BATEK | LAST OF THE FOREST PEOPLE
Living on the margin between modern society and ancestral jungle nomadism, the Batek tribe of Malaysia represent a dying culture of foraging skill and rainforest knowledge.
Visiting throughout 2018-19, I spent a number of months living with a small village of Batek hunter-gatherers on the borders of Taman Negara. One of Peninsular Malaysia’s Orang Asli—‘original peoples’, the Batek are famed anthropologically for their peaceful society and gender egalitarianism. Living amongst their community, my desire to learn their ways soon grew into a feeling of acceptance and belonging I could never have imagined. Here is but an overview of these remarkable people—small glimpses of their timeless reality.
I laid a handful of twigs onto the smouldering piece of rubber I’d just lit. The flames licked at them with an unencouraging hiss of wetness and shadows lengthened on my first night in the village. Until now I’d been barely acknowledged, and as it grew dark I prepared a small cooking fire for a lonely evening of watching and waiting.
I glanced up. To my horror, a number of Batek had approached silently, and watched from the shadows with poorly concealed interest. My actions of idleness quickly adopted a desperate concentration: at that moment my very acceptance seemed to depend on this fire. I focussed, considering each placement. I’ve lit a hundred fires, in wind, sun and driving rain, but suddenly that all seemed worth nothing, and under the watchful eyes of the masters of the rainforest, I felt very inadequate. The yellow light flickered as if fed by my desperation and I willed—nay, begged—the flames to grow. Thankfully they cooperated, and before long I had a steady blaze.
As if in answer to my success a few of the men and boys approached and sat alongside me. One added a small branch of dry firewood to my questionable collection. I breathed a silent sigh of relief as they sat, content in their acknowledgement.
The evening grew darker and the circle of light more intense. Others gradually overcame their shyness, and slunk from the safety of shadowed shelters and bamboo huts to sit around my small fire. Faces danced in the flickering light, and a babble of conversation rose as more and more joined. Men, women and children, until my fire was enclosed in a ring of people, sitting, squatting or standing, carving blowgun darts and bamboo combs, chatting easily in the warmth of the fire. The jungle proclaimed its presence in the darkness that surrounded us, and for the first time I saw the village on its own terms—the real life and spirit of the Batek. A deep sense of peace pervaded me.
I woke the next morning to a hot cup of tea by my side. Outside, little Ina sat under the village hosepipe, almost naked in the morning sun. Tap to her forehead, her eyes closed as the cool water flowed in a sparkling veil across her olive skin. Eight-year old Anol, or ‘carabiner-kid’ as I distinguished him then—allusion to the one he wore around his neck on a strand of old thread—climbed a nearby tree, stepping out deftly along a branch high above the ground to hack off a bough of rambutan with the machete he carried. Below him children rushed to the gather the hairy fruits as they crashed to the ground.
Around them was a hive of relaxed activity. The smoke of cooking fires hung low in the heavy morning air, bare feet lifted plumes of pale dust as they padded between tussocks of grass and the encroaching jungle. A small boy gnawed on a roasted paw of civet cat, men mended blowpipes for the day’s hunt, and women washed themselves in the taps of spring-water between the grasses. Beyond the village, mists curled about the giant cliffs of limestone buttresses, clinging tenaciously to the trees as the rising sun chased them away.
The Batek are one of 18 tribes of the Orang Asli—Peninsular Malaysia’s ‘original people’. Belonging to the Negrito, or Semang, ethnicity, they are jungle dwellers, living until recently a nomadic life of the rainforest hunter-gatherer, roaming in small groups across the majesty of Taman Negara National Park—the world’s oldest tropical rainforest.
The particular community I stayed with represent a turning point in the fortunes of the Batek. The village of Batu Jalan is a small settlement of around a hundred individuals near the Malay township of Merapoh in rural Pahang. Resettled in the last decade into a concrete government village they live a life of opposites, half reliant on temporary labour and the produce of local Malay shops, and half following in the footsteps of their ancestors: a life in the jungle. Traditional bamboo with jungle-thatch rooves alternate with bare concrete cabins: a visual embodiment of their transitionary state.
Even among the Batek they are a unique group—a blend of traditional heritage, friendships with other Orang Asli, and the influences of modern Malay society and beyond. Their culture, beliefs and language are a curious mongrel.
