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Iban Studies: Their Contributions to Social Theory and the Ethnography of Other Borneo Societies

Reprinted From The Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Volume III, Joanne and Vinson H. Sutlive, General Editors. Kuching: Tun Jugah Foundation in cooperation with the Borneo Research Council, Inc. Pp. 741-85, 2001.

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University

The unique and vital culture of the Ibanic speaking peoples has been remarked upon and written about ever since they were first encountered by travelers to Borneo. Their ‘unassailable confidence has made them venturesome and optimistic, the most aggressive of the peoples native to Borneo’ (Sutlive 1988:1–2). Sather (1994a:26) comments: ‘From the time of their first arrival in western Sarawak, the Iban established themselves as the most aggressive of all inland peoples of Borneo... a vigorous, self-confident people, warring among themselves and with others, as they advanced territorially across the whole of western and central Sarawak.’

This uniqueness of culture and optimistic vitality have brought researchers from around the world to study Ibanic society and culture, not only to make an ethnographic record for posterity but also to learn what contributions a study of their society and culture would make to social theory. More recently, Iban people themselves have turned to this study, individuals such as Benedict Sandin, ‘foremost authority on the history and culture of his people’ (Pringle 1970:xiii) and former curator of the Sarawak Museum; James Jemut Masing, translator of Iban Gawai; Peter Kedit, later on also a curator of the Sarawak Museum; and Datuk Puan Sri Empiang Jabu and Datin Amar Margaret Linggi, authorities on Iban weaving. While Iban society has now been the most carefully and fully documented of any society in Borneo, which has made major contributions to social theory, there is still much to be done.

Furthermore, because of this extensive study, Iban society now provides the model, the background phenomena, on which all other ethnographic inquiries of Borneo societies can proceed. Iban research has informed the discussion of many theoretical issues in anthropological inquiry, particularly those dealing with the structure of cognatic societies, i.e., societies without any form of descent group. Thus, Iban culture forms the fundamental grounds against which other cultures are compared in order to elicit cultural information and to test hypotheses in social theory.

It is impossible to cover the whole corpus of the vast literature on the Iban peoples in this review. Consequently, this review focuses on those Iban studies that have made a contribution to social theory and the ethnography of other Bornean societies. I will also indicate where more research is needed to complete the record. The review will address issues in the following areas where Iban studies have made and can make further contributions to social theory: (1) Social organization and the nature of cognatic societies; (2) The cultural ecology of swidden agriculture; (3) The analysis of land tenure; (4) The nature of egalitarian society; (5) Ethnogensis; (6) Gender studies; (7) Warfare, headhunting and the expansion of the Ibans; (8) Religion, ritual and symbolism; (9) Oral literature; (10) Regional variation in Ibanic cultures; and (11) Problems of social change.

1. Social Organization and the Nature of Cognatic Societies.

In 1949 modern studies of the Iban way of life by professionally trained anthropologists began with the research of Derek Freeman. He found that the Iban peoples had devised a form of social organization and cultural ecology that had not previously been reported among the various peoples of the world. Freeman’s pioneering study thus contributed to the solution of a number of theoretical problems, the paramount of which is that of the structure of cognatic societies (see Freeman 1955a, 1955b, 1956, 1957, 1960a, 1961a, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1979, 1981).

Anthropological theory had up to that point been focused on understanding the structure of societies with unilineal descent groups (see Freeman 1960a:85; Appell 1976a). The Ibans had none. The argument had been that discrete social groups that are formed by the principle of unilineal descent were critical for maintaining stability and an ordered social system. It was thus argued that cognatic societies must be essentially unstable (see discussion in Appell 1976a). Yet such theorists tended to ignore the fact that the majority of world cultures are not unilineal, but cognatic. That is without unilineal descent groupings. Furthermore, it was thought that unilineal descent was necessary for ‘laying claim to, defending, and selectively transmitting rights in important resources’ (Netting 1974:31). And the organization of Iban society, as we shall discuss, again showed that this hypothesis was unfounded.

Appell (1976a) has discussed this failure of anthropological theory to cope with societies without unilineal descent groups and the implications for the development of anthropological theory. He has opined that it was just this anomaly of cognatic social organization that was partially responsible for the derailment of the central paradigm of social anthropology in the 1960s which had until then focused on social organization with other social domains dependent on it. As a result, this brought about a change of interest into symbolic anthropology.

It is to Freeman’s credit that he grasped the issues decisively in his study of Iban cognatic social organization. He developed the necessary conceptual tools to do this. In answer to the problem posed by Radcliffe-Brown on how could there be continuity in cognatic societies, Freeman (1955a, 1955b, 1956, 1957, 1960) described the Iban bilik and argued that it was a corporate group that endured in perpetuity, providing social continuity. It was corporate, as Freeman argued, because it existed in perpetuity, described by Sir Henry Sumner Maine. Appell (1965, 1976b, 1983, 1984) has argued that this is not the criterion of corporateness, but only the consequence.

Appell, a student of Freeman, began fieldwork among the Rungus Dusun of Sabah in 1959 using as a model the analysis of Iban social organization made by Freeman. He found that the Rungus domestic family, occupying a longhouse apartment, was also a corporate group, because it had the right to enter into jural relations as an entity. But it did not exist in perpetuity (see Appell 1965, 1968, 1976b). It had limited life. Appell thus argued that the nature of social organization can be best understood by determining what social entities have the right to enter into jural relations and over what issues. With this approach the structure and social organization of any society, both unilineal and cognatic, could be adequately described.

Appell’s discovery of the limited life of the Rungus domestic family stemmed from using Freeman’s (1957) ground-breaking study of the developmental cycle of the Iban bilik as a model. Unfortunately, this critical tool for the analysis of social organization has not otherwise been used in the study of Bornean society (but see Armstrong 1991). Yet using a comparison of the Iban bilik developmental cycle, along with that of the Rungus, in the analysis of other societies in Borneo would have resulted in major breakthroughs on the understanding of how these social systems operate. It would have been particularly important in understanding the nature of the social processes producing rank and class in the hereditarily stratified societies of Borneo.
Freeman found among the Ibans a stable cognatic society that was built around the corporate and perduring entity of the bilik household, as Appell has discussed, the kindred, and the longhouse community (Freeman 1955a, 1955b, 1957, 1960b, 1961b, 1970). Iban data thus provided an answer to the question that anthropologists had asked, viz. what forms of social mechanisms in a cognatic society facilitated the maintenance of social order?

Freeman’s research also delineated a new form of post-marital residence pattern that was heretofore unreported in the anthropological literature. Residence could be in either the natal bilik of the husband or that of the wife, and the frequency of choice was essentially equal. Freeman introduced two new terms to elucidate his analysis of the bilik family. He coined the term utrolocal to refer to the Iban system of postmarital residence in which the bilik family of either the bride or the family of the groom was chosen equally frequently. And he used the term utrolateral filiation to refer to a system of filiation in which an individual can possess membership of either his father’s or his mother’s birth group but not of both at the same time (Freeman 1955b, 1956).

Finally, Freeman’s (1961b) prize winning essay on the nature of the kindred as represented in Iban society provided great insight into a previously clouded theoretical concept in anthropology, but it also created great controversy.

The critical issue is: Why has the social theory arising from the study of Iban social structure as delineated by Freeman’s theoretical insights, and then amplified by the comparison of the Iban social organization with that of the Rungus, not had greater impact on anthropological theory? It seems likely that this research has had little impact because of the dominant but mistaken paradigm that societies at this level of sociocultural integration are based only on descent groups. When many anthropologists were confronted with cognatic social organization without descent groups, their training in the study of unilineal descent did not prepare them with the conceptual tools for coping with this form of social organization. They were confused and could not handle the analysis of such societies. Some anthropologists have been so confused by this dominant anthropological paradigm as to refer to the bilik, which consists of descendants of the founder of the bilik, and in-marrying affines, as a minimal descent group (see Appell 1976a for examples). Other anthropologists seem to believe that the major if not only organizing principle of cognatic societies is the kindred (see Strathern 1992; Hüsken and Kemp 1991), ignoring the other, more important social units of domestic family and community. The failure to understand the implications of Freeman’s social theory has led some anthropologists to delay analyzing and publishing the data from their study of cognatic societies (e.g. Lawrence 1984 and Gulliver 1971). Others have given up entirely the attempt to analyze the social organization of the cognatic societies they were studying and turned to other issues (see examples in Appell 1976b).

Freeman’s study of the kindred elicited a firestorm of controversy, both on theoretical and empirical grounds, and it was claimed that Freeman’s understanding of the Iban kindred was deficient. The theoretical issue is whether the kindred should include affines in addition to an ego’s cognates (see King 1976b). Appell (1976a) has argued that such essentialist approaches to concepts distort ethnographic data forcing them into the categories of the anthropology and not indigenous categories. In any society there are a variety of ego-centered networks that may exist, and the task of the ethnographer is to determine who are recruited to these networks and the derived action groups. Terms should then be developed for each variation (see Appell 1971a, 1976d). Sutlive, who has worked with the Ibans for four decades, has argued on empirical grounds that Freeman was wrong. Iban ‘kindred’, or whatever anthropological term is appropriate for the social entity called a kaban, do in fact include affines in action groups (Sutlive 1978, 1988:57-58). Furthermore, Sutlive (1978, 1988:57-58) has described another form of ego-centered group which has heretofore been unreported in the anthropological literature. It is the Iban suku juru, which consists of a field of social relations that is in essence a cognatic stock. This field is defined as all the descendants of one’s grandparents from which an individual mobilizes support and resources for his activities.

2. The Cultural Ecology of Swidden Agriculture.

Iban agriculture as studied by Freeman has become the classic example of swiddening. This form of agriculture has also been called ‘shifting agriculture’ or ‘slash and burn’ of the forest in the preparation of fields that are then used for a limited period. Freeman was appointed in 1948 by the Colonial Social Science Research Council to undertake anthropological research on a traditional, stable Iban community based on shifting cultivation of dry rice and not subject to undue land shortage, as recommended by Leach in his 1947 survey (1950). It was hoped that the results of this research would throw light on the difficult policy decisions facing the Sarawak government in the management of swidden agriculture. Freeman (1955b) in his report detailed the conditions in which swidden agriculture could be sustainable in terms of achieving a population-land balance that would not result in environmental degradation. He concluded that certain prodigal practices of the immediate recultivating of swidden areas in the second and third season was a wasteful system of land usage. It extracted the most out of the soil and delayed the regeneration of forest. He recommended that it should be discouraged.

Freeman’s study of Iban agriculture has provided important data on the methods of swidden agriculture, the organization of labour, and the productivity of labour input. It has permitted comparisons to be made with other forms of agricultural systems in terms of efficiency (see Ellen 1982, Netting 1974). His work, among others, showed that in ‘relatively undegraded environments with low population densities, people... could maintain high levels of productivity per unit of labor, often higher than in more intensive nonmechanized regimes’ (Gross 1984:529).

But unfortunately, Freeman’s analysis had little impact on agricultural policy in Sarawak, Sabah, or Kalimantan, even though in Kalimantan there existed extensive communities of Ibans and Ibanic speakers. Agricultural policy in all regions continued to condemn swidden agriculture as wasteful. During Appell’s research in Sabah starting in 1959 Freeman’s work was unknown in government circles.

Freeman’s study of Iban agriculture also disproved another hypothesis on the function of unilineal societies. The argument had been that unilineal descent groups were important to meet the need for mobilizing large, coordinated groups for certain tasks of the agricultural cycle (Netting 1974:31). Yet the Ibans, a cognatic society, were able to accomplish this through labour exchanges.

The results of Freeman’s pioneering work on Iban swidden agriculture have been used in general comparative studies of swidden agriculture (see Spencer 1966), in ethnographic comparisons in Thailand (Geddes 1976:177; Kunstader et al. 1978), and in New Guinea (Clarke 1971).

