Selection of contributed material


Why are orang-utans orange?

The long, shaggy bright orange body hair of the orang-utan is immediately striking and unmistakable. Variation between individuals is great and may change with age, from bright orange in infants to auburn and deep burgundy in adults. But why is the ‘red ape’ so vividly coloured?

Whilst the fiery colours blaze in the sunlight, they virtually disappear in the shadows of the forest canopy. The dark skin underneath absorbs the light so it is this you see rather than the hair on top, making the ape functionally black and virtually invisible. This ‘trick of the light’ may help orang-utans to blend into their scenery, whilst enabling them to be seen by other members of the species – another explanation for their bright colouring is to announce their presence to other orang-utans.

The flying lemur

The ‘flying lemur’ is a double misnomer, for it is neither a lemur nor does it truly fly. Though it is not a primate like a lemur, recent research suggests that it may the closest living relative of the primate group. Previous studies had indicated it was more closely related to the Scandentia group which includes tree shrews.

Flying lemurs, or colugo as they are also known, belong to the Dermoptera group. Dermoptera literally means ‘skin wings’ and refers to the patagium, a flap of skin between its limbs and tail, which is used to glide between the trees of Borneo’s forests. The strange squirrel-like animal can reach distances of up to 70m using its ‘wings’, though is much less adept at climbing trees. During the daytime, colugos hang upside down much like bats, or cling to tree trunks. They come out at dusk and feed throughout the night on leaves, flowers and sap, which they scrape from tree trunks using a ‘comb’ formed by the fusion of lower teeth.

Tattooing traditions

The Kayan, Iban, Kenyah and Kelabit tribes all have strong tattoo traditions. The Kayans have been described as the creative force behind most tattoo designs. Kayan men carved highly stylised designs of animals – hornbills, dogs, scorpions – onto wooden blocks that could be easily transferred onto skin and shared between villages. Tattoos were collected like passport stamps, as proof and souvenirs of journeys. It was the Kayan women however that traditionally applied the tattoos. These were usually made from soot or charcoal, and occasionally impregnated with special materials believed to make the tattoo more powerful, such as a piece of meteorite or animal bone. Kayan women would be adorned with their first tattoo as they passed into adulthood, although the most intricate designs were reserved for those of higher class and greater wealth. A design unique to the Kayan is the talisman (lukut) on the wrists that is believed to prevent the soul from escaping the body. In Iban society, men apply the tattoos, often after a successful headhunting expedition. Indeed, tattoos in all Dayak societies often have more than a mere decorative purpose – they can be symbols of status, success, and wealth.

Holy Headhunting

A common practice among the indigenous tribes of Borneo, until the first decades of the 20th century, was ‘headhunting’; bands of young men would venture out to surrounding villages to collect the heads of enemies or other tribes. The freshly collected heads would be skinned and dried, smoked over a fire or boiled, and then hung up for all to see in the longhouse. The dried skulls were believed to possess powerful spiritual properties, providing vital transfusions of energy for villages. Heads were thought to be able to ward off evil spirits, disease and misfortune, whilst offering protection, fruitful crops and favourable weather. An unhappy head was capable of bringing terrible woes such as plagues, fires and droughts, so they were well looked after with offerings of food and blessings. Heads were the focus of much ritual, symbolising the procreative power of nature: the Kayan and Kenyah tribes in central north Borneo regularly held large festivals to honour the heads.

Heads were believed to lose their potency over time, so fresh heads were always required to replenish a village’s spiritual energies. Although the practice has been all but eradicated, there are still the occasional reports of headhunting. Nowadays however, young male Dayaks are more expected to do a bajalai , or journey, to prove their worth rather than accomplish a successful headhunting mission. Many tribes still embrace and celebrate their headhunting histories however, using replica heads made out of coconut shells.