approximately 319,750 persons, or 43 percent of the Sabah pribumi population at that time. A reasonable estimate of the Dusun population in 1989, based on a 6 percent annual rate of population increase between 1980 and 1989, would be a total of about 492,400 persons. In 1989, the Dusun were the largest ethnic group in Sabah, followed by the Chinese.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Dusun language is classified as part of the Northwestern Group of Austronesian languages and is related to languages spoken in Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Madagascar.

History and Cultural Relations

The origin of the Dusun population is uncertain at present. Existing archaeological and physical anthropological evidence, considered with the results of historical and comparative studies, suggests that the Dusun are descendants of populations migrating into northern Borneo in successive waves some time about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago (and possibly earlier). They brought with them a Neolithic, or food-producing, way of life, based on swidden cultivation supplemented by hunting and foraging. Change in Dusun life, derived from contacts with other cultures, has been taking place for a long period. The historical record indicates contact, particularly in coastal communities in western and northern Sabah, between Dusun and Indians, Chinese, Malays, and Europeans. Thus, beginning after the seventh century b.c., Indian traders and travelers en route by boat to and from south China stopped briefly along the western and northern Borneo coasts to replenish supplies or seek shelter from severe South China Sea weather. These Indian travelers included various types of craftsmen and Brahman and Buddhist teachers and priests. During the time of the Western Han Empire (202 b.c. to a.d. 9), Chinese traders and religious pilgrims traveling to and from India also were in contact with the coastal peoples of western and northern Borneo, seeking local products. Chinese trade with India, with stops by ships along the coasts of Borneo, expanded several times until a.d. 1430, and included the establishment of some trading settlements, such as the one founded in a.d. 1375 at the mouth of the Kinabatangan river in the eastern part of north Borneo by a Chinese trader (Wang Sen-ping). These contacts between northern Borneo native peoples and Chinese traders and travelers over many centuries introduced a wide range of Chinese cultural forms to Bornean populations, and brought them the techniques and tools of irrigated rice agriculture using the water buffalo as a principal source of power in field preparation. Between the ninth and thirteenth centuries a.d. the early Malay Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya, centered in the area of the present-day city of Palembang, Sumatra, dominated the southern and southwestern coasts of Borneo. Representatives of this kingdom made contact with people along the coasts of western and northern Borneo. Then the powerful Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, located in Java, exercised state power in the same coastal areas of Borneo beginning in the early fourteenth century a.d. Islamic influences and cultural forms spread to the area as the state of Malacca, ruled by a Muslim prince, exerted its domination in the fifteenth century a.d. Some European cultural influences reached the western and northern Borneo coasts as traders sought local products, particularly spices, following the conquest of Malacca by a Portuguese fleet in a.d. 1511. Regular and intensive contacts between Europeans and the coastal peoples of Borneo did not begin until after the mid-nineteenth century a.d., as the British sought to establish protectorates to maintain the safety of trade routes through the South China Sea. In northern Borneo, a private chartered company was established by British investors in 1881, which ruled the area as a sovereign entity until 15 July 1946, when British North Borneo became a British colony. British colonial rule continued for seventeen more years, until North Borneo became the state of Sabah in Malaysia in September 1963. Thus the Dusun were in regular contact with British cultural and social forms for eighty-two years, during which power, authority, and law were usually imposed unilaterally and with little regard for Dusun tradition. These contacts brought Dusun to realize they were citizens of a Malaysian state, and also brought them into regular contact with a new national language (Bahasa Melayu) and an emphasis by the national government on Muslim religious traditions, values, and social practices.


