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LOCATION: Malaysia (Sarawakstate)
POPULATION: 14,000 (2004)
RELIGION: Animism; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Iban; Kelabit; Vol. 4: Malaysian Malays


The Penan are among the last of the nomadic hunter-gatherers living in the world's tropical rain forests today, and have been described as the true aborigines of the island of Borneo. They are believed to have originated from the upper Kayan River, Today the Penan are a subgroup of the Orang Ulu in the state of Sarawak. They can be categorized into two groups: Western Penan (those who settle along the Rajang River) and Eastern Penan (those living along the Baram River).


There are about 14,000 Penan. The Western Penan, which consists of Penan Silat (Baram District), Penan Geng, Penan Apau, and Penan Bunut, are centered in the Belaga District and the Silat River basin in the Kapit and Bintulu divisions. The Eastern Penan, also known as Penan Selungo after the Selungo River, live mostly in the Baram River basin in Miri and Lim-bang divisions.

About a quarter of the population is settled, half is semi-settled, living part of the time in small, scattered villages, and the rest are nomadic (about 2,000 people). The settled Penan, like many other indigenous communities in Sarawak, lives in either longhouses or single houses in village settlements. Whereas the nomadic Penan, who live in bands, are still practicing a lifestyle by which they rely heavily on the forest to provide most of what they need to live. Each band usually consists of 2 to 10 families, or 20-40 people, who move around together within their own territory. Unless they are invited by a neighboring group to eat a meal of fruit together, other groups are not supposed to encroach on the territory of a nomadic group.

The Penan, like some other tribes in Sarawak, have a Mongoloid cast to their features, but their skin coloring is noticeably lighter than that of most of the locals. This is because of their dislike of the sun and preference for jungle shade. Unlike their neighbors, the settled Dayaks, the Penan have been less influenced by the outside world.


The Penan speak their own language, called Penan, with dialectical variations. Even though they do not have a written language, the Penan have a very interesting method of relaying messages. Various items, such as shoots, leaves, stones, sticks, and feathers, are used to leave messages along the paths in the jungle. They are used to show directions, to give instructions to wait or to follow, and to indicate danger, hunger, disease, death, or food. The Penan usually poke sticks in the ground to which they attach leaves or feathers to show direction, time, and number of families passing through.

In the 1970s, missionaries tried for the first time to put the Penan language into writing. One of their accomplishments was to write and compile a Penan Bible.


The Penan, like every other tribe on Borneo, have many myths, epics, and legends. Oia Abeng is their most popular epic poem. Unfortunately, all but small fragments of the epics have been forgotten. This is both because the lyrics are orally transmitted, and because the younger generations are losing interest in oral traditions.

One of the Penan's popular folk tales is that of the god of thunder, Bale Gau, who has the power to turn people into stone. The Penan believe that when the spirit of an animal, dead or alive, is angered, the spirit may call upon Bale Gau to inflict its curse on people. Most ancient rock formations are believed to have once been people who were punished by the god of thunder for mocking an animal spirit dressed with human clothes.


Many Penan have chosen to embrace Christianity, with the support of Borneo Evangelical Mission, while the rest remain animist, believing in a supreme god called Bungan, and that nature itself has a soul. They also believe that forests are filled with powerful spirits, and that these spirits must not be disturbed. They get angry and inflict disease on people if they are deliberately disturbed. Therefore, the Penan leave these spirits in peace, appease them with sacrifices, or threaten them using magic words.

The Penan also believe strongly in taboos and omens. Dreams, animals, such as deer and snakes, and bird sounds and flights are omens indicating the correct course of action. For example, a Penan will turn back if he or she hears a king-fisher's call at the start of a journey. He or she will continue the journey only if the call of the crested rainbird is heard. They believe if they disobey the taboos and omens, they will experience hardships, illness, or death.


See the articles entitled Kelabit, Iban, and Malaysian Malays .


Childbirth is usually done at home with the help of a midwife or an experienced elder. All children grow up without birthday parties, graduations, or other ceremonies that mark the passage of time.

Since the Penan believe that knowledge is acquired through experience, their children receive training from their elders at a young age. The importance of sharing and showing respect for elders is also instilled at a young age. Since selfishness is considered a serious crime by the Penan, their children are taught to share everything with other people. Even a tiny fruit is sliced in enough pieces so that everyone can have a bite.

