The Penan Girl

15th November 2021 Dr Beena

Hello everyone๐Ÿ˜Š. This beautiful watercolour painting by Mrs Elizabeth Tang is of a Penan girl in her habitat. I thought it would be nice for a change to describe a tribe in Sarawak. I wish to thank Elizabeth for letting me use her painting. By the way, you need special skills to walk on those steps that she is sitting on๐Ÿ˜‰๐Ÿ˜‰.

 I learnt a lot about hunter-gatherers in various parts of the world. In North America, they are the Eskimos and North American Indians with South American Indians in the South. Siberia has its Evenki, Ket, Nivkhi, and Itelmen. Japan has its Ainu people, and Madagaskar has the Mikea tribes, while in Kenya, they are called Dorobo peoples. Malaysia has its Negrito groups, and China has its Drung peoples.

 Penan is a native tribe that is one of the few hunter-gatherers of the world. Human civilisation began as hunter-gatherers, with eight million in various parts of the Earth 10,000 years ago. They lived an egalitarian lifestyle, sharing whatever was the catch. I hope you remember my musings on the Abenaki tribe. Well, the Abenakis migrated from Asia. Now I am inquisitive. If we do genetic testing, maybe they are all related๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ˜Š.

 Being nomads, they are constantly on the move. Hunter-gatherers only spent about 12 to 19 hours per week hunting for food. They had much time socialising that none of the modern illnesses like obesity, hypertension and cancer plagued them๐Ÿ˜Š. If we could socialise more๐Ÿ˜Š, maybe we can live with less stress๐Ÿ˜Š.

 Penans also practised “molong”, which means never taking more than necessary”. They are astute hunters using the blowpipe spiked with poisonous latex to kill their prey, usually a wild boar, barking deer, snakes and other wild animals. There are about 16,000 Penans, with 200 of them living a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Due to the pressures of modern living, they had to settle in one place, earn their living and start to develop current day illnesses.

 We can learn lessons from these marginalised groups who instinctively knew how to live on Earth without destroying it. They were able to live in a better democratic world and preserve our forests. Our modern-day living would curtail the time this Earth has to sustain life. By relegating these tribes to hostile habitats that are unsuitable, we lose valuable lessons.

 I hope I have created some interest in this topic and love to hear from the readers. Till the following musings, stay safe๐Ÿ˜Š.

19 thoughts on “The Penan Girl

  1. Dear Beena,

    So happy you shared this image and spoke about the hunter-gatherer tribes of the world.

    What’s wonderful about them is that their needs were / are limited and they never took / take more than what they need at any point.

    We as a so called “civilized race” have literally grabbed every bit of resource that the earth has..depleting most of its naturalness.. polluting the earth with toxic substances of every kind with scant regard to what it does to the environment. ๐Ÿ˜ฅ We then we complain about climate change.๐Ÿ˜–

    I truly wish we could learn from the indegenous tribes to respect our Mother Earth and preserve it for the future generations too.

    With hope and love,

    1. Hi Suchi

      How I wish we could learn. Even after COP26, I don’t think there is much change:(. I think we will sit up when a major disaster strikes us. It has to have a huge impact. But by then it would be too late. I hope the youth of today can bring about change to save this Earth.

  2. This painting reminds me of my dear late maternal grand mother from the Dusun indigenous tribes Sabah. As a child I use to frequent these sulaps (houses) some even made from bamboos, brings back fond memories…

    1. Hi Eric

      Thanks for sharing your childhood memories. In fact it is so hard to find such indigenous groups these days as most have moved to urban areas through marriage or work.

  3. Dear Beena,
    This picture reminded me of my visits to penan huts in Bario, Sarawak. The Penans have lived in harmony with the rain forest, with its fast-flowing rivers and twisting networks of limestone caves, for thousands of years. They practise “Molong” so live in the most minimalistic lifestyle that one can only visualise by visiting one of their nomadic huts.

