Do you know that the Kayan people on the tropical island of Borneo called the Inuit (Eskimo) people of the Arctic as ‘Punan’? Why is this fact important to note – especially if you are first time observer of Borneo ethnic complexities in general and the Punan confusion in particular?

Prof. Emeritus Jerome Rousseau - a Kayan expert.

Prof. Emeritus Jerome Rousseau – a Kayan expert.

When I described my fieldwork among the Inuit, the Kayan stated unambiguously that the Inuit were Punan. I tried to point out that, while both Inuit and Punan were hunters and gatherers, they were otherwise very different genetically, historically, and linguistically, and that they occupied radically distinct environments; thus, I argued, while the Inuit are like the Punan in some ways, they are not Punan (Jerome Rousseau 1990:58)

The confusion between Punan (or Punan Ba people) with the Penan and other so called Punan in Borneo were perpetuated by Kayan’s usage of the term Punan. To the Kayans Punan literally mean nomadic people. They call all the former nomads such as Punan Aput, Punan Busang, Penan in Sarawak and at least 15 different groups of Punan in Kalimantan with the exonym ‘Punan’.

In central Borneo region Kayan is the lingua franca – and majority of the ethnics – Kenyah, Berawan, Kejaman, Lahanan speak the language except for the Punan (or Punan Ba) – as we live further away along the Rejang River downriver from the Kayan.

Almost all of written information on the Punan (settled and nomad groups) were sourced from Kayans and Kenyahs, rarely from the Punans.

Henry Ling-Roth (1896) the first to refer to the Punan as ‘Punan Ba’, based his classification on Charles Hose’s works which almost entirely sourced from the Kayans and Kenyah in Baram and Belaga.

According to Rodney Needham (Straumann 2014) Charles Hose spoke Kayan and has a Kayan girlfriend; were much more familiar with Kayans than the peoples he classified as Punan.

Early authors specifically Borneo’s pioneering experts Charles Hose (1909) and Ling-Roth (1896) total reliance on Kayan and Kenyah inevitably led to certain inaccuracies in their works – especially on the Punans.

Rodney Needham (1955a,55b) actually had been successful in resolving the Punan-Penan confusion. However the Punan (Ba) people with the once nomadic Punan Aput, Punan Busang or Vuhang in Sarawak and at least 15 more once nomadic people found in Kalimantan for example the Punan Berau, Kereho, Sajau etc, largely unresolved. To these former nomadic group the term is an ‘exonym’ – a name given by the Kayan and Kenyah.

To the Punan Ba (should have been rightly known as Punan) the term is an endonym or autonym (Rodney Needham 1955a, 55b) – what we call ourselves not a name given by others. The name is derived from a river – Punan River a tributary of Ba River located on the upper reaches of Ba River.

We have always called ourselves Punan, but somehow to avoid confusion many authors opted to call us as Punan Ba (cf. Rodney Needham 1955a, 55b; Ida Nicolaisen 1976) – after one of our village located in the middle of Rejang River – shown in map below.

In total there are at least 20 linguistically unrelated groups in Borneo being called Punan.

Location of Punan River and Punan Ba longhouse

Location of Punan River and Punan Ba longhouse