Freeman had, however, studied a pioneering Iban community in the Baleh River region, while elsewhere there are areas of long-term Iban settlement. Would the agricultural methods and techniques in long-settled communities be different? Freeman (1955a:136) wrote of the pioneering Ibans that their agricultural methods presented an expansive form of cultural ecology that depended on consuming more and more virgin forest.

Iban methods of land usage... produce most deleterious results even in areas where there are adequate reserves of virgin jungle. Indeed, their whole system of land usage is a response to circumstances in which reserves of virgin jungle have been virtually limitless... There can be no doubt that in the past, the Iban viewed the forests that surrounded them as an expendable resource. Their method has been to extract all the wealth they could from the kampong [primary forest] nearest at hand, and then move on to fresh jungle. ... they have been less shifting cultivators than mangeurs de bois.

In what ways, then, does the Iban form of agriculture in long-settled areas differ from that of the Ibans of the Baleh region that Freeman studied? Padoch made a comparison of resource use and other practices prevalent in three Iban communities, including one in a region that had been settled over 300 years. Padoch found that in the long-settled community agricultural methods and techniques were not substantially different from what Freeman found in a pioneering community, even though there was no primary forest left in which to swidden and establish permanent use rights (also see Sather 1994a:3). Padoch argued that the Iban form of swidden agriculture found in pioneering communities could also be practiced in long-settled areas and produce a relatively stable equilibrium with the environment. Padoch concluded (1982:116-67) that certain variables tend to change as the time an area has been settled increases and as migration opportunities decline. In land use, the cropping periods are shorter, and there are more conservative fallowing practices. There is generally a higher input of labour with higher seasonal peaks in long-settled communities. There is a greater borrowing of land for swiddening than in recently settled communities. Human fertility rates decline from high moderate to low moderate. Population growth rates decline from high moderate to low moderate. With regard to temporary wage labour, it is more frequent and involves longer journeys, which may have an impact on the fertility rates of the long-settled communities.

However, certain questions remain as Padoch did not control all the sociological variables, in particular the rate of emigration from the long-settled community. The history of the long-settled community was not sufficiently studied to establish that there has been no emigration. In addition to the lack of historical evidence, a comparison of the web of kinship ties of member biliks to other communities could have been made between long-settled and more recent long-house communities. This would have provided some data to show whether or not the long-settled community is in fact stable in its emigration rates.
Furthermore, as a resource becomes scarcer, it has been generally observed that there is an increase in disputes over that resource (see Appell 1988). Padoch supplies no comparative information on the amount of litigation in the two types of communities to illustrate that there is in fact a growing shortage of farming sites. She also does not provide evidence of how land is redistributed when a bilik moves out of her long-settled community.

Padoch also does not compare the developmental cycle or composition of the bilik families in the long-settled community to other more recently established communities. Biliks in long-settled communities may have a different developmental cycle and a different composition of members, as we shall see in our review of studies of land tenure. There are no data on marriage in the two types of communities. In the long-settled communities is there more frequent marriage into communities with greater land resources than occurs in pioneering communities? Freeman (1957a:48–50) suggested that this does occur when the estate of a bilik becomes limited.

See the work of Cramb reviewed below for another study of a Iban agriculture in a situation of limited resources. Dove’s research on the Kantu’, an Ibanic speaking group in West Kalimantan, is also discussed below. In addition consult Wadley (1997b) for a study of Iban agriculture in a remote area of West Kalimantan in which he considers the intersection of Iban economy, demography, and social organization, including male labor migration, household composition, the labor exchange system, the role of women, and the nature of forest-fallow farming.

3. The Analysis of Land Tenure.

In his analysis of land tenure systems in Borneo (1971a, 1971b, 1986, n.d.), Appell brought to light for the first time that the fact that the Iban village community was a corporate entity holding rights over land corporately. This was based on the detailed evidence that Freeman provided on village rights. However, Freeman did not discuss this aspect of Iban adat in these terms nor did he explicitly consider the jural personality of the Iban village. In a personal communication to Appell, Freeman agreed with Appell’s analysis. This position was later supported by the research of Sather (1992, 1994a, 1994b).

It is interesting to note that while the Dutch study of adat law in Indonesia in the early 1900s provided the evidence for the jural personality of Borneo village communities, this work did not penetrate the British studies of Borneo and even today is sadly lacking in most ethnographic work being done in Borneo. Geddes (1954) in his study of the Bidayuh also did not delineate the nature of the community as a jural, land-holding unit. Appell (ms.) has suggested that Freeman and Geddes did not recognize the village community as a jurally corporate land-holding unit not only because of their lack of knowledge of the Dutch adat studies, but also because of British colonial policy. There was also a position in the British colonial government in Sarawak at that time that indigenous societies did not have private property, but instead had forms of ‘communal ownership’, that somehow was tinged with communism. The result was that both Geddes and Freeman stressed the fact that nothing was held ‘communally’, failing to see that the village community was in fact a jural entity.
Thus, (Freeman 1970b:128) wrote:

The long-house, it is important to realize, holds virtually no property in communal ownership, nor is there collective ownership of land.

Geddes (1954:59) in a similar vein also wrote with regard to the Bidayuh Land Dayak:

Although much of the land belonging to Dayak villages in the Sadong has many people sharing in its ownership, the system of tenure is in no sense a communal one, for each of these persons has his or her particular rights defined in such a way that there shound be no conflict with the rights of the others.

This challenge to the problem of delineating rights over land has resulted in Appell’s development of observational procedures for distinguishing exactly where the rights lie. Appell (1997) has suggested a classification of the various land tenure systems in Borneo as a result of his comparison of the land tenure system of the Ibans with that of other societies in Borneo.
The analysis of the jural nature of the Iban village community that Appell has made has been accepted by others (see Wadley 1997a) and is substantiated by data presented by Sutlive (1972:339–42, 1988:64) and Sather (1980:xviii–xix, 1990:23–24, 1994a:19–20, 1994d:10–12, 1996:94). Nevertheless, there is a continuing discussion as to the extent of the jural personality of the village intrudes on the rights of the bilik with regard to land.

For example, while Freeman has written that when a family moves from the longhouse community in the Sut, it gave up its use rights over land that were formerly established by felling primary forest, Sutlive describes situations of greater flexibility (1988:65; see also Padoch 1982:48-49). Sutlive writes that members who have moved away may attend longhouse meetings with regard to the next year’s location of swiddens and activate their rights to cultivate land held by their natal families, although this seldom happens.

Padoch (1982:48) provides examples of bilik-families using lands for swiddening in another village territory from which they had emigrated previously. But there is no information on how this affects the ritual status of the longhouse territory and what ritual steps are taken to prevent erosion of its ritual status, that is with the exception of Wadley’s finely detailed analysis of adat law in an Iban community of West Kalimantan, which we shall discuss below.

This issue of engaging in agriculture in a foreign longhouse territory presents a number of difficult questions to sort out, given the state of the data. Has modern transportation and social change facilitated the farming of land in other villages so that this opportunity presents a new issue? Or does this mean that traditionally and currently rights are not lost on moving out of a longhouse village territory? This would suggest a return to a previous traditional method that the government of Sarawak ordered stopped.

It has been alleged that retaining rights in a former village area was an old custom, contrary to Freeman. The evidence to support this hypothesis is from Roth (1968, I:420 [orig. 1896]). Roth quotes from Brook Low’s manuscripts, perhaps prepared in the early 1880s, and it is useful to include the whole passage:

As regards the tenure by which land is held by Sea Dyaks, it has been the immemorial custom that when a person fells the virgin forest, he acquires by that act a perpetual title to the land. It is his from henceforth to do with as he pleases; he may sell it, or lend it, or let it. The rent he is empowered to demand may not exceed in value a dollar, and must be either in a game-cock, or a suckling pig, or a couple of plates.

It is important to note that there has been no reportage of any such custom by recent researchers, even though there is frequent reference to the borrowing of land. Is this because these payments are only ritual and the ritual nature of land rights has been generally overlooked, as discussed below?

To continue with Low’s manuscript:

But as land is rising in value every year, and old jungle is becoming scarcer and scarcer, there is a marked tendency among the tribes to demand a heavier rent — in fact, several dollars a year. The tenure, too, has been modified within late years in view of the increasing demand for accommodation, and it is now generally understood that when the proprietor chooses to leave the district and remove to a distant country he forfeits, by so doing, all title to the ground and can no longer extract rent.

Unfortunately, in this passage it is far from clear whether a formal government order to this effect was announced at that time. Porter (1967:12-13) reports that it was much later, in 1899, that such an order was issued prohibiting any Dayak moving out of a river or district from selling or transferring any farming ground, or from preventing others from farming the land. Somehow this last portion seems strangely unlike what we know about Iban culture and the moral order that exists among kin. Low’s passage raises a number of questions, in addition to the ritual ones I discussed previously. If in fact a bilik did maintain rights over land in a former village, if this was a clear and jurally recognized right in the adat law, why then the disputes? It seems likely that Low, the Sarawak government, and recent researchers have not distinguished jural rights from moral rights. Moral rights to land are rights one has as a result of being a kinsman, but they are not enforceable by adat law. They do not derive from an agricultural act. Infraction of jural rights results in fines; infraction of moral rights results in possible kinship enmity. But the pertinent point is that in any dispute brought before the village moot (aum) as an adat law case, a disputant will use moral claims to support his argument. As a result it is difficult to sort out these two aspects in actual cases. However, the source for adat law change among the Ibans were Iban themselves. They were trying to alter moral rights by claiming that they were jural rights as land became scarce and the value rose, as Low notes, and as the use of land for permanent crops developed. Tenuous rights, perhaps only moral rights, over land cleared in a previous village were evolving into more finely delineated rights, litigable rights. Then, the Sarawak government responded with new regulations perhaps out of ignorance of the old adat. As a result, while on the surface it may have appeared to be a change in Iban adat, it was instead a return to a more traditional adat form. There is evidence for this argument in the adat law of the Kantu’ Dayak, an Ibanic people of West Kalimantan who were never subjected to Sarawak law. According to Dove (1985b), those that leave a village give up their rights over land. McKeown (1983:250) reports the same for the Merakai Ibans, an Iban group of West Kalimantan.

Also Wadley’s study of the adat law of land in an Iban village that was also not under the jurisdiction of Sarawak provides some additional evidence but also some further issues. Wadley writes (1997a:101) that if a bilik moves away, primary and secondary rights of use and control over its land are lost, although the bilik retains tertiary rights. And these may be converted to primary and secondary rights on moving back to the original longhouse. In the meantime during the absence of the bilik, Wadley makes it clear that others in the village may utilize land that has been abandoned and eventually establish primary and secondary rights to this land.

Thus, Wadley (1997a) provides a solution to many of these issues over land rights. He divides rights over land into two principle types: (1) rights of control; and (2) right of use. ‘Rights of control involve the right to control access to land and the right to dispose of land. Rights of use involve primary, secondary and tertiary rights...’(Wadley 1997a:100). According to Wadley, primary rights of use and control are established by cutting old growth jungle, or through partition from a natal bilik, or through cutting forest on abandoned land, or through claiming rights to land that a closely related bilik held when it moved out of the village. This right includes the power to give land to other biliks or sell it to other households, even to outsiders. (One wonders here how this affects the status of the ritual corporateness of the village.)

Biliks have secondary rights to request the use of land from a bilik to whom they are related in the longhouse. In Appell’s approach this might be considered a moral right rather than a jural right, as it depends on making claims on ties of kinship not acts of agriculture.

Primary use rights may also be obtained by moving to a new longhouse and requesting the use of land that an ancestor had cleared. Wadley gives a case of this in which the village in question had plentiful forest lands. Is this a moral or jural right?
Tertiary use rights arise over land in a village that a bilik moves into on the grounds that it was originally land of an ancestor. Again, this is a moral right based on the amity of kin.

To return to the issues raised by Low’s remarks, quoted by Roth, the traditional tertiary rights that Wadley has identified were moral rights and were used by Ibans reacting to change in the opportunity system and the increase in value of land. Various Ibans made attempts to convert these tertiary rights, and perhaps the secondary rights, into the primary jural rights for their own gain, so that they could control more land. And it was this that then led to the increase in land disputes. The government then intervened by introducing further changes in the transforming adat by decreeing that rights to land in a village became null and void on leaving that village.