I had met the village as part of an English-teaching initiative by a conservation company that operated nearby. The children were keen to learn, and the benefits of education for these people are unquestionable, ensuring employment options and control of their future in a rapidly changing world. Yet I longed to learn from them, and when the opportunity presented itself, I moved to the village in the hope that they might open up to me more fully. I have countless stories of my time there, and can only begin to describe the acceptance and belonging that I felt amongst them. Below is but an overview of these remarkable people, and a select few stories from my journal—small glimpses of their timeless reality.
25th August 2018
Jambok sat fixing his broken blowpipe, fitting together two outer sections of casing with a wider bamboo joint and molten tree gum. The blowguns are true works of art—two separate tubes of bamboo, one slid inside the other. Each comprises of multiple sections, dried and straightened, and joined with brackets to form continuous tubes. The smaller fits within the larger by barely millimetres—it is precision craftsmanship. A carved wooden mouthpiece crowns the smaller tube, fitting onto the end of the larger with a friction joint, thus holding the gun together. The outer casing in sanded with abrasive leaves and oiled, taking on a smoky olive brown colour that is warm and smooth to the touch. I’ve been so fascinated by the finesse of these creations that the community has finally decided on my Batek name: ‘blough’ - ‘blowpipe’.
The Batek heughb or ‘forest people’, as they call themselves, are blowpipe hunters and tree-climbers, short in stature with thick black hair so tightly curled that they store darts within it—my own straight hair held a fascination for the children, who would run their hands through it ceaselessly in curious delight at its length and lack of curl.
For their height they are stocky—of well-proportioned build and proudly-defined bone structure. The physiques of both men and women are impressive, chiselled by a life of physicality, tree-climbing and a foragers diet, and I was struck by the strength and resilience of even the youngest children. They never cried and rarely damaged themselves despite their wild antics. Rather they seemed imbued with a robustness not unlike that of a rubber action figure, bouncing and rolling instead of getting hurt. The elders of the tribe mirror their hardiness in the semblance of tough, sinewy men and women, bent under loads of firewood the size of themselves. Only once did I hear one complain or show weakness—Calzon: a lady I guessed to be well over eighty—of arthritis in her joints. ‘But it was okay’ she said, since it only hurt ‘when she swung her machete’…
They are a beautiful people, in both appearance and their swiftness to laugh—a constant chorus to the deep nasal language that seems to render voices many octaves lower than expected, even in the slightest of young women. Yet for all their joviality they are extremely shy—a relic of their bloody history with rural Malay settlers. It took me many days to breach that shyness.
30th July 2018
All around me the trees are alive with children, dancing nimbly along the branches, screaming and shaking the boughs in imitation of gibbons. I can’t keep up, but climb higher to where I can watch a little better. They walk on the thinnest of branches, clutching at many at a time to hold their weight. Right out into the periphery they dance, along tiny twigs and to the ends of boughs, many meters above the ground. Down below the little ones wait expectantly, peering up with open eyes. The children above eat greedily, tearing the fruits from the trees without even bothering to pick them. The remainder they detach in bunches and rain down to the waiting mouths below. On the ground tiny, naked children rip apart the rambutan, discarding the hairy cases and gorging on the pale fruit. The lower branches of the tree are stripped bare.
Unsatisfied, a ten-year-old silhouette climbs back to the central trunk. Iman climbs better than the others, bolder in his ascent. He takes the bark in hand and presses the balls of his bare feet into the vertical surface as he calmly walks, hand over foot, up the bare trunk with the ease of experience. He reaches the upper canopy and steps onto the surrounding branches, venturing out into space twenty meters above the ground. With little but a sparse network of finger-thick twigs for support he clutches at leaves around him and tentatively tests the branches ahead. Finally, way out in the farthest reaches of the tree he retrieves his prize, a bunch of rambutan almost the size of himself. Casually he walks back to the main trunk and descends as if sliding down a fireman’s pole, draped like a leopard over a bough, his prey clutched in one fist. On the ground he takes my hand in his and we walk with the others back to the village, a wake of hairy fruit cases trails haphazardly behind.
Batek diet is a mix of old and new—a combination of rice and store-bought vegetables with a vast spectrum of traditional jungle products. I ate monkey and civet cat, shot with poisoned darts, and an uncountable array of wild vegetables, from bamboo shoots and chestnut-like takar to the fiddle heads of young ferns. During the fruit season little else is consumed—so important is this food source that to eat it warrants a different verb than for the consumption of other foods. Honey is another tree-top prize and the Batek are exceptional tree-climbers, scaling bare trunks as if walking up stairs. Fear and height seems of little consequence to even the youngest of children.
