Borneo - Background information

Natural history
People and culture 


Abridged from the History section in Borneo: the Bradt Guide 

Rainforest treasures – early trade with India and China

Evidence suggests that India was trading with Southeast Asia from as early as 290bc, with Chinese traders joining the continental market around ad1000. During this period of internationalisation, Borneo’s tribes were gradually drawn into networks of trade in spices, camphor, precious woods and other exotic forest products.

The 11th to 13th centuries saw an explosion of trade between China and the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago in forest products, metals, gemstones and spices. A whole gamut of exotic export products came from the Bornean rainforests: beeswax for ointments, aromatic woods for incense, rubber, resin and rattan.

Some of the Chinese merchants settled in Borneo’s ports. Excavations in the Sarawak River delta south of Kuching show evidence of a sizeable Chinese settlement in the 10th to 13th centuries. Other excavations in Brunei and Sabah suggest the Chinese were trading ceramics for spices even earlier than this. In spite of the trading ties, the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of western Indonesia during the first millennium had little influence in Malaysian Borneo, which was already well under the spell of Malay culture.

Natural history

Borneo, Malaysia by SarawaktourismA call to the wild © Sarawaktourism

Despite extensive destruction of its natural environment through forestry and agriculture, Borneo remains a paradise of tropical forests, filled with a staggering array of plants and animals. The world’s ‘biodiversity hotspots’ cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface but are home to over half of all the world’s plant and animal species – Borneo is one of them, putting it on a par with the Amazon and equatorial Africa for species diversity.

Much of Borneo’s flora and fauna is endemic – not found anywhere else. An estimated 5,000-plus flowering plants are unique to the island, as well as some 500 mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. This is just one of two places where the orangutan, Asia’s only great ape, has survived. Just 10ha of Bornean rainforest can contain up to 700 tree species – more than found in the whole of North America. The total flora count of up to 15,000 plant species includes 6,000 endemics, more than 3,000 different trees and 2,000 orchids. The WWF says Borneo may have the highest plant diversity of any region on earth: since the mid 1980s, 422 new species have been discovered.

Likewise for animal species, scientific research in the decade up to 2004 alone upturned 260 new insects, 30 freshwater fish, seven frogs, five crabs, two snakes and one toad, to name a few. Those finds may be just the tip of the iceberg. In April 2010, three years after researchers began to probe the transnational forests at the centre of the island, known as the ‘Heart of Borneo’, the WWF said 123 new species had emerged. Among them was a frog with no lungs, a ‘ninja’ slug which fires ‘love darts’ at its mates, the world’s longest insect (the 57cm-long Chan’s megastick), a bird called the spectacled flowerpecker, and a snake whose neck blazes bright orange colours to ward off predators. The research followed a conservation deal between the governments of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia to protect the 220,000km² rainforest zone. The WWF’s 2010 report, Borneo’s New World: Newly Discovered Species in the Heart of Borneo, says the Heart of Borneo is an ‘island within an island’, a mini biodiversity cosmos and home to ten species of primate, more than 350 birds, 150 reptiles and amphibians and 10,000 plants found nowhere else in the world. ‘New forms of life are constantly being discovered in the Heart of Borneo. If this stretch of irreplaceable rainforest can be conserved for our children, the promise of more discoveries must be a tantalising one for the next generation of researchers to contemplate.’

People and culture

Women, Borneo, Malaysia, Asia by Sarawaktourism Borneo's costumes, crafts, dance and music are steeped in tradition © Sarawaktourism


Want to make a party statement? Th ink of donning a Kadazan outfit for the next special occasion. With their strikingly elegant black velvet dress, replete with elaborate trimmings and embroidery, the Kadazandusun stand out among the many beautiful costumes that accompany ceremony, dance and music in Borneo. According to the Kadazandusun Cultural Association, the men’s jacket and trousers bear some Chinese influence. ‘There are three different styles of blouses for the women. One is a blouse with short sleeves – sinuangga – worn by young ladies. Another is a blouse with three-quarter-length sleeves – sinompukung – worn by middle-aged ladies for daily or casual use. The third one – kihongon – is worn by elderly women and female ritual specialists or priestesses during ceremonies.’ The blouses are worn over a long cylindrical black skirt – tapi. Traditionally it was a plain black cotton skirt but eye-catching renditions are trimmed with gold siring. Th e outfi t is usually made with silk and velvet for ceremonial occasions and cotton for daywear. Mass-made versions now sell to tourists. Likewise the men’s longsleeved shirt, gaung, and black trousers, souva, have been dollied up with gold buttons, and trimming.

The men also wear some very fancy headgear: the siga is a conical hat made out of hand-woven cloth, kain dastar, folded or twisted in a number of distinctive ways including hinopung – python form – and kinahu – pot-holder style.

Like many cultures, the Kadazandusun top off their couture with lots of accessories: brass and silver spiral bracelets (tiningkokos); hairpins (titimbak) to decorate and fasten the hair bun of women’s oft en very long dark hair; necklaces (hamai), earrings (simbong) and brooches made with gold coins (paun). The more himpogot or silver ‘dollar belts’ a person is wearing (usually anything from one to three around the waist and hips), the more wealthy they are. Men wear a black or coloured waist sash (kaking). As for the bobohizan priestess, her outfit is one of total feathered splendour. If you love costumes, customs and ethno-fashion, get hold of An Introduction to the Traditional Costumes of Sabah.

The costumes of Borneo’s tribes are a brilliant refl ection of their ethnic diversity – the noble formality of Malay outfits, the simple black sarongs and bodices of the Rungus emblazoned in multi-hued black beads, and the strikingly beautiful, pompom- strung poncho and silver-feathered headdress of the Iban.

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