This discussion raises the question as to how to analyze the fundamental nature of secondary and tertiary rights. Are they moral rights, or jural rights? Moral rights to use land stem from the ties and moral order of kinship. And in the case of secondary rights it appears to be the case. Tertiary rights again may be only moral rights, in that it is perceived morally proper to restore lands to a returning bilik. What is needed here are more dispute cases, particularly those that involve the conflict over the different level of rights. What happens to rights over land that have been established by resident biliks in cutting swidden on land that a previous bilik abandoned upon moving when, at some later point after one or two rounds of swiddening on that land, the original clearer of the land returns? How are these rights in conflict adjudicated? It is difficult to distinguish moral rights from jural rights except in instances where cases are brought to the village moot (aum) and fines are levied.

An additional arena of discussion revolves around the nature of the rights of regional leaders and their precedence over community rights (see Sather 1994d). Adat, Appell (1988) argues, must never be conceived of as a unchanging structure, but is in constant flux as opportunities change. Appell terms this theoretical perspective as ‘emergent structuralism’. With regard to rights over land, as land becomes scarcer, rights are elaborated, as occurs with all forms of property becoming scarce, to protect that property and make explicit the nature of the ownership. Thus, the jural personalities of villages, the sum total of rights and duties, tend to grow, and the rights over land become more precise and explicit. This development process of the adat on land ownership among the Ibans in response to growing scarcity of primary forest is nicely delineated by Sather (1994a, 1994d:9–12).

In the pioneering state, a regional leader established an area which, with longhouse members in the region, he defended against other Iban intruders. As the region began filling up with population, longhouses began to express their rights over a designated territory for the village longhouse. At first, several longhouses might have shared overlapping areas for cultivation. But as time went on each began to establish more precise boundaries. If McKeown’s (1983:241-45) analysis of the fissioning of Merakai Ibans gives some insight into the past, the development of boundaries between Iban villages, as outlined by Sather, may have resulted in some disputes.

These stages of evolution of the jural personality of the Iban village are echoed in the development of Rungus village territories (Appell 1988).

The Kantu’, an Ibanic people, also provide an interesting comparison to the Ibans in terms of processes by which a growing scarcity of land results in the development of adat law. Originally, the Kantu’ had a form of land tenure like the Rungus in which the felling of primary forest did not establish permanent use rights (Dove 1985a). This was the time of headhunting warfare which resulted in a premium being placed on primary forest. The farming of secondary forest was generally undesirable because of the need for such swiddens to be weeded, unlike swiddens cut from areas of primary forest. This need for weeding heightened the defensive burden and at the same time limited offensive capabilities. Dove (1985a:166) writes,

As long as warfare was still endemic, there was little pressure for the development of household rights to secondary forest. The Kantu’ themselves cite several reasons for this. First chronic warfare, with the recurrent need to flee or advance against enemy forces, necessitated a semi-migratory settlement system... In addition, the exigencies of wartime obliged all the households in the longhouse to farm near one another, making their swiddens in a cluster... This particular land-use pattern also mitigated against the development of household rights to secondary forest...

With the diminishing of large-scale warfare, ‘the relative value of secondary forest (given its higher yields, as well as the rainfall-burn problem with primary forest) began to increase’ (Dove 1985a:167). Dove writes that two other factors added to the increase in value of secondary forest. First was the opportunity to plant rubber. And second, the settlement of Ibans on three sides of their territory. The Kantu’ then became aware that the Ibans themselves recognized such rights, and the Kantu’ followed this on the belief that they would be otherwise disadvantaged in land disputes.

It is interesting that Dove (1985a:168) states that it is unclear when the Ibans themselves began recognizing rights to secondary forest. He opines that it is possible that the Ibans, prior to peacemaking, did not recognize such rights and they modified their system of land tenure at about the same time as the Kantu’ and for similar reasons.

Later on as there became a growing scarcity in land, the Kantu’ adat in response evolved so that the jural personality of the village enlarged with the additional rights of redistributing land that was abandoned when families left the village territory. This and later developments produced a more complex jural personality for the village than exists among the Ibans. The first development was the adat law that rights to land had to be forfeited on departure from the longhouse village. The land abandoned reverted to the status of primary forest, and new rights could be established over this land by cutting a swidden there. As land become even more scarce and valuable, this adat led to too many disputes. ‘As a result,’ Dove writes (1985a:169–70), ‘longhouse headmen began to take all such rights unto themselves, holding and employing them for personal use... with the increasing valuation of land, the other inhabitants of the longhouse came to resent this privileged action by the headman. Ultimately, the adat was again changed, this time so that the headman took over, not the land rights of departed households, but only the administration of these rights... today, all the households in the longhouse ideally farm, in rotation, the forest sections covered by these rights’.
One of the major problems yet to be addressed in these analyses is the ritual nature of the longhouse and its territory. If it has any similarities to the Rungus, the boundaries of village territories are substantiated in rituals to establish the fertility of the territory (Appell 1976b, 1978, 1988). Nonmembers of the village may not intrude during this period of establishing goodwill with the gods, or the ritual is nullified. How this was handled among the Ibans needs further research, but there are indications of the ritual status of the longhouse village in the works of Sather and Wadley.

Sather (1992:114–15) alludes to the importance of the ritual corporateness of the longhouse territory (menua) in his description of the major cleansing ritual in which the entire longhouse participated. This is the genselan menua, introducing blood on the longhouse territory to propitiate the spirits with a pig sacrifice. We need to know, however, in what ways this propitiation can be nullified. Can outsiders cultivating in the longhouse territory destroy its effectiveness? Apparently this can be so as illustrated in Wadley’s analysis of rights among the Ibans he worked with in West Kalimantan.

Wadley gives a case in which a woman who has married out of the longhouse territory where she originally resided wants to return to farm land owned by her old natal bilik. He writes (1997c:100), ‘after farming was begun by the entire longhouse, the elders realized that the outsider household had not given them penti pemali, a ritual payment said to guard or enclose the soul (kurung semengat) after a breach of taboo. A penti pemali was required because the outsiders did not (and indeed could not) share... [the longhouse village’s] ritual omen sticks and were therefore intruding on the ritual space of the longhouse. If a death occurred among the longhouse members before the payment (of one bushknife, one chicken, one plate, and about 500 rupiah), the outsiders could be fined for the death...’

This immediately substantiates the proposition that Appell has been making for a number of years, viz, that the Iban longhouse village, in addition to being jurally corporate, is also ritually corporate. Wadley (1997c) furthermore states that the headman’s bilek holds omen sticks for the entire longhouse, as ‘its ritual center’, and it is explained to him that whoever holds the omen sticks holds the territory (Wadley 1997c:99). We need more analyses of the ritual nature of the longhouse village and its territory, as Wadley has done, to fully understand the ritual and jural personality of the village. For example, are there other rituals involving the village as a corporate entity? How was the fine Wadley mentions divided among the longhouse members? Was the headman the principle recipient? Did the longhouse members have a stripe of blood put on their foot from the chicken, as occurs among the Rungus?

Many of these areas of controversy have been addressed in Volume 28 of the Borneo Research Bulletin (see Appell 1997 and Wadley 1997c).

Another problem still to be addressed in understanding the relationship of land tenure to the Iban cognatic social organization is the change in social organization that might occur as the available land for agriculture becomes scarce. Kelly (1968) reviews the arguments on this. On one hand, it has been argued that with scarcity there is a shift towards a more unilineal control over land, as nonlineal consanguines are excluded from land within the territory of the group where before they could cultivate there. On the other hand, the argument has been made that cognatic social organization facilitates the redistribution of land in times of land scarcity. Kelly argues that there is no standard organizational response to scarcity, but instead whatever form of land tenure exists, the rules become more developed and more rigid. Padoch misses this opportunity for developing our theoretical understanding as she provides no data on membership in longhouse bilik and forms of marriage residence under these conditions. Sutlive (1972, 1988), however, does provide some important data.

Sutlive studied Iban longhouse communities in the Sibu District. The communities have an agricultural base of wet rice, pepper, and rubber. This is an intensification of agriculture over traditional swidden agriculture. With regard to Rumah Nyala, one of the most acculturated of Iban communities, women predominately farm and collect rubber (Sutlive 1988:136). Many of the men have taken up employment in the urban area. The larger involvement of women in the intensification of Iban agriculture is an anomaly in terms of anthropological theory. Thus, Burton and White (1984) in a statistical study of a sample of societies found that with the intensification female contributions to agriculture decline. What is also interesting in Sutlive’s data (1972:266-68) is his finding in a sample of three longhouses that there has been a concomitant shift in social organization as Iban women engaged in more intensive agriculture and men sought outside employment. Instead of residence being equally divided between the natal bilik of the wife and the natal bilik of the husband, as Freeman found in his study of swidden communities, Sutlive found that in three communities the range of residence in the wife’s natal bilik was 53 percent to 63 percent (Sutlive 1972:266-68, 1988:175).

What would be useful to the development of anthropological theory would be a greater emphasis on the study of the changes in social organization that have occurred in well-settled Iban communities of long duration, as opposed to pioneering communities, and also in comparison with those communities which have undergone major social change in their economics.
This brings us in conclusion to a brief discussion of tension in Iban society over conflicts between the system of land tenure and the cultural value of egalitarianism. And this in turn will lead us to a consideration of the work of Cramb, an agricultural economist who has made important contributions to understanding Iban agriculture but has left us with what appears to be anomalous data on Iban land tenure.

Sather (1980, 1996, per. com.) has drawn attention to the tension that exists between the egalitarian theme in Iban culture and the inequalities in land holding as a result of the mode of establishing usufruct rights. Cramb’s research has produced critical data on land holdings and land use among the Ibans (see Cramb 1987), which has important implications for policy development. Cramb (1989a:284-285) presents a summary and interpretation of his data on Iban land holdings in one Iban village in the Batang Layar River drainage of the Saribas District. He concludes that the top 20 per cent of households had rights to 33 per cent of the plots while the bottom 20 per cent had rights to only 3 per cent. Sather has pointed out that the resolution of this tension is through the extensive practice of borrowing land or migration to new communities.

Cramb (1986, 1987, 1989a) also presents a model of how the land tenure system of the Iban evolved from pioneer settlements through the established phase to the commercial phase. While this model in an approximate way agrees with the evidence from anthropological inquiry on Iban agriculture, it is weak in several dimensions. Cramb does not supply sufficient first-hand evidence for his assertions but builds his argument too much on the records of court cases, which, as most anthropologists know, reflect more often than not the colonial vision of the Ibans rather than what the actual adat of the Ibans was at that particular time. And his argument is deficient in terms of not using evidence from other studies of the Ibans.

Nevertheless, he has reached important conclusions which are shared by many anthropologists. He writes (1987:1): ‘...the problem of Iban land use in hill farming areas, as perceived by many policy-makers in Sarawak, is one of overcultivation by traditional methods, causing widespread land degradation, and of underinvestment in more profitable forms of land use’.
Cramb (1987:2) concludes that the policy-makers in Sarawak are wrong in their appraisal of Iban agriculture. He finds that the Iban system of land tenure is adaptable to change in response to growing markets. ‘[The] Iban land tenure institutions have adapted well to changing requirements and that the longhouse community remains a viable basis for the management of land use in the hill farming areas’.

Cramb (1987:22-3) also makes the critical point that ‘the community system of allocating and enforcing property rights is itself a collective good of considerable value, and the opportunity cost of eroding or dismantling this system has clearly not been taken into account in projecting the benefits and costs of large-scale privatized estate development’. In sum, he argues to leave well enough alone a system which is constantly adapting on the basis of shared values and meeting the needs and challenges of a growing market economy and a growing population.