Fishing accounts for a major proportion of time spent in the jungle, especially for the women and children, and when meat is present, most meals involve fried or boiled fish. A variety of fishing methods are used: rods made from jungle ferns, poison grated from toxic nuts, machetes in the dark, or, as often as not, simply pulling the fish from the mud with bare hands. River turtle were also caught, dredged from the banks with bare hands, approaching sometimes a meter in length—the entirety is hacked from the shell and consumed without waste.
Children take an active role in fuelling their unquenchable appetites, and young boys will often be seen squirrel in hand, shot with a well-aimed pebble from a rubber slingshot. Oftentimes they will spend their days fishing and gathering, less for the food, and more for the joy of being out in the jungle—it is their equivalent of a day spent with friends. We would sit on the banks of the rivers, dipping our rods, swimming, and basking in the dappled sun, before cooking our catches in roughly cut bamboo pots, lightly seasoned with a pounded chili.
17th September 2018
A few days later the girls and a couple of the women took me with them to dig tahong roots in the foothills of the limestone buttress behind the village. Steep and rocky, we machete hacked and climbed amidst the endless tangle of vines that ensnared the 45-degree slope. Sharp limestone protruded at random from the earthy ground, and we had to pick our footholds carefully to avoid cutting our bare feet.
Every so often the older women would find a particular vine—maybe a couple of millimetres thick, black, and virtually invisible in the gloom of the creeper thicket. Like twine tangled amidst a knot of ropes, they would find the base and dig, twisting and turning between the roots and rock formations to uncover thick tubers, sometimes as long as a meter in length. Section by section they were dug out with a sharpened metal hoe head, bashed into a wooden sapling cut there and then to act as a handle.
Younger women and girls would suggest vines for inspection, gathering in to memorise those chosen by the older women. I tried digging, but it was far harder than it looked—I dug slow, cut the root often and bent the metal tool-head on a rock. They laughed and hammered it true with the spine of a machete. A fire was lit, perched in a nest of limestone on the edge of a near cliff of tumbling earth and lianas. We cooked a few sections directly in the flames, peeling off the earthy rind to get at the stark-white flesh within. It tasted good—brittle and firm, nutty and wholesome in flavour. We talked and laughed as the older women continued to dig.
With a sarong full of the stuff, we headed back down the slope, slipping and sliding, grasping at vines to manage our descent between the jagged rocky outcrops. We returned to the village a different way, across a huge open valley of tall grass, ringed on one side by great limestone cliffs and forest on the other. I followed at the back of the typical single-file procession as we snaked our way through the sun-soaked valley. Flower-adorned heads bobbed through the tall grass, black hair glittering in the heat of the midday sun. Another huge dark cobra slid through the undergrowth as we passed.
Unmoved by the surrounding autocracy of Islamic law, the Batu Jalan Batek hold proud in their traditional beliefs, if with a little less fervour and stringency than accounts of the past. It is in their religion and appearance—flower-adorned, barefoot and often half-naked—that their heritage is most obvious.
Theirs is one of animism, in the god and spirits of the forest, yet seemingly with a gentle ideology of voluntary involvement rather than strict structure or enforcement. The women construct ornate headdresses of flowers and carefully concertinaed leaves, flowing in many colours and forms against their deep black curls; bracelets of striped grasses are worn by all.
The dead are buried on platforms high in the trees, and singing ceremonies are held far amidst the depths of the jungle—a sight I dearly hope one day I may be granted opportunity to observe. Perhaps most remarkable is their taboos and beliefs with respect to the world around them, and to laugh at an animal, invoke the anger of a millipede, or even to show disrespect in the removal of a leech results in adult disapproval and ritual righting of the wrong—an endless source of amusement for the mischieviety of the younger children.
15th October 2018
Thunder and lightning came with the rain, thick and fast, turning pathways through the village into rushing streams; powdered dust into thick cloying mud. Three times an older woman came to us for the blood sacrifice. Out foraging that afternoon, it transpires, the three girls, Lee, and myself had cast our shadow on a millipede unawares, angering its spirit. We had broken the taboo, and thus incited the rage of the gods in a storm of thunder and rain.
