Dayak Tribe

The Ex-Headhunters of Kalimantan Jungle

Kalimantan jungle is not only inhabited by the smart Orangutans but also indigenous people that are still primitive and largely depends on natural resources. They are called Dayak – the natural keepers of Kalimantan jungle and the popular (ex) head hunters.


Dayak is actually the original islanders of Borneo that mainly live next to rivers or on steamy mountainsides. Some stay in Sarawak and Brunei Darussalam but mostly chose to settle in Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Daily needs depend much on hunting and nomadic farming that applies shifting cultivation practice to ensure quick land regeneration. As for fishing, traditional tools like nets and spears are still favorable.


dayak people

The elders of Dayak tribe in traditional attire


Spreading all over Borneo, Dayak then developed more than 50 ethnic Dayak groups that speak more than 150 distinctive languages and dialects. But a collective belief called Semangat binds them all. Dayak is devoted animists. They believe in supernatural power that rules all the living things on earth including the animals and plants. It comes in various forms : from strands of hair, to footprints left in the mud and even in the water that a human or animal bathe in. It also presents in the souls of the deceased which becomes the reason why the ancestor-worship is essential to Dayak culture.


Gruesome headhunting practice was popular with Dayak culture back then. It’s not merely hunting, it’s an ancient belief to avoid bad spirit from harming the people and the land. Chopping off enemies’ heads also determined status of someone in the village – the more heads a hunter collected, the higher the position. What’s even more interesting from the practice is that the heads are believed to have special supernatural powers needed to complete complex rituals – from guaranteeing a successful rice-harvest to planting the foundations of a new family house.


Dayak member performing traditional dance

Dayak member performing traditional dance


These days however, the custom has completely faded into the dark part of Borneo’s history. In fact, Dayak people are actually pretty friendly and eager to meet outsiders. They are excited to receive guests and show them their priceless gems – forest and living traditions.


As life getting more modern, Dayak is trying their best to carry on their traditional life. But some traditions did vanish, only some survive including the habit to live in a longhouse. Wooden 150 meters long post, one longhouse is able to accommodate over 100 families. There are only two basic spaces in the construction – the bed room for each family and an extended gallery used for communal work, meeting, rituals and also the sleeping space area for bachelors and overnight visitors.


Longhouse represents strong kinship and family bounds. When new family wants to join in the house, everybody contributes to the construction such as the floor, roof and the other more elaborate spaces. What the new family needs to do is just to build the adjacent living quarter.


longhouse 2

Dayak Longhouse can reach more than 150 meters long


The easiest area to get in touch with Dayak is the upstream of Mahakam river in East Kalimantan and Kapus river in West Kalimantan. They are easily spotted as their longhouse is set just on the edge of the river. For the best tour, arrange everything like boat and guide from Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan. Let’s get personal with Kalimantan’s ex-headhunters!


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