Then Cramb (1988b; reprinted 1989a) enlarges on these findings in a critically important paper not only for understanding the nature of swidden cultivation in Sarawak but for understanding shifting cultivation in all regions of the globe. He traces the origins of the hostile view towards shifting cultivation in Sarawak in which it is perceived to be inherently destructive of natural resources. He argues that the work of Freeman (1955b) may have contributed to this view. He analyzes the government policies arising from this, and on the basis of his extensive research on these problems he evaluates the evidence presented to support this view. He concludes that it has little or no empirical support. On the basis of his analysis of all the data, he concludes that shifting cultivation when properly managed is an ecologically balanced and sustainable system. And he draws attention to Padoch’s findings that Iban land use is not predicated on constant migration and that the natural resources of the long settled areas have not been exhausted (Padoch 1982:10-11).

His concluding paragraph is well worth reconsidering here: ‘Thus the perception that shifting cultivation in Sarawak leads inexorably to resource degradation is not based on an accumulation of empirical evidence demonstrating the relationship between shifting cultivation and its supposed on-site and off-site effects. Rather, this perception derives from the cultural biases of the ruling elite and it persists because it serves the interests of the current government’s political-economic programme. Though the dogma itself has origins and continuing sources of nourishment (e.g. environmentalism) which are independent of such interests, it is ironic that the negative view of shifting cultivation in Sarawak now serves to rationalize and justify the government’s increasingly controversial “development” programme, involving the rapid exploitation of hill forests for timber extraction and the resettlement of shifting cultivators into commercially managed plantations’ (Cramb 1989a:43).

In response to a letter criticizing Cramb’s position in particular with regard to primary forest Cramb (1990) marshals evidence to show that of the total land used for shifting cultivation, only 0.2 per cent involves clearing primary forest.

To turn to Cramb’s claims on the Iban system of land tenure, which raise more questions than they answer, it is important to emphasize that Cramb’s extensive empirical data and conclusions on Iban land use are in no way vitiated by the criticism presented here on his methodology and interpretations of the data on the issue of land tenure. In his 1989a article Cramb presents his interpretation of his research findings. However, the problems found in Cramb (1987) also appear in Cramb (1989a). And many of the criticisms discussed above on the weaknesses of Padoch’s study are to be found in Cramb’s work as well.

One of the most contentious issues is his claim that in one Iban community he found the system of land tenure to be a form of circulating usufruct as opposed to the traditional Iban system of devolvable usufruct. His claims for this new form of land tenure, arising, he argues, from population pressure on a limited land base, is not entirely supported by his evidence. For example, his village with a limited land base has 3.41 ha per person of secondary forest, while the village with ample land basis has just 3.67 ha, hardly a major difference. Also, there is evidence in his argument that in fact devolvable rights to areas once cut for cultivation are established, as in the second round of forest felling the Iban bilik return to their previous farming areas. Thus, the form of ‘circulating’ usufruct, which Cramb claims, does not seem to continue following the first swiddening in the establishment of the village territory. Is this a resurgence of the traditional adat after the village has completed its first round of cultivation? Or is this a moral right adumbrating traditional adat that will develop eventually into a jural right in this village? These issues need to be addressed.

However, Cramb’s work illustrates the problem of interpreting land tenure from land use. Land use is not the same as land tenure. Land use is largely a product of the opportunity system; land tenure is an aspect of the social structure, or jural structure of the society. Land tenure cannot be derived from land use without supporting data and an intensive analysis of disputes over land.

Many of these questionable claims might have been better substantiated, or refuted, if Cramb, as I have pointed out with regard to other researchers, had focused on the ritual aspects and actions involved in land tenure, boundary disputes, and the lending or renting of land to see how jural rights are reflected and delineated precisely by ritual actions.

4. The Nature of Egalitarian Society.

The most contested area of Iban studies is the degree of egalitarianism in Iban society. And at a theoretical level in anthropological thinking the nature of hierarchy and egalitarianism is also a source of contention.

Iban society is frequently perceived as the paradigm of egalitarianism and is contrasted with the stratified, class societies of Borneo peoples such as the Kayan and Kenyah. The lack of an ascribed hierarchical structure to Iban society while being surrounded by societies that have such an organization has been a challenged anthropological theory. However, Helliwell (1994a, 1995) has argued that the concepts used in this analysis are fraught with cultural assumptions of Western fieldworkers that stem from a particular post-Enlightenment confusion. And therefore the issue is wrongly phrased.

Freeman (1955b:1; 1970b:129) had concluded that Iban society is characterized by a strongly egalitarian ethos. It is a meritocracy where status and prestige must be achieved rather than inherited. Sutlive (1978:108-11, 1979:114-15, 1988:108-10) and Davison and Sutlive (1991:160) have also described the Ibans as egalitarian. However, in 1980 Rousseau disputed Freeman’s conclusion and argued that the Iban society was stratified but without providing sufficient supporting evidence. Freeman (1981) showed the errors in Rousseau’s work and with great detail put forward his argument on the egalitarianism of Iban society.

Armstrong (1992) argued that the dichotomous classification of Bornean societies as egalitarian or stratified was in error. Those societies that have hereditary classes were not all the same. There is a continuum of hierarchical expression, with some societies like the Kenyah Badeng displaying limited use of principles of class stratification. Hierarchy, she thus argued, does not penetrate all domains of the society; egalitarian principles are also found in many aspects of their social life. Alexander (1992) also argued that the distinction between egalitarian societies and hierarchical ones was inadequate. ‘The conventional explanations of the reproduction of inequality, which turn on control of material resources or power, or which postulate the internalization of hierarchical values, are particularly difficult to substantiate in the societies of central Borneo... This apparent combination of an egalitarian culture with ascribed rank [in these societies] raises interesting problems concerning the relationship between ethos and political structure, and the processes by which ascribed rank is reproduced or transformed’ (1992:207). Thus, Alexander and Armstrong make the point that while some political relationships may be grounded in inequality this does not entail that equally important economic and gender relationships are similarly constituted.

However, in none of these articles were the theoretical concepts of egalitarianism and hierarchy fully analyzed until Sather (1996) addressed this issue in a brilliant article that not only delineated the nature of egalitarianism in Iban society but provided the conceptual tools to address stratified societies in Borneo in a more productive manner. Sather distinguishes ideology from social relations. A society can have a hierarchical ideology while the conditions of social relations may be equal in various domains; while a society expressing egalitarian ideology may have unequal conditions in certain domains. Thus, in an egalitarian society there may be objective inequalities, as in Iban society. Sather argues that Ibans perceive that there is an equality of potential for all, and inequality is thus largely proportional to merit. (Gibson [1990:133] refers to this as ‘ascribed equality’.) Furthermore, personal success among the Ibans is in the main won outside in the external world. Thus, Sather argues (1996:102) that ‘Iban society is most useful seen — not as unequivocally “egalitarian” — but as structured around an articulation of principles of both “egality” and “hierarchy”, with relations of equality predominating internally — especially within the local longhouse community... while hierarchy is externally derived and, as a rule, valorized within a larger regional society through major ritual gatherings or gawai.’ And while rank achieved through the performance of rituals is carried on to the Otherworld on death, the ranking is not passed on to the individual’s children so that the deceased’s descendants ‘must begin life anew, like all others, equal and undifferentiated, and must win a place for themselves in the visible society of the living by their own efforts and through projects of their own devising’ (Sather 1996:101).

Sather thus points out the tension in Iban society (also see Sather 1989). But it is useful to realize that this internal tension between equality and hierarchy is found in all societies, including the highly stratified ones. No society is completely hierarchical in all their domains nor completely egalitarian. We understand how this tension is resolved in Iban society, although insufficient recognition of it has occurred. That is, the Ibans convert wealth through extensive gawai into intangible status which is ephemeral, extinguished in the social world at death, so that economic classes and economic stratification do not become emergent. But we still do not know how this tension in stratified societies is resolved.

There are two issues also insufficiently addressed. All too frequently ranking, which an individual can achieve, is confused with an ascribed status, which is inherited. Furthermore, the demography of bilik membership is too often ignored. There is a claim that founding biliks get the opportunity to accumulate more rights to land. But the chance events of birth and death in a bilik mitigate this process.

Thus, the Iban materials refute Brunton’s (1990) proposition that egalitarian societies are unstable. But another theoretical question must then be posed. What has been the genesis of stratified Bornean societies? Kirch (1982, 1994) has argued that scarcity of resources in Polynesia led to social stratification there. Was the adaptability of the Ibans to move into new areas, so that scarcity did not arise, one of the factors that led to their egalitarianism? This remains an unresolved problem in Iban studies.
There is also the problem of the Bidayuh Land Dayak, which Geddes (1954:33) states has an ‘absence of rank or class’, as Alexander (1992) has pointed out. We know nothing of the social processes in Bidayuh society that serve to maintain this egalitarianism, such as occurs in Iban society. The Bidayuh provide an excellent opportunity to test the various hypotheses developed for our understanding of egalitarianism in Iban society.

Finally, Davison and Sutlive (1991:160) and Sutlive (1991:495) make the important point that an egalitarian ethos does not preclude the existence of roles for leaders and various status distinctions other than those associated with gawai performances. These include in the past, warrior chiefs, leaders of migrations, and also currently regional chiefs, longhouse headmen, bards, shaman, and omen specialists.

It is interesting that the challenge of Iban society in terms of ranking, ascribed and achieved status, egalitarianism and hierarchy, have led to both a better understanding and refinement of anthropological concepts as well as to a better conception of the processes at work in modern western society.

We shall return to the issues of stratification and egalitarian social structures in the discussion of ethnogenesis and gender studies as these are salient issues in these domains as well.

5. Ethnogenesis.

Iban studies and the issue of egalitarianism have raised questions as to the processes that create differing ethnic groups. Brown (1973) postulated that hereditarily closed systems of rank promote ethnic diversity and may even generate ethnic distinctions, while open ranking systems dissolve ethnic distinctions. This theoretical proposition appears to be supported by the relation of the Ibans to other ethnic groups.

Brown (1973:117) argues that in a society with approved and readily perceptible vertical mobility,

cultural variation between the strata is interpreted for what it is: the consequences of different learning capacities and experiences. What with individuals, families, or groups moving from high to low and vice versa, a racial, biological, or ethnic explanation of stratification would make very little sense. On the other hand, if the society in question has a hereditarily closed ranking system then it not only possible but perhaps typical that the society is interpreted as composed of different racial or ethnic components.

Sellato (1994:219) also argues that the egalitarianism of the Ibans offered a model that was more acceptable to the Punan’s own egalitarian ethic and so many Punan groups were absorbed into Iban culture. Furthermore, the egalitarian ideology of the Punan groups keeps them from assimilating to any great extent into stratified agricultural societies (1994:183; 202-3).
However, not all hunting and gathering groups were as willing to be absorbed. Freeman (1955a:14–15) writes,

The nomadic Bukitans, whose ancestral territory the Rejang was, acted as guides and allies to the more numerous and more accomplished Iban, and under Iban influence they gradually came to follow Iban methods of cultivating rice, and ultimately, to live in long-houses of their own making. The nomadic Ukits, on the other hand, were inveterate opponents of the Iban, and contested their advance at many points...

The works of Brown and Sellato have important implications for anthropological theory on ethnogenesis and the maintenance of different cultural ecologies. By rejecting assimilation to stratified societies the Punan maintained control over their ecological niche of forest collecting while the stratified societies focused on swidden agriculture. Thus, stratified societies are associated with the symbiotic relationship of different groups exploiting differing ecological niches within the same region.

6. Gender Studies.

The nature of Iban sex roles is another highly contested area in Iban studies and the most needing of further research. Are the relations between the sex roles truly egalitarian? To what degree do the male values of aggressiveness and headhunting penetrate the whole society to the detriment of women? Does male identity solely depend on aggressiveness and headhunting or does farming also figure importantly? Why have male scholars not given sufficient attention to that aspect of the role of women in weaving that also provides a pathway to achieving status similar to headhunting? What are the roots of the pervasive sexual antagonism between men and women? Is it sufficient to explain this only in terms of role conflict?