Dusun communities traditionally number (as of 1959) about 300 to 400 persons and range from a low of about 100 persons to over 1,000 persons. Most Dusun communities are distinct, compact, or nucleated entities set in the center of, or directly adjacent to, food-producing areas. Dusun settlements employing swidden cultivation have a "longhouse" type of dwelling, or a series of nuclear-family apartments built on one level, fronted by a common veranda and covered by a common roof. Some Dusun swidden communities have several longhouses grouped closely together. Dusun communities basing their food production on irrigated rice agriculture often contain a number of separate nuclear-family dwellings grouped closely together in a type of "divided longhouse" form (e.g., family apartments no longer fronted by a common veranda or covered by a common roof) and are arranged along the length of a footpath, often on a rise or bluff overlooking nearby rice fields. Coconut palms, fruit trees, and other useful plants are grown near the houses in compact Dusun settlements using irrigated rice farming. In both types of Dusun community, family members move out at the beginning of the day to tend fields, perform various tasks connected with agriculture, or forage and hunt in nearby jungle areas. Structures in both kinds of Dusun community traditionally have hardwood support posts with split-bamboo sides and floors and either a bamboo-tile or atap palm-thatch roof.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Today irrigated rice agriculture is the dominant food-producing activity in Dusun communities. The rice is grown for use as a meal several times a day. The irrigated rice crop is set out initially as seedlings in nursery plots, then hand transplanted into small plots, less than a hectare in size, that are prepared by both women and men. Field preparation involves repair of the low earthen dikes used to retain the water that flows across the fields, as well as the repair of the irrigation systems employed by Dusun to bring water from nearby streams and rivers. The irrigation systems often involve transporting water across ravines through bamboo or wooden conduits and call for considerable practical knowledge of hydrodynamics, especially in leading water to fields located at a distance from a stream. Dusun wet-rice agriculture traditionally involves breaking the soil with a hoe and plowing the field with a flat-board harrow that has wooden teeth attached to the underside, pulled by a water buffalo wearing a woven rattan harness. The rice crop is harvested by hand and initially winnowed in fields on woven, split-bamboo mats. Further winnowing of the rice crop may occur near grain storehouses where any surplus is held until required for food or trade. The irrigated rice cycle is divided into eleven named phases, each associated with a specific kind of work activity and associated with ritual and ceremonial activities, including a communitywide harvest celebration. Dusun families also plant and tend small gardens near their houses, where they may grow some twenty-five types of foodstuff, including the sweet potato, greater yam, manioc, bottle gourd, various types of bean, squashes, chilies, and a wide variety of other garden crops. The borders of garden areas are used to cultivate trees and shrubs bearing coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, mango, papaya, durian, limes, and other fruits that supplement the daily rice diet. A half-dozen plants also are cultivated near Dusun houses or garden plots for use in manufacturing tools, shelter, and clothing. These plants include bamboo, kapok, betel palms, indigo, and derris. Dusun also eat the shoots of bamboo plants. A variety of domestic animals provide food, power, and raw materials for the Dusun. Chickens and ducks are common fowl, and geese are sometimes kept. Pigs and water buffalo both are used by Dusun as food; the buffalo is employed as a power source in rice agriculture. Pigs and water buffalo also play an important role in ritual activities that are a vital part of Dusun life. Dogs and cats are kept as domestic animals in most households, the dogs serving as hunting companions and the cats reducing the rat population in houses and rice-storage structures.

Industrial Arts. Dusun communities usually have parttime and seasonal male and female specialists expert in the making and repair of tools and implements used in agriculture and hunting and foraging activities. They also make and repair buffalo harnesses and plows and weave rattan fish traps and split-bamboo baskets of various kinds, rice-sifting trays, and other implements used in everyday storage and the carrying of foodstuffs. Metal tools, ceramic containers, and cloth traditionally have been obtained by Dusun from Chinese traders or merchants.

Trade. The Dusun have depended for centuries upon these traders for manufactured goods. In addition, weekly markets exist in most Dusun areas of Sabah. Here Dusun women bring local produce for sale or barter. Such markets are also places for buying various manufactured goods.

Division of Labor. Traditional household tasks are assigned to Dusun females, although males are expected to undertake household work if their wives are ill, in the late stages of pregnancy, or absent from the community for a time. Dusun men perform the heavy labor associated with house and storehouse building and getting wood and bamboo supplies for this purpose. Men and women work together in most swidden rice agricultural tasks, including field repair, planting, harvesting, and weeding. Men undertake the clearing and firing of fields in the preparation of swidden rice cultivation because these activities are considered too dangerous for women. The construction and repair of irrigation channels used in wet-rice agriculture tend to be the task of men, although women often participate. Men are expected to participate in infant and child care. Dusun women do not hunt, are not skilled in the weapons used in the hunt, and have little knowledge of hunting lore. The weaving of split-bamboo mats, field hats, and sifting trays are the exclusive domain of women; males have scant knowledge or skill in such work.

