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"Kenyan-Kayan-Kajang" is a term referring to a complex of riverine culture groups living in Sarawak. The Kenyah and Kayan are the main groups, whereas the Kajang consist of a number of small groups that are assimilating to one or the other of the other two. There are numerous subgroups as well. The Kayan live in the central portions of major central Borneo rivers (Kayan, Mahakam, Kapuas, Rajang, and Baram); the Kenyah live in the Apo Kayan drainage. The complex as a whole occupies an area within 1° to 3° N., and 113°00 to 116°30 E. In 1980, the population of Kenyah and Kayan was 28,925. Kenyah and Kayan are closely related Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Kenyah and Kayan people consider the head of the Kayan River their point of origin. The Kenyah seem to have inhabited central Borneo for a considerable length of time, whereas the Kayan, a mobile and conquering group, came relatively lately from the south and east. The Kayan enslaved and assimilated the Murut and other groups in the area. In the early twentieth century, the Brooke regime put an end to the headhunting and warfare practiced by these peoples.


Among the Kenyah, the village consists of one longhouse. Among the Kayan, a village (which may have from 30 to 1,148 inhabitants) consists of a group of longhouses. Each village has a section of river as its own territory. As a result of soil degradation, a village will move along the river, returning after 12 to 15 years. The Kayan longhouses are impressive for their size and durability. They are raised on pilings (originally as part of a defense strategy), are constructed of ironwood planks, and may be as long as 300 meters; they may house 500 people each (although the average is 200-300). Each family owns the planks and beams that make up its part of the longhouse. Unmarried older boys and men sleep on the veranda, while unmarried girls, women, and female slaves live with their respective families.


Rice, raised in swiddens, is the staple; corn, yams, pumpkins, cucumbers, and tobacco are also raised. In some Kenyah groups, rice cultivation is controlled by women. Fishing, which is more important to the diet than is hunting, is accomplished primarily by poisoning with tuba root. Hunting is mainly done with dogs and blowguns, and the most important game is the wild pig. Goats, dogs, pigs, and chickens are raised domestically, the latter two for sacrifice. The Kenyah and Kayan are skilled woodworkers, metalworkers, and canoe builders. They trade their knives and swords, which are famous throughout central Borneo. For the Kenyah, rubber has become the most important cash crop. A Kayan individual who clears primary forest land has undisputed ownership of it.

Marriage and Family

Kayan and Kenyah marry within their own classes. Marriage among commoners is often within the longhouse community, and first-cousin marriage is prohibited; bride-price is usually optional in lieu of bride-service. Residence is ambilocal. Among the aristocracy, marriage is usually outside the longhouse, and there is no bar to first-cousin marriage. An aristocrat male marries first an aristocrat female; after this he is free to marry polygynously a woman from any class. The children produced by such a marriage are of an intermediate class. Male offspring inherit gongs, weapons, and canoes; females inherit beads, though the value of shares is equal among all offspring.


Kinship terminology is bilateral, reflects generation, and has an Eskimo-type cousin terminology. Descent is bilineal or ambilineal. Villages tend to be made up of people related consanguineally and affinally. Among the Kayans, each village (urna ) has its own aristocratic genealogy.

Sociopolitical Organization

Kenyahs, Kayans, and Kajangs live in highly stratified societies. Aristocrats (ipun urna or keta'u ) are politically dominant and allied with each other through marriage over an area that crosses tribal and linguistic boundaries. Their wealth is in gongs, beads, and jars. They control the use of bird's nest caves (where swallows' nests, used for food, abound), and because they own slaves they are able to grow much more food than can commoners. Middle-class commoners (farmers and craftsmen) are known as panyun. Slaves (lupau or lepen ) are the descendants of prisoners of war. Within the village, each longhouse has a headman, who is an aristocrat. In villages having more than one longhouse, one of the longhouse headmen is also a village headman. There is no political unity above the level of the village, although in the past large war parties composed of the men of several villages were organized. Kayan headmen also receive free agricultural labor from village members.

Religion and Expressive Culture

A central feature of the life of these peoples was the mamat, or head feast, which is now rare owing to Christian influence. The mamat required a new head; its purposes included ritual purification, marking the end of a period of mourning for a deceased kinsman, or the ritual completion of a new longhouse.


LeBar, Frank M. (1972). "Kenyah-Kayan-Kajang." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar, 168173. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Sagan, Jacob Dungau (1989). "The Kenyah People of Sarawak." Sarawak Museum Journal 40:119-141.

Uyo, Lah Jau (1989). "Kayan People of Sarawak." Sarawak Museum Journal 40:56-88.


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