    The huts I visited were made of tree barks and some woods. There was no four walls perhaps one only so is free flow for the rain and wind. I was saddened by what I saw and felt what a different world despite the fact that we were born in the same State / country. In 6 months’ time I visited the Penans again and brought them some necessities.

    Love the painting by Elizabeth and your story.

    1. Hi Stef

      Thank you for sharing your personal journey. It is a wonderful experience when we get such oppurtunities to learn the cultures of others . It does have an impact on us too.

      Thanks Stef

  4. Beautiful painting and your informative script is great . Thanks for the information given here.

    Was seeing a Tamil movie recently about Irular tribe. Mention about their hunting skills and their social fabric described is something quite similar to whatโ€™s told here.

    Thanks Beena

    1. It is interesting that you should say that. When I looked up on hunter-gatherers there was no mention of them in India. It is always exciting to learn something new isn’t it?
      Thanks Ramesh

  5. Beautiful painting.

    Beena, you reminded me of my time in Yunnan when you speak of the Derung tribe and the steps.
    In beautiful Yunnan province, south-west of China, you can find 26 of the 55 minority groups in China. I was fascinated when I first saw goats and old ladies climbing up and down on those steps.

    I had the privilege of working with some of minority groups and visited their villages. One of my students was a Derung. They are one of the smallest group with just over 6,000 of them. He was a helpful and responsible young man. Unfortunately, a few years ago he fell off a cliff in the night after having a bit too much to drink and died. Alcohol is a huge problem in China.

    Thanks Beena, for bringing back memories :))

    1. Hi Irene

      What an interesting experience. I have never been to Yunnan and never heard of Derungs. I learn so much from the comments posted here. My father used to say that learning never ceases. With this website, I am learning so much from the readers here. I hope the sentiment is the same. Hope you can contribute your experience as a story at this website.


    2. Iโ€™m often amazed how skilful the Penans are in turning out rattan baskets and mats of such beautiful and intricate designs. The jungle environment must invoke a strong sense of beauty and pattern in their minds.

      Ireneโ€™s story strikes a chord with me. Itโ€™s very unfortunate that indigenous groups, who the Hunter gatherers usually are, got the worst of the civilised societies whenever the two groups come in contact. Alcoholism and diseases are common examples. When I was in Bario a few years ago I came across a Penan settlement not too far away from a longhouse. I was amazed to see a few teenagers with mobile phones and wearing the thick chains of street fashion. The phone is a window to a totally new universe. I understand that life must move on for them , too , but itโ€™s a difficult equation to balance when two very different lifestyles and social mores come together. Im trying hard to adopt a less is more way of life but itโ€™s challenging. On a more positive note, I have met two Penans who have had a university education and are doing well by our urban standards. But only they can say whether life is better for them in their present environment.

      1. Thanks for the comment. On the topic of alcoholism. Generally, people turn to some form that gives them pleasure to drown their sorrows. I am not sure if that is the case here too. But the same theme seems to echo across many indigenous groups. Anyone like to share their thoughts on this?

  6. Hi Beena Art not gives pleasure but informs and this art piece here does exactly that. itโ€™s a beautiful painting and very intricately done.
    I learnt so much from your write up and the discussions generated here. Nyuk and I had the chance to visit a small Penan settlement in Bario. They are a threatened group of people and itโ€™s a shame how in the name of civilization we have lost the chance to learn how to coexist with Mother Earth from them.

    1. This beautiful painting was done by neighbour Mrs Elizabeth Tang. She is an accomplished artist. She encouraged me to take up watercolour and thats how my journey began๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€

  7. Beautiful painting!!

    And certainly think that we could all use a little more ” molong ” in our lives and society

    on that note
    .. take care everyone

    1. Haha nice new word molong. The world will be a better place if there was more molong. Its wishful thinking but then who knows…๐Ÿ˜‡๐Ÿ˜‡๐Ÿ˜‡

  8. Good not to take more than what we need. In my retirement, I realise that we donโ€™t need much materially to be happy.

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