Land Tenure. Irrigated wet-rice agriculture is based on a set of cultural beliefs concerning the use and inheritance of land. Individual ownership and the inheritance of irrigated fields by descendants of landowners form the cornerstones of this system of land tenure. A steadily increasing population has placed significant pressure on the ownership and inheritance of irrigated rice lands and has resulted recently in the growth of a group of young Dusun unable to own land. This has caused migration of many young people to the towns and cities of Sabah to seek wage-labor incomes. Thus Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah state capital, grew from 21,719 persons in 1960 to 108,725 persons in 1980.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent in Dusun culture is bilateral. Ego-oriented kindreds also are present and are active in celebration of important events in the life of an individual. For Dusun, a kindred is a group of relatives recognizing their relationship to a particular individual without regard to whether the relationship is traced through a male or female relative. Dusun also have specific social groups, all members of which are descendants of a particular founding ancestor, whose activities are told in legend and folktale on special occasions of ritual feasting and ceremony, and in whose name some land and moveable property are owned. These ancestor-oriented kin groups conventionally have regulated marriage between members through insistence on the practice of endogamy.

Kinship Terminology. Dusun traditionally employ Eskimo cousin terminology. They also emphasize the relative ages of unrelated persons through use of special kin terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are typically monogamous, although polygynous marriage is permitted between older, wealthy males and younger females believed capable of producing healthy infants. Dusun commonly prohibit marriage with any first or second cousin and view marriage with third cousins as distasteful. There is some freedom in choosing marriage partners, within limits set by Dusun culture. Following an arrangement to marry between a man and a woman, often made in secret, formal discussions concerning marriage are initiated by the man's father, paternal grandfather, or a father's brother with the woman's father, paternal grandfather, or a father's brother. Marriage involves direct and substantial payment by a groom to the father of the bride. Marriages tend to be locally exogamous. Following marriage, couples routinely establish independent family households close to both their families, although a newly married couple may reside initially with the groom's father and occasionally with the bride's father while working to accumulate enough wealth to establish an independent household. Termination of marriage, other than through death of a spouse, requires initial arbitration by a community leader, then a formal hearing if the effort at reconciliation fails. A ritual fine may be required of an individual found to be at fault in the dissolution of a marriage.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the minimal family unit occupying a household. Some relatives may be added to the nuclear family as the need arises to support them, particularly if they are aged, ill, or handicapped. These relatives are expected to assist in some way in the household unit.

Inheritance. The Dusun traditionally follow the general principle that all children should receive a fair share of the estates of their parents. A child who cares for an aged parent before death may receive some special additional consideration in property inheritance. A husband has little control over the property brought to a marriage by his wife. The Dusun have developed and use a traditional system for deciding complex questions concerning the distribution of property.

Socialization. Parents tend to share the care of infants and young children. Older siblings often care for infants and young children when parents are away from the household at work. The process of cultural transmission traditionally provides for a long period of freedom from most tasks for maturing children, with few restrictions on their behavior. Then, at about 11 or 12 years of age, children are expected to begin to participate in daily work activities and to be responsible members of their families and community. Prior to this age children are considered by parents to be naturally inclined to noisiness and illness, somewhat temperamental, easily offended, quick to forget, and prone to wandering away from home. Dusun parents try to shape this nature through use of a wide variety of specific physical and verbal rewards and punishments. Because infants and young children are not viewed as competent humans until they reach about 11 or 12 years of age, they are not judged harshly or punished by parents when they misbehave.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Dusun jurisdictional hierarchy is traditionally organized at the level of the local community. In the past they have given no attention to larger sociopolitical entities such as parish, district, province, or a political state. Their communities are led by males selected through an informal, community-wide consensus, who hold formai office as "headmen" (mohoingon ) with wide powers. This office is viewed by Dusun as nonhereditary in its succession.

