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ETHNONYMS: Sabah Murut: Idahan, Tagal, Taggal, Tagol, Tagul; Sarawak Murut: Kelabit, Kemaloh Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Lun Daya, Lun Daye, Southern Murut


The term "Murut" translates as "hill people," and refers to two culturally distinct peoples living between 5° 20 and 3° 20 N, in central Borneo. Linguistically, there are two main groups. The Sabah (or Idahan) Muruts speak a language that belongs to the North Indonesian Branch of the Austronesian Family, and numbered approximately 35,000 in 1972; the Sarawak (or Kelabitic) Muruts speak a language that belongs to the West Indonesian Branch of the Austronesian Family, and numbered approximately 5,000 in 1987. Though culturally distinct, the two groups share practices pertaining to warfare, burial, and religion.


The Idahan traditionally lived in longhouse villages at the confluence of a river and a tributary; they now live in smaller longhouses that are spread out along the tributary, and there are no longer village centers. Kelabits inhabit fairly large longhouses (as long as 75 meters, and housing an average of 100 people), which are built in clusters on alluvial plains.


Idahan practice swidden agriculture, the most important crop being rice; corn, bananas, sugarcane, tobacco, citrus fruits, etc., are also grown. Wet-rice agriculture is practiced only by three lowland groups. Fishing is important, much of it being done with poison and traps. Idahan raise pigs as a form of wealth; they are used for sacrifices and to pay bride-prices and fines; dogs are raised for hunting. Kelabits, on the other hand, raise rice, primarily through the use of irrigated fields, and also produce large numbers of cattle. The baya is their system of labor exchange, in which groups of workers farm each other's land in turn. Surplus rice and cattle, as well as salt, are important items of trade. Kelabit families own parcels of wet-rice land individually.


For the Idahan, the nuclear family is of paramount importance; the extended family has an undefined role. The Kelabits reckon descent ambilineally.

Marriage and Family

The Idahan prohibit marriage and sex between members of the nuclear family, with uncles, and with first cousins and their descendants for five generations. Formerly, first cousins who had sexual relations were speared to death, but such relations are now allowed if a payment is made. Polygyny is allowed. A prospective groom's father arranges the details of the betrothal and marriage with the prospective bride's family. His family should pay a betrothal fee, a bride-price, and the expenses of the wedding feast; with the exception of the bride-price (which may be paid much later), these fees are not mandatory. A man without a son may allow a daughter to marry without a bride-price if she and her husband care for him in old age. Residence is patrilocal. Kelabit marriages place a great deal of emphasis on social class; a man need pay a bride-price only when he is of low class and wishes to marry an aristocrat's daughter. There is no firm rule regarding postmarital residence.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Murut have no political unity above the village level. The Idahan once had three classes of slaves. A prisoner of war (the lowest class of slave) could become a member of the tribe as an ulipon. Marriage to another ulipon meant that the children would remain ulipon as well, and would also have to live with their owner. A slave's marriage to a free woman meant status as a debt-slave to his father-in-law, with whom he would have to live. Another salient feature of Murut social organization is the class distinction practiced by the Kelabits. There is a large distinction between "good" (Paran or aristocrats) and "bad" (low-class) people; this distinction is based on the amount of inherited wealth (jars, beads, gongs, etc.) a family has. The major difference between the two classes is that until recently the leading aristocrat had legal authority; in still earlier times, headhunting was a pursuit of the aristocrats as well. Presently, the Kelabit longhouse legal authority (Penghulu) is elected by popular vote.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Among the Idahan, women who know how to perform the required rituals may become spirit mediums (babalian ) and do such things as curing and performing exorcisms of people and houses. Spirit mediums among the Kelabits, however, are old men who contact guardian spirits for advice about things such as rice planting. The Kelabits practice secondary burials. The death feast that accompanies the secondary burial is extremely expensive and takes place only every few years, usually on the occasion of the death of an aristocrat whose family can bear the expense for themselves (and for the poor, who take advantage of the occasion simultaneously to bury their own dead ritually). Kelabits are also known for their megalithic culture.


LeBar, Frank M. (1972). "Kelabitic Murut." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar, 158-163. New Haven: HRAF Press.

LeBar, Frank M. (1972). "Murut." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar, 153-154. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Prentice, D. J. (1972). "Idahan Murut." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar, 154-158. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Saging, Robert Lian R., and Lucy Bulan (1989). "Kelabit Ethnography: A Brief Report." Sarawak Museum Journal 40:89-118.