Freeman has argued that males and females in Iban society are structurally equal. Residence after marriage is utrolocal. There are no distinctions in kin terminology based on sex of speaker. Headship of the bilik may be either male or female. And women have the same jural rights as men (Freeman 1967:334; 1981:50-51; also see Sather 1994a, 1994d, 1996). The problem here is that while there is no gender inequality in the adat law, this does not guarantee that women have equal access to village moots and equal treatment in these. We are all too aware of similar situations in other societies of gender neutrality in the jural rules while in fact women are treated unequally in the jural processes. What is needed here is a study of case materials on the jural processes themselves to discover whether in fact women do get equal treatment.

Sutlive (1991:492-93) specifies those realms in which women have equal opportunities as men. He writes that Iban men and women have relatively equal access to resources; to opportunities to succeed as farmers; and to the privilege of participating in longhouse decision-making meetings, including annual meetings to decide on farm sites. But Sutlive concludes (1991:493), that while Iban society is characterized by a remarkable equity between the sexes (see Davison and Sutlive 1991:163), it is simply not true that there was equality of opportunity in all affairs, as for example in the colonial hierarchy of political offices, and in the prestige system based on headhunting and warfare.

The problem may lie in the privileging by scholars of the male role over the female, giving more prestige value to the male field of action. Freeman (1967:334) argues that ‘Iban social life is very much dominated by male values. These values are associated primarily with the attainment of prestige in a series of exclusively male activities, the chief of these, traditionally, being participation in the cult of head-hunting....’ Sather (1978c:343) in a similar vein writes that

While women in Iban society enjoy a status equal in most respects to that of men, an exception existed traditionally.... in the area of warfare and ritual head-taking. ... Warfare as an institution and its attendant glorification of male aggressiveness thus directly conflicted with the principles of sexual equality and egalitarianism otherwise inherent in traditional Iban social structure.

But Mashman (1991) disagrees with Freeman and Sather. She points out that these views of male dominance in values are partially a reflection of the work primarily of male anthropologists (also see Helliwell 1994b). Mashman makes two important points with regard to the role of women: (1) their involvement in the cult of headhunting; (2) the parallel prestige system to that of men that went with becoming a skilled weaver.

Mashman describes the intimate relationship between headhunting and successful farming. They were mutually supporting activities. She quotes (1991:236) Masing’s summary of this circular connection: ‘A large surplus of padi could only be obtained if a constant supply of virgin forest was available for cultivation and the availability of virgin forest depended on the Ibans’ ability to conquer fresh territory (Masing 1978:66)’. Davison and Sutlive (1991:155) also link the cult of headhunting with fertility for women and crops. Women were thus intimately involved in the headhunting cult. Women goaded men on to take heads as this would also make them eligible for taking a wife (Mashman 1991:241; see Davison and Sutlive 1991 for part that women played in stimulating headhunting activities). And in the ritual treatment of heads taken, women played the major role (Mashman 1991:241–42). She writes:

Women subject Iban males to the values of warriors from birth onward. Females derive this power from the fact that males do not have access to them until they prove themselves by obtaining a trophy head... [1991:241].

Furthermore, Mashman points out, women had their own system of achieving high ranking through weaving and the rituals that supported this (see also Gavin 1991). Davison and Sutlive (1991:164) also conclude that ‘women were able to claim honor and positions of influence in Iban society through their skill at weaving and their ritual mastery of the art of dyeing cloth. These activities were traditionally identified as the female equivalent of headhunting...’ Nevertheless, Sutlive argues (1991:495) ‘the successful weaver never eclipsed or even approximated the acclaim and approbation accorded outstanding Iban men.’
Helliwell (1994b:49) also disputes those interpretations that privilege the status of the man as warrior. She argues that values of masculinity also include success in farming as well as in warfare (also see Sutlive 1988:26–27 and Sather 1994d:13 in which they point out that male prestige was based not only on success in warfare). She quotes from Freeman (1970B:230) that older men who have slaked their wanderlust come to be involved closely with their farms and strive to produce abundant crops that will give them a surplus for performing headhunting and other rituals.

Sather (1994a:12) writes:

Traditionally three criteria predominated. The first and most basic was farming success. Thus, no man could hope to achieve renown without having first gained economic wealth and material security through successful rice-farming, by regularly obtaining a surplus harvest and by converting at least some of his family’s surplus padi into durable prestige wealth, such as jars and brassware. Secondly, a man gained fame by pioneering, by clearing the forest and leading others to open new land for settlement. Third was prowess in war. No other area of masculine achievement carried greater honour and in the past the most respected of all Iban leaders were... major war leaders.

While there are arguments that the study of the Iban female role has been biased by male anthropologists and therefore their true nature has not yet been satisfactorily delineated, which includes the critical part women played in headhunting, ritual, and weaving; and while it is argued that the warrior aspect of male roles has been overemphasized and his status is also dependent on his agricultural abilities, others have drawn attention to the lack of responsibility for farming by males and their overdependence on the hard work of women.

Thus, Freeman (1955a:78) writes:

All Iban women... participate year by year in the arduous routine of farm work. While the young men gad off on their journeys, their sisters stay at home to sow, weed and reap. It is upon the women of a bilik family that the main effort of padi cultivation falls...

Sutlive (1972:234) agrees: ‘In the past and at present, a principal portion of farm-work has fallen to women’.

In this regard Mashman (1991:259) points out that despite the importance of the woman’s agricultural work, ‘there is little recognition ideologically for women’s labor in rice cultivation.’ And she (1991:263) concludes, ‘There is little evidence that rice cultivation provides women with a separate arena of prestige and a position outside the male value system.’

The growth of the male institution of bejalai, extended travel for work, profit, and adventure, is frequently used to explain the inequality between the sexes, which finds expression in the sexual antagonism in Iban society (see Freeman 1968, Sather 1978, Sutlive 1991). With the cessation of headhunting, men had the freedom to go on bejalai, shedding the responsibility for the arduous and boring farm work, and enjoying sexual liaisons while away from their wives, even managing a second family outside of Iban society. But women were not permitted similar license. Woman had no part to play in the bejalai aspect of the male role as they did in headhunting. Nor did they get prestige from the agricultural work they undertook. Thus, Mashman (1991:258) writes, ‘While male migration through bejalai is celebrated in myth and ritual, the fact that women’s presence in the longhouse, maintaining the family and looking after the next generation, enables men to go away and see the world is unrecognized and unstated.’

But this is not the only root of sexual antagonism. To sort this out it is important to distinguish two periods in the change that occurred in Iban society. There is the pre-colonial and early colonial period in which headhunting was still a major institution. And there is the late post-colonial period in which headhunting is no longer the way to achieve status for men and instead they turn to bejalai. We deal with the later period first.

Both Kedit (1991:312) and Mashman (1991:258) maintain that women are ambivalent about bejalai. Women want the material benefits and prestige from the work of their husbands away on bejalai. But half the women interviewed by Kedit (1991:313) said that they suffered from the men’s absence. Women mentioned the additional burden of both farm work and household management, particularly in times of sickness. There was furthermore the loss of companionship with their spouse.
In the earlier period, as Mashman (1991:258) points out, men and women shared a common goal, the acquisition of trophy heads. Thus, in the second period gender relations have shifted. Women are no longer as important to the ritual health of the community. But is this sufficient to cause the deep-seated antagonism between the sexes? Are there suggestions that it might in fact be of a deeper nature?

In an revealing analysis of the wide-spread stories of the hero Keling and the heroine Kumang, which have considerable historical depth in Iban culture, Sutlive (1977, 1991) throws important light on gender relations largely as perceived by men (Sutlive 1977:159). Keling is from heaven, Kumang is from earth. Thus, ‘Kumang always comes off second best to Keling. Despite her industry and other virtues, she is caricatured as inept, impatient, jealous, and given to acts with no thought of their consequences.’ But, Sutlive (1977:158–60) points out,

... the person and role of Kumang help set the stage for the remarkable feats of Keling (just) as the personhood and role of Iban women set the stage for the accomplishments of Iban men... Second, not only do the person and the role of Kumang and the Iban woman set the stage for the activities of Keling and Iban men, they require the remarkable abilities of the male figures... Third, the character of Kumang and Iban women is of such a nature as to make the correctives (and interventions) of males constantly necessary... Fourth, Kumang, other female characters in oral literature, and women in general are said to be more naive and gullible than are males...

Sutlive concludes (1977) that the male role has been an expression of mobility, both geographically and socially, and the female role has been an expression of stability. And ‘... the incapabilities attributed to Kumang and her peers simply do not hold true in real life’ (Sutlive 1977:164).

Miles (1994:77) disagrees with the argument that females and males are structurally equal and takes a stronger position on the nature of female and male roles in his reanalyzing Freeman’s data. Unfortunately, Miles did not consider women’s role in fomenting headhunting and their ability to achieve status through skills in weaving, which was an important part of the headhunting cult (see Davison and Sutlive 1991:207-13). Nevertheless he concludes by marshalling interesting evidence (see below) that there is a profound gender asymmetry in Iban society in which men exercise control over women. The ‘inequality of opportunity between the sexes is indisputable.’

Sexual antagonism by men, which represents their need for control over women, is expressed in other ways than in these stories told largely by men. Sutlive (1992:44) quotes one Iban as saying, ‘For us Ibans, females are the enemy.’ Sather’s (1978c:343) description of the attitude of Ibans towards sexual intercourse also indicates male aggression towards women. ‘[W]arfare is also a metaphor for sexual intercourse. Sexual congress is commonly described metaphorically ... as “combat”, the penis as a “sword” or other weapon and ejaculation as the loosening of a spear or the firing of a gun.’ What is missing is how women symbolize sexual relations.

Then there are the kuklir, the malevolent ghosts of women who have died in childbirth. Sather (1978c) describes how they attack men. The kuklir ‘is seen by men ... as a hostile emasculator who tears away and ingests the tangible sign of male sexuality, the sexual organs’ (Sather 1978c:343–44). But it is interesting to note that the sexual hostility expressed in the kuklir’s attack can be nullified ‘by an act of female intercession’ (Sather 1978c:335). A woman’s presence, Sather writes (1978c:344), is thought to provide a measure of protection against the kuklir.

As for women, Freeman argues (1968:388) that adult Iban women are virtually without exception envious of males, and

the mockery of males, and particularly the male genital, is one of their favorite pastimes. One of the forms which this mockery takes is for two women to share a nickname... which they regularly use in addressing one another in a bantering tone of voice. It is always a nickname directed at males, and usually at the male genital.

These includes names such as ‘stiff but not for long’, ‘enraged if it does not eat’, ‘damaged tree trunk’ in jeering reference to a penis pin.

Freeman (1968:388–89) goes on to say that

during head-hunting rituals which are occasions for the celebration of the preoccupations and narcissism of men, bands of women as comically dressed transvestites complete with grotesquely ornamented phalli, for hours on end chant songs in which they mock male pretentions and denigrate the male genital...

The stories of Keling and Kumang, the concept of the kuklir, the mockery of men at headhunting rituals, and the use of terms of aggression to describe the sexual act, all point to deeper historical roots of sexual antagonism than a response to the relatively recent efflorescence of bejalai. The devaluation of women by men, the stereotyping of the female character, lends substance to the conclusions that Miles (1994) reaches in his reanalysis of Freeman’s data and in particular his study (1967) of the Iban Antu Buyu, or incubus.

Miles in analyzing the literature on domestic relations among the Ibans concludes (1994:83)

there are indications that the dominance which Iban men exercise over women in contemporary relations of production and reproduction was even more oppressive during the centuries preceeding the consolidation of the Pax Britannica in Sarawak.

He attributes ‘such gender asymmetry’ to a ‘political economy which geared agricultural production by females to militarism and vice versa.’ If Miles is correct this again lends credence to the argument made here that sexual antagonism has deeper roots than modern asymmetries in the sex roles as a result of bejalai.

Miles’s (1994) strongest argument with regard to his contention that Iban males dominate women is found in analysis of the ritual to rid a woman of the Antu Buru, in which, he argues, Iban women are dominated and humiliated by men.

