3 theories on Kayan migration to Borneo island

Patricia Hului
When the Kayans are naming a child, or engaged in any special ceremony, such as going on the war-path, matches may not be used and fire must be made by drawing rattan backwards and forwards on a piece of soft, dry wood. Credit: Public Domain.

When speaking about Kayan migration, many would immediately think about the Kayan who migrated from Apo Kayan in North Kalimantan, Indonesia to Sarawak specifically to Baram and Upper Rajang rivers.

According to legend, the Kayan people are the forefathers of all smaller sub-ethnic Dayak people found along the Kayan River in Kalimantan.

Kayan river in North Kalimantan.

Many historians and ethnologists, however, have their own theories on Kayan migration before arriving in Borneo.

So where did the Kayan people come from in the first place before they found themselves on the island of Borneo?

Here at KajoMag, we look through the various notes and theories of Kayan migration:

1.Harrison W. Smith in Sarawak: The Land of the White Rajahs (1919)

About 100 years ago, a National Geographic writer and photographer visited Sarawak. The result of that visit is an article entitled, “Sarawak: The Land of the White Rajahs”.

This is what Smith wrote about Kayan migration, pointing out that they might have entered through southeastern Asia.

Perhaps the most interesting tribe in Sarawak and one of those least affected by contact with foreigners is the Kayan, which occupies the head-waters of the Baram and Rejang rivers, in the northerly part of Sarawak, extending also into Dutch Borneo.

These people for unknown generations have lived almost entirely isolated in the interior of the island. There are many reasons for believing they are of Caucasic origin, having entered Borneo from southeastern Asia, where they received infusion of Mongol blood and separated from the people of their their own race, who were the progenitors of the present Karen tribes of Lower Burma.

It appears that the Kayan came to Borneo by the way of Tenasserim, the Malay Peninsula, and Sumatra, later penetrating up the rivers of Borneo.

One notices the features of some Kayans that very strongly suggest Caucasic origin, this being particularly true of the upper or ruling classes, who would be most likely to preserve their racial stock uncontaminated by mixture with conquered tribes.

Many Kayans have very light skin, particularly those of the interior and those who have been little exposed to the sun. The tribe believes in a large number of deities, with one supreme being at the head, thus resembling the Greek mythology.

Many of the details of the methods of taking omens among the Kayans by the flight of birds and the examination of the entrails of animals present extraordinary points of similarity with the Roman methods of taking the auspices.

2.Charles Hose’s theory on three phases of migrations into Borneo

British colonial administrator, zoologist and ethnologist Charles Hose also had his own speculation on the origin of not only Kayan people but the Borneo peoples in general.

Writing for the preface of Hose’s Natural Man, Professor Elliot Smith suggested that the possibility of the transmission to Borneo of certain customs known among the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Babylonians, Estruscans and Persians.

Meanwhile, Hose proposed that there were three migrations into Borneo.

The first group is the ancestors of the Kayan people of central Borneo whom he suggested had migrated from the Irrawaddy Basin in Burma via Sumatra.

The Muruts had then followed from the Philippines or Annam. Lastly, the most recent arrival, which Hose supposed took place in the seventh century, were the ancestors of the Ibans.

Hose believed that they were brought from Sumatra as ‘pagan fighting men’ by Malay nobleman.

Additionally, Hose theorised that groups such as the Punans, Kenyahs and other smaller groups were then assumed to have been the original populations of the island ‘going back possibly to the time when Borneo was still continental’.

Other than the supposed racial and cultural differences within Borneo and the assumed similarities with populations outside Borneo, Hose had no firm evidence for his migration theory.

3.Ida Laura Pfeiffer’s comparison of the Dayak of Borneo and Seram Island

Ida Pfeiffer went down in history as one of the first female travelers of the world.

This Austrian explorer had journeyed an estimated 32,000 km by land and 240,000 km by sea through Southeast Asia, the Americas, Middle East and Africa including two trips around the world from 1846 to 1855.

In her travel book A Lady’s Second Voyage (1856), she commented on the similarity between the Dayaks of Central Borneo and the mountain Alforas of Seram island in current-day Maluku province of Indonesia.

She stated of the latter that their customs “agreed so much with what I had observed among the Dyaks that I feel convinced that the Alforas may be classed as their descendants of collateral relatives.”

While some writers believed the Borneo people came out of the west, writers such as Pfeiffer suggested that they came from the east.

This is due to their resemblance of their way of living to the tribes of Celebes and the more eastern islands such as New Guinea.

Regardless, all of these theories on Kayan migration to Borneo all have one thing in common that they are all just theories without any physical evidence.

They are all just based on the cultural similarities between Kayan people and the tribes at the other part of the world.

Do you know any Kayan migration theories we should know about? Let us know in the comment box.