The Punan often called ‘Punan Ba’ (after one of their longhouses in Rejang) to avoid confusion and distinguished them from unrelated nomadic group who are also called ‘Punan’ (Needham 1955a, 55b; Nicolaisen 1976; Rousseau 1990).

However, officially in Sarawak the term ‘Punan’ specifically refers to them while the once nomadic Punans – Punan Aput and Punan Busang or Vuhang is classified as Penan (see Table 1) and any reference to Punan hereafter refers to the Punan Ba group.


The term ‘Punan’ is an autonym or endonym, although it is an exonym in the case of the former nomads in Sarawak, Kalimantan and Brunei. Punan is a toponym originated from Punan River – a tributary of Ba River (Needham 1955 ; Langub 1975) located in the central region of Rejang River, where the Punan believed they were created times immemorial (Nicolaisen 1976).

And contrary to what former Punan Pandan longhouse chief Berasap told Needham (1955), the word ‘Punan’ has other meaning – ‘people’ in Punan language which according to Lars Kaskija (2002) also it common meaning among people in Central Borneo.

It is rather significant that Punan, as well as other group in Central Borneo, identify any people with a ‘primitive’ appearance – whether American Indians or Philippine Negritos – as ‘Punan’. This identification is done by just looking at a picture. Physical appearance suffices to label anyone as ‘Punan’ (Kaskija 2002:62)

However, it usages is limited to describe group of peoples that the Punan otherwise unable to identify and in this context is not an inference that the latter; in term of social organization, history and language similar to the Punan .

The Punan becomes known as Punan Ba, after relocating to Ba River mouth from Punan River areas and those migrating to Kakus become Punan Kakus; to Pandan River, become Punan Pandan. The Punan always refer to themselves as ‘Punan’, although in the literature they are commonly refer to as ‘Punan Bah’ (Ling Roth 1896:37; Nicolaisen 1976) to distinguish them from the other so called “Punan” – Punan Busang and Aput (Needham 1955; Rousseau 1975; Langub 1975; Nicolaisen 1976).

The Punan has no memories of being nomad (Needham 1955a:31, Langub 1975; Nicolaisen 1976) although Bernard Sellato (1993) has different opinion. The Punan, just like the Kayan, Iban are shifting cultivators, rice grower, with their own territorial domain once spanning from Pelagus to Bungan rapids along the Rejang (Nicolaisen 1976; Rousseau 1988).

After 19th century that saw expansion of Iban into upper Pelagus rapids, and Kayan near Bungan rapids; the Punan in Rejang had since been confined to areas above Mikai rapid to lower Tukok rapid – in three longhouses (Punan Ba, Biau and Sama/Tepeleang).

Those found in Bintulu Division confined to Kakus River four longhouses (Rh. Ado, Jayan, Kitup and Kiah) and downriver at Mina River known as Punan Mina (Rh. Arjey), Pandan River – Punan Pandan and Punan Jelalong at Buoang River. Punan are longhouse dwellers; in the old days used to build their longhouses tall, supported by huge belian wood (Eusideroxylon zwageri), beautifully decorated with various carving motifs.

Though Punan are often confused for the Penan, there is little contact in between these two distinct groups over the decades. In the middle of Rejang, where the Punan are found in three longhouses, there are only two known, albeit recent cases of inter-marriages between Punan and Penan; in 1960s and 1990s among the Punan Sama .

Even after the Punan migrated to Kemena basin, where contact with the Penan have become frequent and regular, inter marriage between the two still a rarity. There is no known case of inter-marriage between Punan and the other so call Punan – Punan Vuhang/Busang and Punan Aput even to these days due to their geographical locations.

The Punans are also among the ancient inhabitants of Sarawak (Baring Gould-Bampfylde 1909; Rousseau 1974) and of Mongoloid stock (Sellato 1993). They have a unique burial custom of putting their dead aristocrats’ remains in tajau – a Chinese jar store in a hut atop a pole or inside a hole dug into the pole – known as kelirieng.

These burial poles are fond at places where the Punans once had established communities such as Tatau, Pandan, and central Rejang region. And at Upper Ba River, the Punan homeland, these ancient burial poles are found to be more numerous, many could still be seen to these days.

This unique burial custom set the Punan apart from hunter-gatherers – Penan and the former nomadic Punans (Needham 1955; Langub 1975). However, the tradition was discarded during the Brooke Administration which prohibited any form of human sacrifices – an important part in the tradition.

Punan kelirieng has several design motifs on their keliriengs, but two distinctive were the most popular the “Jalok” and “Inan Benyai” design motifs. The Jalok motif is a diamond-shape outside and fern motif inside, while “Inan Benyai” is a snake with human head – see pix 1.

The Punan used to practice a form of animism beliefs called “Adet Beyok” and “Savik”. Savik religious ritual which also involved form of human sacrifice (head hunting) and just like kelirieng burial tradition, was discouraged by the Brooke Administration. In the 1952 Jok Apui visited Punan longhouses along the Rejang and converted them into his Bungan cult (Nicolaisen 1983).