The evidence for the presence of an incubus is his appearance in a woman’s dream. In such a dream he appears to a woman as a handsome and alluring male whose advances she is quite unable to resist (Freeman 1967:318).

However, this is a guise for the purposes of seduction.

Incubi are in fact animals. One of the consequences of such intercourse is that a child may be born. But the incubus either before or after birth takes the soul of the offspring, which results in either a miscarriage or the death of the child.

When a wife, who has suffered a miscarriage or the death of a child, reveals she has had a dream in which an incubus has seduced her, or when other female members of the longhouse admit to having had dreams in which the woman was a target of an incubus, a male shaman is called who specializes in killing such incubi. He arrives and asks where is the ‘bad’ Iban? Then he calls for the cooperation of any wife who has not lost children. He passes a crystal over her head to divine whether her soul counterpart is in a perfectly healthy state, which it is. Then the shaman passes the crystal over the heads of any women in the longhouse who may be suspected of having intercourse with an incubus in a dream. The shaman divines with the crystal the type of incubus that has seduced each of the women. He then arranges ceremonies for those women in order to kill her incubus.
Miles points out that 90 percent of the women in Freeman’s sample had miscarriages or had lost a child. And he (1994:78) argues,

But two solid and indisputable ethnographic facts stand out: admissions by females to such nocturnal experiences are subject to (if not, entirely dependent upon) intense social pressure; also, that the community displays abhorrence of the adulterous and bestial behaviour to which these confessions attest.

Miles states that this whole institution of incubus and its killing is a form of public humiliation of the woman as she is accused of committing adultery by way of bestiality. ‘Her misfortune in losing a baby thus becomes a moral and humiliating stigma which marks her out for collective condemnation’ (Miles 1994:79). Freeman himself writes (1967:339),

The relationship of a woman to her incubus... involves feelings of guilt and shame... Indeed, there is some social recognition of the intentional involvement of a woman with her incubus, as in the shaman’s open reference to her as a ‘bad’ woman, and in the commonly evinced attitude that such a woman has an unduly lascivious disposition; she is... looked upon as tainted, and a mother will warn her daughters to on no account come in contact with her toilet things.

In summary, we have come to the following conclusions in the dimensions of the female role in Iban society: the sexual act is phrased in metaphors of war; women are devalued by men, and in fact humiliated by the rite of the incubus; women’s agricultural work is not valorized; women have a means of achieving status from their weaving, but women’s statuses are not as valued or as important as those achieved by men.

But even though women are the enemy, are devalued and humiliated by men, are no longer intimately involved in the activities of men as they were traditionally, even though women are viewed by men in the sexual relations as a target for aggressive images so that the drives of sex and aggression coalesce, rape or violence does not appear to be part of the traditional Iban society. This is interesting as Appell (1991a) has argued that the reasons for the absence of rape and violence to women among the Rungus is that they have individuated the drives of aggression and sex. Relations between men and women do not involve the use of aggressive metaphors. This suggests that other factors need to be considered in explaining the lack of rape and violence towards women in many Bornean societies.

The state of gender relations among the Iban could profit from further study. None of those dealing with gender relations has discussed fully the social construction of Iban sexuality as represented in courting (ngayap) and other customs. Yet this is a significant custom in terms of explaining relations between males and females. Sather’s (1994d:11) discussion of ngayap suggests dimensions in gender relations that have still to be explored. He writes:

Sexual relations were often entered into during this period [ngayap], and these relations, even if they were later broken off, continued to be acknowledged... Thus, in old age, former lovers might refer to each other as ambat (‘lover’) or sulu (‘sweetheart’). At death, former lovers were permitted to enter the cloth enclosure... in which the deceased’s body was placed to pay their last respects, sometimes using special terms of endearment... Thus relations between former lovers were generally respected as enduring social bonds.

One wonders how husbands dealt with this since they were so outraged by adultery. And it is interesting that traditionally Saribas Iban, according to Sather (1994d:11), ‘observed a night of permissive licence immediately following two major ritual festivals... During this night, rules of adultery were suspended and both married and unmarried men and women were allowed to engage in courting (ngayap).’

A study of the adat of adultery would also provide important data. In the stories of Keling (Sather 1994a:34), during his many wanderings and metamorphoses becomes the husband or lover of many other women. And Kumang takes similar liberties. Sather (1994d) touches on the problem of adultery in his discussion of the use of wooden weapons to right wrongs a man has experienced when another man has had adulterous relations with his wife. But what rules do females have when a husband is involved in adultery? Sandin’s (1980) brief description of the adat of adultery suggests that women are treated the same as men in terms of fines. However, during early periods, how did the offended wife respond? She did not have recourse to battle with wooden weapons that men had (see Sather 1994d). But in the stories of Kumang (Sather 1994a:34) she takes revenge on her rivals.

Then, a study should be made of the traditional marriage ceremony for all types of marriages (see Sutlive 1972:275), as the symbolism involved in this can throw light on gender relations. In this regard the issue of bridewealth has also not been sufficiently addressed. Sather (1994a:144) writes that bridewealth is not always paid nor demanded. Among the Saribas-Krian Ibans it is a common feature of marriage. And Sather says that it tends to be associated with family-arranged marriages.

At this point we still do not have an explanation of sexual antagonism in Iban society. Women, it could be explained, in their symbolic attacks on men are exhibiting their displeasure with their status inequality and attempting to right it. But what are the social or psychological reasons for men devaluing women and humiliating them?

We need further study of gender relations as the voices of women have not been adequately heard. And we need to look at the processes of socialization. If women are antagonistic towards men, why is there not more evidence of female antagonism addressed to their male children? The only evidence we have for this is the report by Freeman (1968:387-88) of Iban mothers fondling the penises of their children and occasionally tweaking them. However, it should be noted, that this fondling is not necessarily done out of antagonism, but rather affection, and is something seen throughout Southeast Asia (cf. Sutlive and Appell 1991:xliv, n.24).

7. The Expansion of the Ibans, Warfare, and Headhunting

The sudden expansion of a population out of its home territory is one of the most difficult social phenomena for anthropologists to explain. If it is a product of population increase, what are the causes of this increase? How do we explain warfare and its sometimes associated trait of headhunting? Is it an adaptive response to growing scarcity of resources as a result of population increase? These interrelated social phenomena have always been of considerable interest for the development of anthropological theory.

The Iban experience provides critical data to develop and test these theories. But it is useful to first analyze these three aspects, expansion, warfare, and headhunting, as separate phenomena and then consider their interrelations. Expansion may or may not include warfare. Warfare may or may not be the result of the growing scarcity of resources. And headhunting, while one form of warfare, has major ritual implications.

Expansion of the Ibans. Around 4000 B.C. the ancestors of the Ibans, the original Austronesian speakers, spread out of their homeland in southern China, through Island Southeast Asia, into the Pacific and then across the Indian Ocean. This led them eventually to extend over halfway around the world from Madagascar to Easter Island, representing one of the greatest population movements in human history. Various explanations for this original dispersal have been suggested (see Bellwood 1995, 1996).

The Ibans, a member of the Austronesian language family, in more recent times also experienced a major expansion. They spread out of the Kapuas River basin of Kalimantan around the middle of the 16th century, migrating into Sarawak, and eventually all the political divisions of Borneo (Sather 1994a:1; Pringle 1970:39). Do explanations for the expansion of the Ibans have any relevance for understanding the factors leading to the migration of the original Austronesian speakers? Bellwood (1996:34) thinks not, because the Ibans had iron tools at the time of their expansion and their movement was through interior rainforests. The prehistoric Austronesian expansion, Bellwood claims, was coastal and inter-island, and was based on stone tools. Nevertheless, there may be similar processes at work in both.

The Ibans expanded into territories of hunters and gatherers, either pushing them out or absorbing them, into unoccupied areas, as well as into regions populated by swidden agriculturalists, sometimes Iban populations themselves, that they forced out by successful attacks. Sather 1994a) breaks the expansion of the Ibans into three phrases. He writes (1994a:2), ‘The first phase of aggressive migration appears to have continued over much of what is now the First and Second Divisions of Sarawak until the beginning of the 18th century. There then followed a period of consolidation, as subsequent generations of pioneers spread out and founded longhouse communities along the networks of rivers and streams secured initially by their pioneering predecessors...’

The third period of Iban expansion was one of conflict. Sather (1994a:9) writes: ‘The long period of territorial consolidation, which appears to have continued in the lower Second Division throughout much of the 18th century, gave way shortly before the 19th century to a period of major conflict and, particularly in the upper-rivers, of renewed territorial expansion.’

Sather (1994a:9) writes of this period: ‘As the interior and lower rivers of western Sarawak filled up with Iban settlement, institutions of competitive regional leadership appear to have assumed a growing importance, with regional leaders forming among themselves extensive, river-based alliances, allowing them to mobilize large-scale followings, particularly for warfare, land-clearing, migration and the territorial defense of their river domains.’ It was during this period, specifically the first half of the 19th century, that the coastal marauding of the Ibans from the Saribas and Skrang developed and flourished.

Little is known of the conditions that led to the original expansion of the Ibans. Our major source for this pre-colonial period is Sandin (1967b, 1994). In his important collection of Iban oral histories, Sandin gives a number of possible explanations for movements of Ibans to new regions: to escape from attack (1967b:41–2; 1994:148, 150, 175); to find safety in empty lands (1994:177); to alleviate population pressure on land (1994:149, 151); to be the first settlers in a river area so as to claim new land (1967:14, 1994:151, 178); because of declining fertility in the home territory and insufficient harvests to find more fertile lands (1994:133); to find not only more fertile land for agriculture but a more bountiful supply of forest products and fish and animals in a new district (1967b:19–20; 1994:93, 134, 235–36; to locate primary forest (1994:148); to move away from disputes (1994:131, 148); to move away from disease (1994:155); to avoid religious persecution by Muslim populations (1994:91); and to achieve personal status by the leading of migrations into new territories, which these oral histories testify to (1994:148–50, 176–79).

These were the motives as stated by the Ibans in Sandin’s oral histories. On the other hand, some anthropologists, in explaining the eruption of a population, turn to factors that the people in question may not have been consciously aware of. That is, they depend on explanations that may have meaning in a particular theory of human behavior but which have no meaning to population growth or the intentions of its members. Frequently, the explanation proposed is that of population growth forcing the movement of sections of the population into new territories. This is the proximate cause. This form of analysis fails to consider the local cultural perceptions of what constituted population densities with the available technology. What is perceived as crowded in one period may not be in another. Thus, any increase in population densities must be seen as a relative increase in terms of other populations in the region, densities, and technology.

There are various hypotheses to explain population growth up to the limits of the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. First, a genetic mutation providing resistance to an endemic disease could cause such an increase in a population. It has been suggested that the Ibans might have experienced such a genetic shift (see Serjeantson and Gao 1995:167). But it seems unlikely that this would have given them any long-term advantage because other populations in the same region have also either experienced the same mutation due to disease pressure, or would have achieved it through intermarriage.

A second explanation for population increase is technological innovation providing an increase in production. A shift from hunting and gathering to horticulture could produce and support a population increase. Thus, a new agricultural technique such as swidden horticulture, which is portable to almost any region, may partially explain the early expansion of Austronesian speakers and their success against lower density populations. That along witha boat technology would permit these populations to spread out into the regions of Southeast Asia that were underpopulated by hunters and gatherers. Thus, the swiddening Austronesians could amass a greater population to take control of new regions. But this does not seem to fully explain the expansion of the Ibans. While they did expand into the territories of hunting and gathering populations, their form of horticulture does not seem to have given them any advantage over other Borneo swiddening populations. That is with the exception of their organization of labor, which we shall discuss shortly.

Another explanation in terms of technology is access to tools. Did the Ibans have a greater access to iron than other Borneo peoples? This would have enabled them to penetrate more easily the primary jungle to make swiddens. This technological advantage may have been a contributing factor since they were on direct trade routes to coastal Sultanates, which in addition to supplying iron could have been buyers of the jungle produce the Ibans extracted (see Vayda 1961:355; 1969:215 for this interpretation).