Penan children learn how to survive in the jungle at a young age. They learn the names and uses of myriad plants and animals in the forest. They learn how to navigate through the jungle without compasses or maps, how to start a fire, build a shelter, and make tools. By watching and helping his father and grandfathers, a boy learns how to make blowpipes and darts. He learns to hunt with his friends in the forest. A girl learns to weave by watching and helping her mother and grandmothers. She learns to gather fruits, nuts, and fish with her friends.

A person usually gets married at the age of 16, when she or he has mastered the skills and knowledge needed to support a family. A marriage does not involve a ceremony. With the consent of their parents, a young woman and man may simply decide to live together as husband and wife.

When a person dies, the body is wrapped in woven mats, which will later be buried near the camp or under the hearth of the dead person's hut. In order to soften their grief, the Penan will leave the place and build new shelters in another part of the forest. They believe in an afterlife. Their heaven is a rain forest above the sky where human souls hunt and harvest sago palm without illness, hardship, or pain.


The Penans are gentle, shy, and timid people, in contrast to their primitive and savage image in the eyes of others. They are the only tribe that never practiced headhunting in Sarawak. They avoid conflict, and resort to negotiation if there is a misunderstanding.

A Penan turns away his or her gaze when greeting someone, and avoids eye-to-eye contact with a stranger. Their normal way of greeting is to shake hands, and the hands are never tightly squeezed. It is taboo to mention someone's real name in his or her presence. Therefore, expressions such as "brother" (pade), "father" (mam), "respected man" (lakei dja-au), and "respected woman" are used.

It is impolite to walk directly towards another person. The Penan bend slightly and make a bow when they pass by someone or a group of people. Usually a bow is also made before a meal. It is taboo to step over food served for a meal, as this pollutes the meal, as well as the host and the person herself or himself.

Sharing is a central value and survival tactic for the Penan, so, all wild game and collected forest products are shared equally within the community. When food is short, a hunter will march for hours to bring food for the group. This will ensure the survival of the children, the old, the sick and less fortunate, and the community as a whole.


The nomadic Penan live in the forest, while the settled Penan live in longhouses and are agriculturalists. While the nomadic are hunters and gatherers of forest products, like fruits, mushroom, game, and wild sago, the settled Penan are farmers. The settled Penan grow hill rice and rear chicken and pigs for domestic use. There are some groups that are now cultivating cash crops, such as rubber, pepper, palm oil, and cocoa. These groups settle in villages and do have access to the market and modern infrastructure. Meanwhile, the nomads do not have permanent houses but live, rather, in simple shelters or huts (selap) that are built to last only for three to four weeks. By that time, they will need to move on. These huts are constructed with wooden sticks as supports, palm leaves for roofing, and split bamboo pieces or small sticks for flooring. Strips of rattan are used to hold these materials together. The huts in the settlement can be built very close together or very far from each other.

A nomadic "village" usually consists of about 30 persons, though the number may vary from 5 or 6 to as many as 160 persons. These temporary settlements are built on the tops of hills to avoid the risk of being hit by a falling tree. Thus, water has to be carried some distance in bamboo containers. These settlements will be moved when the supply of sago palm, their staple diet, is exhausted, or when game or jungle produce becomes scarce and difficult to find in the area.

The nomadic Penan household goods and personal possessions are very few and most are carried in backpacks made from rattan. They include a spear, a bamboo container of wooden darts, a small gourd containing the dart heads, one or two machetes encased in wooden sheaths, a couple of cooking pots, several rattan baskets, and a couple of woven rattan mats.


Penan women never hunt. Most foraging is done by men, while the women's primary sphere is the encampment. A woman is responsible for raising children, preparing food, gathering wood and water, and weaving baskets and mats from rattan and bamboo strips. A Penan woman exercises her influence through relating with her husband, who will in turn relate her wishes to others. However, she is allowed to indicate her desires to the community when necessary.

The family size of nomadic Penan is smaller in comparison to those of both the settled Penan and other tribes in Sarawak. The rate of infant mortality is high, due to the rigors of their existence. There are, on average, three children per family among nomadic Penans, while settled Penan families may average five children. A family consists of a mother, a father, and at least one child. Sometimes a family is joined by the grandparents.

