Hunter Gatherer Research

Crafts, culture and economics between resilience and instability

Borrowing from and trading to farmers among Borneo’s nomads

Hunter Gatherer Research (2015), 1, (2), 157–195.

Abstract

The material kit of nomadic hunter-gatherers worldwide is quite limited, and early accounts of Borneo’s Pnan (Punan/Penan) nomadic bands stressed this scantiness. In the course of time, varying with regions, some Pnan acquired from or were taught by their settled neighbours a diversity of techniques, ranging from hardwood blowpipe making to blacksmithing and hunting dog breeding, and managed to excel in them and, in some cases, surpass their masters. farmers commissioned Pnan to produce manufactured goods for trade, which the latter delivered, catering to their patrons’ functional and aesthetic requirements. Pnan then displayed remarkable creativity in style and decoration and, although much variation was found with time and place, they achieved fame as producers of high-quality crafts. Markets for these crafts, formerly monopolised by farmers, have reached out beyond Borneo, as is today the case with their fine rattan baskets and mats. Despite the assistance of development programmes, these rattan crafts have been widely copied by outsiders, thwarting Pnan market channels, and concern is now also arising regarding rattan depletion due to deforestation. The main challenge to the persistence of Pnan’s material cultures as we know them today, however, is their own deeply rooted proficiency in adjusting to and taking advantage of change in their social and economic environment and, therefore, of new opportunities, including activities in the increasingly vigorous exploitation of the island’s natural resources. This may soon simply lead them away from craft making. Historically, the Pnan’s ideological resilience carries the seed of their material cultures’ instability and susceptibility to change.

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Sellato, Bernard