Another explanation is the capacity to utilize a relatively underdeveloped ecological niche. One purpose for the Iban spread into relatively unpopulated jungle areas was to collect forest products. If they were able to control the trade of this to the coast, they would be in a more advantageous, competitive position.

Finally, has there been a development in the social or cultural organization that makes the Iban more adaptive to the environment and more able to exploit the territory of others?

Before we can address this last issue, it is important to return to the basic assumption that it was population pressure that led to Iban expansion. This is the position taken by Vayda (1961, 1969, 1976). McKinley (1978), however, disputes this assumption. Reanalyzing Iban census data, especially the 1939–1947 data, he argues that the Ibans probably had a similar rate of low fertility in the past. He writes (1978:22), ‘...there is no convincing evidence for a link, whether as cause or effect, between exceptional population growth through natural increase and the aggressive migrations of the Iban.’ (However, see Vayda’s [1969:221] argument on Iban population size and increase.)

Instead of population increase, McKinley argues that the expansion of Ibans out of the Kapuas River basin was in response to incursions on their autonomy by the growing power of the coastal state at the mouth of the Kapuas. (This is partially substantiated by Sandin’s report that the Ibans wanted to escape proselytization by Arabs, quoted above.) McKinley then explains that what appears to be an increase in Iban population is in fact the result of the assimilation of other indigenous peoples into Iban culture, not an increase in fertility. He argues that it was this assimilation of non-Iban peoples to Iban culture over a period of four or more centuries that explains the contemporary fact that the Iban population is larger, though less prolific, than that of most other Bornean groups.

Pringle grants that the earlier pioneer Iban migrations into the Second Division may have been in part a process of cultural diffusion in which hunting and gathering communities were stimulated into becoming Iban. However, he argues (1970:251) that the major component of later migrations under Brooke rule was a physical transfer of populations. And this suggests population growth.

From the viewpoint of anthropological theory, the assimilation by populations of Iban culture leaves a major question unanswered. What is the source of Iban aggressiveness? Anthropological theory would suggest that this arises from techniques of socialization. How then did the new Ibanized populations learn those methods of socialization that produced the modal Iban personality, so aggressive, so anxious to take heads? Is it possible that personalities are less constrained by socialization and more responsive to general cultural influences than previously thought?

There has not been sufficient study of the impact on Iban population growth by incorporating prisoners (e.g. Sandin 1994:166). This seems to have been a major factor. But how was this accomplished so facilely, since, as far as I am aware, there are no reports of such prisoners ever turning on their captors, escaping, or leading enemies to their captors’ longhouses?
Whether the primary expansion of the Ibans can partially or largely be explained by the assimilation of other groups, particularly those at a lower level in the socioeconomic scale, or by assimilating prisoners of war, or whether it was primarily a product of internal population growth, it is clear that there were cultural and social innovations that enabled the Ibans to overcome other ethnic groups in their competition for territory. The egalitarianism of the Ibans, as described previously, seems to have enabled them to incorporate other indigenous groups into their society, which stratified societies were unable to do so easily. In contrast to the stratified societies of central Borneo, the Ibans had a sociological advantage. But then why did not the egalitarian Bidayuh Land Dayak also expand?

The analysis of Miles (1994) suggests that a more efficient organization of labour by the Ibans provided the basis for their expansion. He argues that the system of agricultural production and farming technology was an ‘agro-military strategy’. It depended largely on female labour freeing men for warfare (see also Davison and Sutlive 1991). And, one might add, for exploration to discover fertile but underpopulated regions.

The division of labour, however, does not fully explain the adaptive nature of Iban social organization. Sather (1994a:3) writes: that ‘historical success of the Iban was related not so much to their ability to organize and carry out pioneer-migrations – although this ability was remarkable enough – as it was to their capacity to evolve socially and economically, moving from forest pioneers to settled agriculturalists re-cultivating farmland from generation to generation under a stable system of secondary forest-fallow rotation.’

This adaptability both for expansion and adaptation is in large part related to Iban social organization in which independent, egalitarian ranked bilik families are able to aggregate into longhouse communities and then, when necessary, extract themselves and reform into new longhouse communities in a new region with other bilik families. And capacity was all held together by the extensive ties of the kindred.

There is more to this expansion of the Ibans, however, than just a simple egalitarianism, a cultural ecology geared to militaristic expansion, and an adaptive social organization. There were two added factors. First is the achievement of status. Davison and Sutlive (1991:165) write, ‘It seems likely that the extraordinary Iban demand for heads had its origins in the fiercely competitive nature of Iban society, where status is achieved, rather than inherited.’

Second, there was something about Iban culture, as McKinley states, their cosmology, which was more powerful and attractive than that of other peoples, with the result that Iban cosmological beliefs and rituals were taken up by other groups. King (1985:56–57) makes note of the cultural items that the Maloh, a stratified society, took up from the Ibans. Many of these involved curing and illness. The response of the Kantu’ in confrontation with the Ibans, as previously noted, was to take up their system of land tenure, and then modify it further. McKinley (1978:23) writes that ‘Iban custom had ... acquired a certain prestige in a world where custom, or adat, is the building material for all socially constructed realities.’

Apparently Iban cosmology and ritual were more reticulated, more comprehensive, and provided greater explanatory power, than the cosmology of other groups. It made more sense of the world and organized social action more efficiently. This hypothesis needs more research. But there does seems to be some evidence for this in the complex and extensive oral literature of the Ibans, in which cosmology and ritual are more fully developed than they are in the cultures of other societies in central Borneo. Additional evidence of this might be found in the maintenance of extensive genealogies with far more depth than is usually found in similar cognaticly structured, swidden agricultural societies. McKinley (1978) also believes that the strength of Iban cosmology and ritual explains how the Iban are united culturally even though they are so far spread.

Given all these potential factors, or any combination of them, for explaining the pioneering movement of the Iban, Iban oral histories contain, in addition, a particular ethos that favored a frontier spirit, an excitement and desire to open up new land. Many of the Iban statements about new lands and the motivations for exploration of new frontiers sound surprisingly similar to those made by the American pioneers who penetrated and settled the American west. But this only puts the explanation for such expansion back one further step. What are the factors that produce such a pioneering spirit?

Before turning to studies of Iban warfare and its causation, it is important to note that King (1976b:314) as well as Davison and Sutlive (1991:173) make the point that much of the Iban movement involved the peaceful penetration of uninhabited lands. This point lays the framework for evaluation of those studies that claimed warfare was critical for explaining Iban expansion.
Warfare. The nature of Iban warfare and headhunting has been a major challenge to anthropological theorists attempting to explain its origin and function.

Freeman (1955a:25-26) remarks on the entry of the Ibans into the Rejang: ‘Iban head-hunting raids on Kayans, Kenyahs, Punans, Ukits, and other tribes of the Rejang basin, had more than mere ritual significance. The Iban... were invaders, and in a very real sense they were fighting for the possession of new territory ... Significantly, the Iban not only took heads. Whenever possible, they burnt down enemy long-houses, and cast all the iron implements they could find into a near-by river. In this way they hoped to discourage farming, and compel their enemies to withdraw. To a remarkable extent they were successful.’
But Freeman (1970b:73–4) also points out that headhunting warfare also existed between Iban groups of different river regions, and there was often an intense and permanent hostility between these loosely organized endogamous tribes, as Freeman designates them.

The explanation of Iban warfare, particularly its function in securing scarce resources for farming, has been of profound interest to Andrew Vayda. In a number of publications (1961, 1968, 1969, 1974a, 1975, 1976, 1979) he presents his explanation for Iban warfare. In Vayda’s original studies he viewed environmental and sociocultural variables as an integrated system. In this approach cultural systems are considered to be complex adaptive systems with a general tendency to homeostasis (1976:105). Warfare, he postulates, is thus a response of societiess as their members adjust to population growth and increasing scarcity of resources. Vayda’s objective was thus to identify those mechanisms whereby the size of human populations is adjusted to the carrying capacities of their environments and to show how these mechanisms operate. And warfare by virtue of its effects on mortality and the dispersion of populations is believed to be one of the mechanisms.

Vayda started from the premise that, wherever warfare exists, it is likely to have been useful or adaptive at some time in its development. But he also conceived of war as a process, consisting of recurrent and distinguishable phases. He asked what are the conditions conducive to the outbreak of war, and what are those conducive to or retardant to the escalation from one phase of war processes to another. His model is thus a systems model of a population in an environment in which there are multiple factors and feedbacks involved.

Vayda’s argument is complex and, without warning, he shifts from a systems model to a model of motivation (Vayda 1976). He argues that Iban headhunting is an appropriate response to misfortune such as epidemics, death, crop failures, infertility of women, and infertility of the longhouse territory. He (1976:51) connects misfortune to population pressure, ‘if the persistence or recurrence of its misfortunes has resulted from population pressures... crop failures because of overexploitation of the land or deaths, disease, and infertility because of food shortages and related stresses... release from adversity [occurs] by taking over the lands of... [headhunting] victims.’ This connection of population pressure with misfortune is a logical leap for which there is little evidence. Misfortune is not always the result of population pressure on scarce resources.

Padoch’s work (1982), furthermore, illustrates how an Iban population responded to population pressure on scarce resources by making changes in agricultural techniques.

Vayda’s interpretation of the factors leading to migration and warfare have been disputed by King (1976b) and Hallpike (1973, 1977). King (1976b:314) points out, ‘to a significant degree Iban movement was marked by peaceful penetration of uninhabited lands, and where raiding did occur it was often unrelated to the reasons put forth by Vayda.’ King (1976a:313) points out, following Freeman (1970), that there were vast areas of easily accessible and virtually uninhabited rain forest, ‘yet they still indulged in raiding and headhunting, which in purely ecological terms seemed unnecessary.’

King (1976b:310) argues that Vayda misrepresented the ethnography. And King (1976b:309) explicitly states that he does not grant priority to environmental factors nor suggest that one feature is causally related to another in a fixed way. In reviewing Vayda’s work and Wagner’s study of Iban warfare, which involved an even more ecologically deterministic view, he concludes (1976b:312), ‘My main quarrel with ecological theorists is not that an ecological analysis is out of place but that the necessary data are inadequate, and the processes underlying migration are often grossly oversimplified and sometimes misinterpreted.’ King (1976b:315–16) also points out that contrary to Vayda’s (1961) and Wagner’s (1972) claim that the Iban sought secondary forest for its relative ease of clearing, there is little evidence from the available literature that Ibans fought mainly over areas of secondary forest.

Then there is the internal evidence from Iban oral history that warfare was frequently divorced from territorial expansion. Sandin (1994:176–79) reports that the famous warleader ‘Buah Raya’ from the Entabai Ibans during the mid-1880s was concerned with extending the territory possessed by the Iban. He ‘criticized the tactics of the Saribas warleaders who had attacked a lot of places southeast of Sarawak towards Pontianak, but had not taken them over for settlement. He warned his people not to copy Saribas tactics while following him’ (1994:178).

Hallpike (1973, 1977) has also been highly critical of Vayda’s explanatory hypotheses but without providing a more coherent explanation for warfare.

Furthermore, Vayda does not sufficiently consider in his explanation for the expansion of the Ibans the interest in finding areas rich in forest products, the culturally constructed desire for more space and less crowding, the pleasure and prestige from pioneering, and the value of raiding for booty such as gongs and jars.

After the first periods of expansion and consolidation, there was a change in the nature of Iban expansion, as we have noted. Sandin (1967b:59) reports that in the Iban oral literature Iban expansion and warfare took a decidedly different direction towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th (see Pringle 1970:47). Previous to this period, Iban leaders were almost solely concerned with migrations and opening of new lands for farming in the various rivers of what is now the Second Division of Sarawak. But then the emphasis switched from pioneering agriculture inland to a pattern of raiding and retaliatory inter-Iban warfare largely but not exclusively carried on along the coastlines of the Second and Third Divisions and beyond. It should be noted that this shift to maritime marauding was only made by a limited section of the Iban population, principally in the Saribas and Skrang Rivers. This suggests that unique conditions may have existed there which were not present in other regions.