Traditionally, polygyny and polyandry were practiced, whereby a man could have two wives and a woman could have two husbands. However, monogamy is the norm today. A marriage may happen without any celebration or ceremonial event. Two people are considered married as soon as they establish their own household.

Each Penan family owns about a dozen dogs. Dogs are important in the life of the Penan. They are neither kept as pets nor eaten. They are, rather, used in the hunting and tracking of wild game. Some other animals are kept as pets. There are times when a hunter will return with a live baby animal, such as a bear, a monkey, or a bat. These animals are kept as pets by the children. A Penan will never kill and eat an animal that has been fed, even when the animal is mature, ready for slaughter, and the Penan are hungry. It is unthinkable for a Penan to keep and raise an animal for the purpose of living off its meat or its milk.


There is no known Penan group that ever went about totally naked, although the primary, and sometimes only, article of clothing for most Penan groups is the loincloth or chawat. Even though loincloths traditionally were made of bark-cloth, today they are made of cotton. These materials are obtained through trade with other tribes such as the Kayans, Kenyahs, Kelabit, and the coastal Malay and Chinese traders. These days, few Penan go barefoot. In fact, only Penan elders still maintain traditional dress of chawat, bands on their legs and wrists, and large holes in their earlobes. Many others are wearing Western-style clothes of T-shirts, shirts, pants, and shorts.


The semi-settled Penan depend partially on rice and tapioca from their plantations for food, while the nomadic Penan depend entirely on the forest for their survival. Their staple food is wild sago palm, which is supplemented with wild game and wild fruits gathered from the jungle. With their blowpipes and hunting dogs they roam the forest in search of wild sago while hunting animals, fishing, and gathering wild fruits for their daily existence. The wild game hunted by the Penan includes mousedeer, wild boar (Borneoan bearded pig), five different kinds of monkey, barking deer, birds, and occasionally bear and python. The wild boar is the most valuable catch, as it is a source of both protein and fat. Other food includes the pith of the sago palm, fish, and shrimp from the river.

Sago flour is usually cooked with water. The starchy flour is poured into the water and is cooked until it congeals into the consistency of paste. It is then eaten with wooden "forks" out of a common pan. Sago can also be baked or fried in lard, and it is also used to thicken soup. The Penan eat sago with wild game, like Americans eat potatoes with meat.


Traditionally, the Penan did not go to school. However, through the government's persuasions, more and more Penan are attending government schools. In 1987, about 250 Penan attended primary schools, while about 50 others attended other schools farther away. At the beginning of the 21st century, it was estimated that less than 12 Penan youth attain a tertiary education. These are mostly the children of the settled Penan. While the children of the settled Penan are attending government schools, the children of the nomadic Penan get their lessons from their parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. The elders are perceived as full of knowledge and wisdom that need to be imparted to the younger generations. The Penan also believe that knowledge is taught by experience; therefore, from a young age a child is taught the skills to survive in the forest.


Even though they have a very simple lifestyle, the Penan are a musical people. All their musical instruments are made of wood and bamboo. There are five different kinds of musical instruments that are widely played: the mouth organ (kellore/ kelure), jaw-harp (oreng), flute (kringon), four-stringed instrument (pagang), and lute (sape). The kelure is made from a dried gourd with six bamboo pipes, three long and three short, each with finger holes at the base. It produces a sound similar to a flute. The oreng is made of wood, about 18 cm (7 in) long and 2.5 cm (1 in) wide. The wood is well carved and weighted with resin. Slots are cut in the wood to make a long tongue for vibration. More slots are cut in the tongue to enhance the sound. While the oreng is made of wood, the pagang is made from a piece of bamboo about 60 cm (24 in) long and 10 cm (4 in) wide and is only played by women. Group and solo dances are danced to the rhythmic strumming or sound of these various instruments.

Part of Penan cultural heritage is their wide knowledge of nearly everything they need in the forest. They use about 30 different kinds of plant drugs to dress wounds and treat headaches, stomachaches, poisoning, rashes, and other ailments. Although some have a slower effect compared to chemically derived drugs, there are others that have an immediate effect on certain ailments. For example tongue and mouth rashes in small children disappear within a few minutes after chewing a leaf stem of benua-tokong. Different kinds of vines and barks are crushed and used as soap. More than 20 kinds of fruit leaves, bark, and skin are used for dyeing rattan. The Penan also know more than 30 different kinds of rattan, which are used for weaving and handicrafts.