Social Organization. Society is traditionally organized about several territorially based divisions that serve as a focal point for the performance of certain ritual and ceremonial activities. These territorial divisions may contain one or several mutual-aid groups whose members assist each other in heavy work (for example, house building or field clearing). Dusun society is also organized on the basis of age, sex, personal and family wealth, and the region of residence. Seniority in age, for both females and males, plays an important part in social life. Women are widely respected for their specialized craft, ritual, and ceremonial knowledge.

Political Organization. Dusun are citizens of the nation of Malaysia, a federal parliamentary democracy based on the British model. Malaysia contains thirteen states, each with an elected assembly and headed by a chief minister. In Sabah, the state assembly has forty-eight seats. The chief minister, Mr. Joseph Pairin Kitingan, a 49-year-old Dusun, is a Christian and the first Dusun to qualify as a lawyer in Malaysia. First elected to office in 1985 in an upset victory over the candidates of two Muslim-led political parties, Mr. Kitingan's political party (PBS, or Parti Bersatu SabahSabah United Party) gained control of the state government by winning a majority of seats in the assembly. Following state-court challenges by members of the previous state government and their allies, Mr. Kitingan called another assembly election in 1986. During the two-month election campaign there were violent incidents that included rioting and bombings by political activists supporting the main opposition party, Bersatu Rakyat Jelata (Sabah People's Union or Berjaya). The PBS party of Mr. Kitingan increased its majority in the Sabah state assembly in the elections held in May 1986, and Mr. Kitingan continued in office as chief minister. In June 1986 the PBS party became part of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) political party, an alliance of thirteen parties that presently is the ruling party in Malaysia. Thus, the Dusun now live in a complex nation-state political setting organized significantly beyond their traditional sociopolitical concerns. A head of state with the power of constitutional oversight, a prime minister directing a national government and substantial internal security and defense forces, and a bicameral parliamentall these are distant democratic forces affecting daily Dusun life through executive and legislative decisions.

Social Control. Social control in Dusun communities is maintained largely through informal sanctions, including shame, mockery, gossip, and ridicule, with some use of shunning behavior. The Dusun have also developed more formal means of dealing at the community level with individuals accused of serious violations of the norms and mores of traditional life. Dusun have several techniques for litigating complaints against individuals. Litigation occurs in the context of a body of abstract principles that are imbued with an aura of tradition, or koubasan, which provides a moral and ethical authority that binds all persons involved in litigation to that body of abstract principles. Litigation in Dusun communities is conducted by a village leader (the mohoingon) who functions in ways that establish facts in a case and who may administer one or several tests of truth. The leader also has the power to levy various fines and several kinds of punishment against persons found guilty of violating traditional behavior. Litigation is a public process.

Conflict. Dusun traditionally have engaged in conflict between communities, with organized raiding parties of men seeking to engage in hand-to-hand combat persons, social groups, or communities believed to have caused an imbalance of personal or community fortune (nasip tavasi ) and luck (ki nasip ). Such armed conflict usually arose from an effort to restore the fate or luck of individuals or a community that had been made bad (aiso nasip, talat ) through the real or supposed acts of some individual, group, or other community. The objective of combat was to secure trophies for a display that publicly symbolized a full restoration of good fortune and luck. Among such trophies were the severed heads of individuals vanquished in close combat. Head trophies were given special care, often stored in particular places, including house eaves, and formed an integral part of special rituals and ceremonies held periodically in Dusun communities to note formally that community and individual luck and fortune remained in balance. Following 1881, the Chartered Company acted vigorously, but until near the time of World War II with limited success, to suppress head-taking combat. Such conflict has not subsequently been a feature of Dusun life.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Dusun traditionally are animists, believing there is a direct and continuing relationship between the events of daily life and a complex world of good and evil supernatural beings and unseen forces. Dusun also believe that proper ritual and ceremonial acts can be interposed between humans and supernatural beings and forces in an attempt to modify, or even to control, events that cause humans to fall ill, be uncertain, lose their luck, feel pain, or become fearful.