This freed the Punan of their traditional ‘Beyok’ and other animism beliefs which are very restrictive, observing lots of omens and taboos; thus limit their freedoms. Although, a little bit slow in adopting Christianity, today, however, majority of Punan are Christians, with sizeable numbers still holding on to Bungan cult and Islam through intermarriages.

In the 1990s, the Punan was designated “Punan Atau Penan” or “Punan or Penan” with code 1010 by Malaysia National Registration Department. This new designation is seemingly appearing out of nowhere; illustrates the current state of confusion over the etymology ‘Punan’ in Malaysia. Punan confusion is partly rooted in the way term ‘Punan’ used by the Kayan and Kenyah in Sarawak referring to the hunter-gatherers and also the agriculturalist Punan groups – basically two distinct groups.

The Brooke Administration official Charles Hose , almost clueless when faced with the complexity of Borneo ethnicity (Rousseau 1975; Metcalf 2010) then, pick up the Kayan’s usage of the term. In the early period of the Brooke Administration in which Charles Hose serving in a senior position – their ultimate concerned was to identify their subjects not so much of identifying them correctly (Jehom 1999). Thus, during this period there was case of extreme futile classification exercises such “Klemantan” derived from the Malay word “Kalimantan, Kalamantan, or Klemantan” (Haddon, 1901:321; Hose 1912).

The Klemantans that Hose and McDougall proposed include all the small – Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman, Berawan and other little known groups that they could not otherwise classify. Rousseau notes ‘it is hard to under why they felt compelled to invent this term which corresponds to no social, cultural, geographical or historical reality’ (Rousseau 1975:33).

The problem is also attributed to the fact that there is skewed interest toward the Penan and the once nomadic Punan Aput and Busang peoples in the headwaters of Rejang and Baram Rivers, obscuring the fact that Punan also refer to agriculturalist group in Kakus, Pandan, Jelalong and Ba River; thus perpetuated the confusion and misinformation on the Punan Ba in general – as also nomad (see Sellato 1993).

Starting in 1950, several authors sought to clarify the meanings of the term ‘Punan’: Tom Harrisson, Rodney Needham and Ian Urquhart, and continuing a little later with Tuton Kaboy, Benedict Sandin and Johannes Nicolaisen. In 1952, Needham took time off his regular work observing the Penan of Baram, for a trip up the Kemena River to meet two Punan chiefs Berasap at Pandan and then went further upriver to Jelalong meeting Adi .

Needham works ‘Penan and Punan’ a paper he specifically hoped to address the issue refined several of Hose inaccurate classification particularly on the groups he called Punans (1954: 73). The term Punan according to Needham applicable to only three groups: the Punan Ba, Punan Aput and Punan Busang. However, the Punan Ba is very different in language and social organization from both of the former hunter-gatherers.

Needham chose to use the term ‘Punan Ba’ referring to Punan arguing it is ‘advisable to distinguish them from the nomadic Punan with whom they have been confused’ (Needham, op cit. 1955a:24). Although Needham works, particularly his identification of the Penan as two distinct groups – Eastern and Western Penan fundamentally answered the Punan Penan confusion; he however had not addressed the confusion with the former nomadic hunter-gatherers Punan Busang and Punan Aput, which still linger on.

In 1973, a Danish postgraduate student Ida Nicolaisen travelled with her husband Professor Johannes Nicolaisen to Sarawak intended to study – what most scholars did then – the hunters and gatherers – Penan on the headwaters of Rejang. Nevertheless upon reaching Belaga, she was coaxed by her husband to go downriver to Punan Ba – to works on the Punan instead. Just like Needham, Nicolaisen, took the easy path by insisting the agriculturalist Punan should be called “Punan Bah” instead.

Nicolaisen works on the Punan spanning over decades – since 1973 to 2006, are the most extensive on the Punan yet – exploring almost every aspects: social, economy and political. Unfortunately, just like those before her, she focuses on the contemporary situations. The Sarawak Government after independent through Malaysia in 1969 adopted Leach’s approached, by grouping the Punan as part of Kajang group, together with Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, Kanowit, Sihan and Tanjong peoples (Rousseau 1975; Nicolaisen 1976).

In the 2005, under the Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak classification, the Sian, that Rousseau (1975) clearly stated as distant to the Kajang, has been reclassified as a group of its own. As for the Punan Busang and Punan Aput, they are becoming Penan. However, Rousseau (p.c. 2016) cautioned that ‘one should not assume that the list (in Table 1) is correct!’

In 2016, Punan National Association members have initiated an informal linkage with the once nomadic Punan in Baram and also those in Kalimantan, particularly the Punan Aput, Punan Tubu in Long Sule, East Kalimantan with the objectives of exploring possible lineages between these distinct groups.