The woman placed a machete to her leg, its sharpened point resting on her calf muscle. A sharp tap with a wooden baton and a trickle of blood ran from the incision she’d made. Deftly she wiped the ribbon of blood upward, collecting it on the blade, and deposited it into a plastic beaker of rainwater. The crimson drops swirled in airy tendrils as they mixed with the water. She stirred the mixture with a small knife before wiping the wet blade on each of us in turn, returning the moisture—imbued now with our ‘smell’—to the mixture. On completion, she stepped back, glanced at each of us, and cast the contents of the beaker skyward with a loud low-pitched wail, rising and falling in volume. The children and other women called with her in unison, deep guttural tones of the Batek language presenting their sacrifice to the gods. Whether the ritual worked or whether by some trick of coincidence the rain and thunder soon gave way to a peaceful silence. The smell of damp vegetation filled the air, and the jungle lay dormant in its vibrant wetness.
The Batek are famous anthropologically: unique amongst human societies for their gender egalitarianism, not just in social structure, but also in labour and village life. Although a division of forager labour is perhaps more evident now in the cultural blend that is Batu Jalan, a paradigm of non-violence and gender equality is immediately apparent. Never once did I see an aggressive or malicious act outside of child’s play, and even within the bounds of the latter, rarely did it cause upset or trigger tears. Without understanding the Batek way, one might perceive interpersonal exchanges as callous and cold, yet that is just their way—they say little in courtesy and rather show their love and respect through action.
Strength of community is fierce, as is typical of forager societies, perhaps drawn all closer by the Batek’s history as ethnic outlaws. Nowadays village spirit is never more apparent than at whole-day football tournaments—I will never forget the sight of a young girl charging down a side-line of spectators: men and women whipped into a fervour of noise and excitement while children yelled from overhead, hanging down from the trees above.
Batek marriage is monogamous, but free, and both man and woman are at liberty to consider new suitors at their discretion—social consequences not-withstanding. Indeed, so extreme is the non-confrontational structure of Batek society, that an individual upset by another will as likely leave the village as harbour ill-feeling: a condition believed to lead to sickness and even death. Of course, the inevitable consequence is an insatiable appetite for gossip, although usually of no ill-intention. Rumours fly with an intensity that borders on that of a US sorority.
Despite the free-bonds of marriage, most serious relationships lead to long monogamous unions, in which the couple raise children as equals, playing their part in a larger village family. A child will often roam free all day, feeding at whichever house he or she may choose, treated as if one of their own. Food sharing extends freely, with no apparent consideration of future reciprocity or reward. As in any society there are freeloaders and those that work beyond their fair share—yet in the case of the Batek, neither appear overly concerned. Indeed, ‘thank you’ does not exist in Bahasa Batek, such is the expectation that excess will be given away willingly.
Numbers, dates and counting are given little consideration, and most systems used are adopted from Malay. Few individuals know their age, instead relying on a simple system of pronouns: ‘jean’ and ‘bidan’ for child and old person respectively. Although not immediately apparent, the old are highly respected, and leadership is based more upon respect and knowledge than a bestowing of power. Traditionally I was told, a headman or woman was chosen organically, or by loose vote, but possessed little absolute authority—the Batek do not believe in coercion or the following of orders—rather they were a resource for guidance, heeded out of choice. The shaman holds a similar position—largely ignored on a day-to-day basis, yet turned to for spiritual and medical guidance and in times of ceremony.
20th September 2018
After returning from the jungle we headed to a small pool of the nearby river to wash and set the fishing net between two stakes in centre flow. The place was idyllic – a clear, chest-deep pool, set between walls of high grass amidst a rubber plantation’s pleasant warmth. A fallen log stretched at an angle to the centre from which children leapt and pushed one another. The young adults and I placed stones along the bottom of the net and splashed around for a while, watching the youngsters perform backflips from the high grass banks a couple of meters above the water. The girls hunted for river turtle under the banks, diving down or submerging to their shoulders as the felt beneath the overhangs. They found nothing, but delighted in submerging themselves just for the hell of it.
Batek culture is one of constant sweat and mud. Play and work are not separated and they wash and change clothes at least three times a day. Periodic visits to the river and various spring-water hoses around the village occur continuously, both as an antidote to the constant mud, and for the sheer joy of cool water.
Sadly the history of the Batek is not all romanticism and peaceful foraging. They possess a shyness and insularity reminiscent of a bloody history: a history of fleeing and hiding, of displacement and slave-raids by Malay settlers. Deep-rooted scars and living memories of violent assaults have forged an inherent wariness and mistrust between the two ethnicities, despite more recent efforts to reconcile the past.
Direct hostility has given way to subtler yet less escapable pressures: The authority of Islamic law looms over the Batek of Taman Negara, and living now in their concrete resettlements outside of the National Park, the nomadic roaming of ancestral lands is becoming a liberty of the past—a sad story of indigenous displacement the world over. Efforts by JAKOA—the government sector responsible for Orang Asli affairs—to control the villages has led to the appointment of Batins, village headmen paid in material commodities and a small stipend. At odds to the traditional leadership dynamics and free-society their authority is limited, but met with no hostility.