Religious Beliefs. Dusun conceptions of the universe include a variety of malevolent supernatural beings and forces believed to be responsible for the personal crises of human life, including accidents, illness, and death. These harmful beings include entities and forces that have existed since the time of the creation of the world, as well as the souls of the dead doomed by the creator being to an eternity of wandering and cannibalism because of evil deeds performed while alive. A group of beneficial spirit beings and forces is also believed to be important in keeping order in the universe and in daily human life. The most important of these supernatural beings and forces in everyday life is the "spirit of the rice," a female entity who serves as the guardian of the rice crop and rice storehouse and in whose name specific rituals are performed at times of rice planting and harvest. In addition, Dusun traditionally believe in the existence of a specific class of named supernaturals whose attributes and powers are known and used by ritual specialists as they seek to divine and control events leading to life crises. A creator force, personified into a being called "Asundu," who has a legendary history and is possessed of awesome powers, is said to have shaped the universe and to direct the destiny of all its inhabitants. A specific power of the creator, believed to be derived from the inexhaustible store of the power of this being, is said to provide for the curative and restorative powers of female and male ritual specialists. Objects, geographic locations, and persons are said to be imbued with considerable amounts of this power and must be treated with respect or avoided if possible. A special designation (apagun ) and carved symbols are used by Dusun to "wall off such locations or objects from inadvertent human contact. Today, large numbers of Dusun have become Christians and so reject many animistic beliefs and practices. Some have also become Muslims.

Religious Practitioners. Some male and female individuals in each Dusun community are specially knowledgeable in the many ritual and ceremonial acts used to mediate between humans and the supernatural world. These rituals and ceremonies involve spirit possession, use of symbolic objects, recitation of lengthy sacred verses, and often center upon specific individuals, places, or crops afflicted with a disease or ill fortune. The effectiveness of a ritual or ceremony is said to depend upon precisely following correct procedures and the accurate recitations of verses. Female ritual specialists tend to concentrate on curing and divination regarding individual illness and bad fortune. Male ritual specialists tend to concern themselves with alleviation or prevention of a worldwide scope. The verses recited by female and male ritual specialists are often expressed in an archaic form of the Dusun language not known or widely used in a community; they are learned through long apprenticeship to senior ritual specialists.

Ceremonies. Public performances of ritual acts, many concerned with the annual swidden and irrigated rice agricultural cycle, are a regular feature. Ceremonies marking individual life-cycle stages or transitions (for example, birth, marriage, and death) are also important.

Arts. Art and house architecture are imbued with forms and designs common to other native Bornean peoples. Many of these art forms are believed by Dusun to express a "spiritual" (id dasom ginavo ) intent or quality, and are said to exhibit their deep understanding, or ginavo, and respect for Dusun tradition, or koubasan. Traditional musical instruments include a bamboo mouth harp, a bamboo-and-gourd wind instrument, and gongs of various sizes obtained in the past from Chinese traders. Dusun men have traditionally practiced tattooing of their necks, forearms, and shoulders with intricate designs of deep spiritual meaning.

Medicine. Personal illness is believed by Dusun to derive from bad fortune, various actions taken by harmful supernatural beings and forces, and the malign intentions of human adversaries. A wide range of medicinal remedies, derived from various plant and animal products and made into different lotions and poultices, is used to help alleviate and cure illness. Special importance is attached to a variety of a swamp-plant root that is believed to have magical and curative powers and is used by female specialists when seeking to divine and cure personal illness.

Death and Afterlife. The Dusun believe that following death the spirit of an individual proceeds to the supernatural world. There the spirits of the dead are said to rest near the creator being in a world similar to the human world but lacking disease, bad fortune, failed crops, and combat, where all things are new and never in need of replenishment. Some spirits of the dead are believed not to reach the place of the dead since they are captured en route by harmful spirits or eaten by cannibal spirits. A period of formal mourning, which includes a number of ritual and ceremonial actions, is intended to ease the transition of the dead to their new life in the afterworld.


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