The nomadic Penan earn their living primarily by hunting and gathering. They are considered to be the real masters of the forest, being expert hunters and trackers. Hunting is done with dogs and with simple weapons such as spears, blowpipes, and poison arrows. It can be done in small groups, pairs, or alone, depending on the kind of animal they are seeking. Large animals such as deer and wild boars require a group of hunters and their dogs.

Besides hunting, the Penan gather a wide variety of nuts, fruits, mushrooms, and leaves. These provide them with additional foods. They eat more than 100 different kinds of fruits, and 30 different species of fish. Fishing is usually done by the women. There are several ways this is carried out. Fruit-eating fish are lured into the fishing nets by throwing stones that make the same size splash as falling fruit. Another way is to dump poison made from crushed plants into a slowly moving stream. This will cause the fish to die and float to the surface of the water, where they can be picked up.

Weaving mats and baskets is also work done mostly by the women. They spend a large amount of their time slicing rattan into strips of various sizes, dyeing the strips, and then weaving them by hand into intricate geometric patterns.


Hunting and gathering are not only tasks that need to be done daily, but the Penan also treat them as sport or as forms of entertainment and recreation. While the older people spend most of their time away from the camp, the children play games within the settlement areas. They climb trees, splash in the streams, and slide down muddy slopes.


Deep in the jungle where a supply of electricity is impossible to obtain, movies, and television as forms of entertainment do not exist. Therefore, the nomadic Penan's forms of recreation and entertainment are very different from those of settled tribes in Sarawak. Hunting and gathering food are their major forms of recreation in the daylight. In the night when all their tasks for the day are complete, musical instruments are played, accompanied by dances and songs. They have good reason to be merry when their surroundings are safe and they are in good health. Every wild boar caught during this time provides a reason for a party at night.3


The Penan are some of the best craftspeople in Borneo. They produce superb handicrafts, and some of Borneo's finest rattan mats and baskets are woven by the Penan women. While their women weave fine rattan mats and baskets, their men are excellent blacksmiths and make the best blowpipes, which are much coveted by members of other tribes in Sarawak. Besides baskets and mats, the Penan women weave intricate and beautifully patterned artifacts such as backpacks, arm and leg bracelets, and ornate mats, which are adorned with lively black and white designs.

These handicrafts are traded, along with jungle products such as camphor and gaharu (a scented wood), for salt, metal, clothing, and cooking utensils. Like most of the tribes in Borneo, the Penan adopted the custom of having elongated and perforated earlobes with earrings.


Like many other indigenous people worldwide, the Penan's traditional lifestyle is threatened by so-called modernization. Modern government policies promoting settled agriculture and systematic logging may gradually force these forest-dwellers to abandon their way of life. The nomadic Penan have been affected by large-scale selective logging since late 1970s. They have find it more and more difficult to survive in the forests because of the relentless encroachment of logging companies and the creation of palm oil and acacia wood plantations. They have to cope with a new or modern lifestyle that is making its way along newly built roads into the most remote areas. Their once self-sufficient lifestyle is slowly being replaced by a dependent one.


The Penan are well known for being highly egalitarian with little gender division. Nevertheless, there is a clear division of labor in certain areas. Among the nomadic Penan, women never hunt and most foraging is done by men. The women's primary sphere is the encampment while the men are free to roam the forest to hunt game and to collect forest products. At home, a Penan woman is expected to raise the children, prepare food, gather wood and water, and weave baskets and mats from rattan and bamboo strips. However, a Penan woman can exercise her influence through relating them to her husband, who will in turn relate her wishes to others. Furthermore, she is allowed to indicate her desires to the community when necessary.


Langub, Jayl. "Penan community and traditions." In Hood Salleh (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Peoples and Tradtions. Kuala Lumpur: Editions Didier Millet, 2006. (pg. 100 -101)

Lau, Dennis. Penans: The Vanishing Nomads of Borneo. Inter-State Publishing Company Sdn. Bhd., 1987.

Manser, Bruno. Voices from the Rainforest: Testimonies of a Th reatened People. Bruno Manser Foundation and INSAN, 1996.

Munan, Heidi. Culture Shock: Borneo. Times Books International, 1988.

Siy, Alexandra. The Penan: People of the Borneo Jungle. New York: Dillon Press, 1993.

—by P. Bala