So too have the influences of modern society reached the Batek in their new homes: a lifestyle of physicality and health begins to give way to sedentism and sugar, and the introduction of monetary currency means a lesser emphasis on ancestral forest knowledge and skills. Coupled with a horrific rate of forest encroachment as palm oil cultivation spreads through the remaining rainforests like an orderly-arranged cancer, traditional lifeways are failing to pass on to the upcoming generation—a generation whose livelihoods may depend more on numbers and English than a knowledge of plants and fishing.
In the small village of Batu Jalan, palm oil is fast erasing the surrounding forests and a delicate balance of politics and religion surrounds their unassuming independence. The forays of local Imams are met with appreciation, though attendance seems largely swayed by the free tea and biscuits their meetings provide. Strong and sure in their own community and beliefs, the Batek see no need to prove or otherwise make a point of their self-surety and government of their own lives.
Theirs is the attitude and resilience of undampened spirits. For the time being at least, their strong, muscled forms walk bare-chested in the jungle and flowers flow from their deep black curls—symbols of cultural pride, a gentle yet fierce independence. Amidst a world that for all intents and purposes seems very much against them, they are a minority caste representing more than they may ever be aware of. They are a gleam of hope amidst a global crisis of cultural persecution and natural destruction—freedom in the face of culturally-foreign law and religion; vitality in the face of neglected health and wellbeing; and reverent respect in the face of habitat loss and overexploitation.
24th January 2019
Back in the village I sat with the men, carving blowgun darts and watching the village go by as the day wound down. Positioned at the head of the village we are graced with a full view over the rest of the settlement. Dirt paths wind down between gardens of tapioca, bamboo houses and thatched hearths. In the background a vast limestone buttress rises from the jungle, silhouetted against the reddening sky. Women stride from house to house, young children slung in sarongs on their backs. The feet of children run naked on the earth—they swing from branches on the jungle’s edge, dart between grassy tussocks, and hurl mud at one another as they pause to drink greedily from the village hose. Fires burn in kitchen shelters and rice bubbles in vast steel pots. The smell of frying fish spreads across the village. Everywhere, small groups sit on porches and raised shelters, taking their ease and enjoying shared company. Jambok returns from hunting, again empty handed. He isn’t perturbed, and sits fixing a dent in his blowpipe. The rainy season is coming and as the evening light begins to die, the sky turns ominously black with the threat of rain. This time it seems to be the fault of no one, and no blood is drawn.
I sit now amongst a large group of Batek in one of the concrete houses, watching the uneven flicker of a small television. A line of people extends beyond the confines of the bare room, out into the night, watching through the open doorway. The flickering ceiling bulb casts a shaft of yellow light across them, illuminating their silhouettes between the dark shadows on either side. Outside the moon rises and night sound of the jungle can be heard beyond.
Children’s eyes droop, and many sit back into each other’s laps. Some are already asleep. Men and women sit cross-legged alongside one another in the pale light. Some rubbish is on—a badly-made Kung-Fu film from the 1980s—but the Batek are totally absorbed, laughing and gasping in surprise at the most predictable of twists. It’s not even in their language, and most can’t read the Malay subtitles.
I glance across the individuals collected in the room and spilling out into the night. It is a weird juxtaposition before me: a mixture of new and old, contemporary senselessness and ancestral depth of worth. Men sit shirtless, their muscled physiques—honed through many years of honey gathering and tree-climbing—defined in stark contrast by the changing light of the film they watch. The women are draped in patterned sarongs, faded and tattered with use. Traditional bamboo combs adorn their hair, holding the flowing arrangements of jungle flowers gathered during the day’s foraging.
A silent strength and graceful dignity exude from these shy and unassuming people. It’s a strange irony that these independent, honest and strong-hearted people should look up to a culture typified by meaningless fluff, virtual reality and mindless entertainment. Just a few years ago these same individuals I sit with now were roaming the jungle as nomadic hunter-gatherers, then hiding in trees and caves from violent settlers. So much they have been through, so much they have known. I have to keep reminding myself I’m actually here among them – among the people I’ve studied so much.
Even sitting absorbed by the worst of Western society’s mind-numbing nothingness, a wild majesty pervades them, and glancing at their strong chiselled faces I see a people of the jungle still – a people the embodiment of humanity’s potential.