Vayda (1976:63–65) attempts to explain this shift from localized to extensive headhunting and maritime marauding in terms of his model of misfortune due to a population/resource imbalance, but with little success. He does draw attention to the fact that the new techniques of using boats to raid the coast allowed the Ibans to take heads without the fear of retaliation, and so it may have escalated. But he does not consider how heads feature in the various gawai ceremonies by which individual Ibans can memorialize their status and how the availability of these heads without retaliation required an increase in ceremonial behavior. How were the costs of this increase in headhunting gawai met? The coastal raiding not only provided heads, but also the booty and resources for putting the gawai on. Geddes (1957:52–53) raises this issue of cost with regard to the Bidayuh. He argues that costs of the rituals that had to be performed for each head put a restraint on headhunting. If this also pertained to the Ibans, then the escalation of headhunting in this later period was facilitated by the increase in booty obtained.

Pringle (1970:51) argues that the later expansion into coastal raiding, as well as the migration into the Third Division, could not have taken place without population growth. ‘But,’ he writes (1970:51), ‘it seems equally clear that it was also linked to something other than demographic pressure. It could not have developed without the peculiarly Iban outlook on life, aggressive, exuberant, and endlessly restless.’

Many commentators blame this extension into coastal marauding upon techniques learned from the coastal Malay village and experiences with the Illanun (see Pringle 1970:50–51). Yet none of the explanations advanced sufficiently consider the part played by women in motivating headhunting, as discussed in the section on gender studies, or the synergistic effect of availability of heads and booty, as noted above.

In the mid-1980s, Vayda experienced a major change in his explanation of warfare. Up to that time, Vayda had embraced an holistic view. He had looked at the properties of systems and assumed that these were emergent, and not the sum of individual action. But other forms of explanation tended to slip in. In his earlier work he also included an explanation that involved agency. The arguments against holism, from a position termed individualism, focuses on several issues. First, the mechanisms that articulate the parts to the whole and the consequences of system behavior are not spelled out. Second, holistic concepts tend to imply agency, when this in fact is impossible. For example, ‘population increase’ does not cause anything, only individuals may cause action. ‘Growing scarcity of resources’ cannot be an actor-causing intentional behavior. And of course there is the fundamental criticism that the sum of the parts does not produce any emergent phenomenon that cannot be better explained by individual intentions.

Individualism thus focuses on agency and intention. Actions are accomplished by actors who have been motivated towards certain goals. But here is the rub. Not all motivations are intentional. Not all motivations have explicit purposes. There are motivations that do not rise to the conscious level of the decision-making actor. Furthermore, individualism has difficulty in dealing with unintended and unperceived consequences. Only a holistic systems approach can deal with these.
Nevertheless, in the mid-1980s Vayda experienced this major conceptual change in this thinking. He became concerned with agency rather than systems explanations (see Vayda 1989). He then claimed that his past view of war as a process, one of his major contributions, was in error as he had given primacy to the war process and not people, responding to demographic and ecological changes, escalating to territorial conquests and counteracting stresses associated with population pressures (Vayda 1989:163). He claims that he was not sufficiently concerned with the mechanisms involved. ‘... (B)ut to claim territorial annexations as not a mere by-product of fighting requires showing in particular cases that those fighting were doing so with intentions of taking land or else that, even in the absence of such intentions, territorial annexations were affecting fighting through the operation of reinforcement, natural selection, or some other feedback mechanism’ (Vayda 1989:163). Vayda did not made a complete conversion to agency, as natural selection and frequently types of feedback loops are in fact features of systems and not agency.

The positions on holism and individualism by social scientists seem too extreme. It is hard to keep the features of each completely separate form the other and be coherent because our language facilitates certain kinds of abstractions. Furthermore, there are levels of explanation, and each — holism or individualism — has something to add to our understanding of warfare. Certainly, stated motivations are critical to providing an explanation for behavior. This is the reason that I began this explanation of Iban expansion and warfare with motivations presented by the Iban themselves in their oral literature. But it must also be understood that explanations based on motivations may include justifications that are made after the fact and by definition exclude nonconscious motivations.

Iban warfare has had another interesting impact on anthropological theory. The speed by which Ibans were able to mobilize for war and headhunting disconfirms the older claim that unilineal organization had the selective advantage of being more efficient in mobilizing for defense, warfare and expansion (see Netting 1974:31; Sahlins 1958, 1961a). Freeman (1961a:213–14) pointed out the function of the kindred in recruiting men for a fighting force and concludes: ‘Indeed, it may be argued that a bilateral society like that of the Iban presents in some ways better opportunities for the formation of large-scale fighting forces than does a society with a highly segmented unilineal descent system and no form of centralized authority.’

Despite the attention of scholars to the expansion of the Ibans and Iban warfare, there appears as yet no satisfactory explanation for either. Certainly it was not entirely the search for new lands or heads. We need at this point a focused study of the rituals involved in headhunting to help us understand this institution and also a study of the actual organization of Iban warfare by a scholar of military operations.

Interpretations of Headhunting. Accounts of Iban headhunting have intrigued scholars so that those who discuss headhunting in Southeast Asia use the Iban cultural pattern as background against which to compare data from other societies (e.g. Hoskins 1996). And it continues to attract the interest of scholars in part because metaphors of the head and the use of actual heads to indicate political control and aggressive success are found deep in the history of most European societies.
But as a social phenomenon, how is headhunting to be explained? Is it to be explained in instrumental terms as a means for territorial expansion and/or the means of achieving social status? Or is it to be explained in symbolic terms, satisfying ritual demands? Or does it represent an innate expression of aggression?

There are explanations that place headhunting as a method of warfare to further the expansion of Iban society, as Vayda has done. One of the more frequent statements about the function of headhunting is that it was a form of terrorizing other groups so as to cause them to flee or capitulate (Freeman 1979:245).

Yet Davison and Sutlive (1991:172–73) make the point that territorial expansion and headhunting also were frequently independent of each other. There was ‘headhunting without territorial conquest and territorial expansion without headhunting.’ The coastal raiding of the Saribas-Skrang Iban provides an example of the former. King (1976a:318) also questions this alleged instrumental function of headhunting.

It certainly had the function of conferring social prestige and status. Freeman points out (1979:238) that the head of an enemy was the most highly valued trophy, being a sign of fighting prowess so that a successful headhunter could have his pick of the most desirable women and was much sought after as a husband (see also Davison and Sutlive 1991:157–58; Sather 1978). Thus, Davison and Sutlive (1991:165) opine that the extraordinary demand for heads had its origins in the fiercely competitive nature of Iban society, whereby an individual successful in headhunting could achieve higher status. They (1991:17–74) conclude: ‘... to dismiss the ecological argument as an explanatory factor in Iban headhunting is not to deny that the Iban competed for land; nor that headhunting was good business for territorial expansion. The desire to beat off rival claims to virgin tracts of land was an obvious factor... . But as to whether one can go beyond this simple statement of fact to establish some intrinsic relationship between Iban warfare and ecological factors is doubtful. In the end, it must be said that the Iban went headhunting because they wanted to. ... they took to the warpath in order to win renown and status for themselves; because it would enhance their appeal in the eyes of the opposite sex; because it was ritually prescribed for the termination of mourning; in order to seek vengeance in tribal feud; and last, but not least, because they wanted to gain possession over new tracts of virgin forest which were already being claimed by rival groups.’

But the use of heads as ritual objects requires explanation. The major symbolic interpretations of the headhunting ritual are those of Freeman (1979) and Davison and Sutlive (1991). A number of observers have noted the connection between heads and fertility, but, as Davison and Sutlive (1991:155) write, ‘This connection between the taking of heads ... and fertility ... has provided a central problem for anthropological interpretations of headhunting as a cultural phenomenon.’ Freeman (1979) argues that trophy heads are a phallic symbol, basing his argument on psychoanalytic theory. Heads represent the generative power of nature. And Freeman provides examples of the metaphors in Iban culture which are used to describe the heads, all of which have phallic connotations in terms of psychoanalytic theory. He then provides an insightful summary of the allegory in a headhunting ritual performance.

Davison and Sutlive (1991), however, disagree with Freeman’s argument of the head as a phallic symbol. They review the various attempts to explain Iban headhunting and find that a sounder explanation can be found by the analysis of the metaphors used for the head within Iban ritual. Thus, they (1991:178–79) find no evidence in Iban culture to suggest that the symbols that Freeman claimed had a phallic imagery and which he used to illustrate his argument are consciously ascribed a phallic status by the Ibans. While Freeman implies that the seed of the sacred rice and other plants that pours out from splitting open of a trophy head in the ritual — at which time a coconut is used — is equivalent to semen, Davison and Sutlive (1991) interpret this along with other metaphors in the ritual of the timang gawai amat as representing a vegetative model of reproduction. They (1991:191) isolate three themes: ‘the portrayal of trophy heads as the fruit of the ranyai palm; the ritual treatment of the trophy heads as infants; and the allegorical representation of headhunting as agriculture.’

The heads, on being welcomed to the longhouse, are treated as infants, who cry. In attempting to still its crying the head is nursed by a number of female spirits. Freeman (1979:241) states that when the head is finally handed to the transvestite male shaman (manang bali’) who tries to nurse it, at that point it ceases its crying and laughs aloud. Davison and Sutlive (1991:193) argue, on the other hand, that the crying and reason for the unhappiness of the head is because it has not yet found its mother and father. ‘When, however, the trophy head is passed to the wife of the festival sponsor — who is identified as the “mother” of the head — the infant immediately halts its tears’ (Davison and Sutlive 1991:193).

At this point the identification of heads with infants, argue Davison and Sutlive (1991), indicates that in addition to the linkage of heads to agricultural production heads were also linked to human reproduction. ‘Iban men go headhunting in order to procure children for their wives..’ (Davison and Sutlive 1991:194). Davison and Sutlive (1991:213) conclude that headhunting is ‘identified in myth and ritual as contributing to the fertility of rice and women. In this scheme of things, a parallel can clearly be drawn between the ritual significance of taking heads and male sexuality, whereby seed is equated with semen, and the role of the men as headhunters implicitly is identified with their biological role as fathers, or progenitors. The point to be made here, however, is the symbolic language of Iban headhunting is not one of phallic procreation, but rather that of fructuation and germination ... the equation of trophy heads with seed-bearing fruit endows Iban headhunting with a “natural” imperative for the renewal of life.’

However, from descriptions of the involvement of Iban women in headhunting and its rituals, it is obvious they invested a large amount of libidinal energy in this activity. Davison and Sutlive’s analysis provides an explanation for this. Yet, the intensity of Iban women’s response to heads suggests there is still a deeper psychological involvement, which needs further study. An analysis of whether the behavior of women differs depending on whether the head is of a man, of a woman, or of a child might throw light on this problem.

Furthermore, myth and ritual are full of tropes which are extensively polysemic, moving from one metaphor to another, as this example of headhunting ritual illustrates. Thus, it is still somewhat unclear how to fully interpret in the ritual allegory the symbolism of the human crop of Iban enemies that arise in their swiddens from planting of the sacred padi seed, which is then harvested.

8. Religion, Ritual and Symbolism.

The religion of the Ibans is exceedingly complex, beautiful, and full of exciting imagery and concepts. It permeated all aspects of traditional Iban society. Indeed even phrasing a review of the literature in such terms as ‘religion’ distorts the Iban view of the world. Religion is a category of English speakers, and contrasts with economic and other cultural categories. But as we have seen with headhunting and other cultural domains, there are no boundaries between these and ‘religion’. All behavior of the Ibans is suffused with religious action and belief. This problem of separation of domains on the basis of external categories of the observer constantly arises not only here but also in studies of land tenure, land usage, the extent of the jural personality of the village, and so on. These issues have yet to be adequately addressed. As a result the major deficiency in the study of Iban culture is the failure to integrate the symbolic and ritual dimensions with their jural aspects in the analysis of all cultural domains.
Consequently, there has yet to be a definitive study of Iban beliefs and ritual action in their contexts. Jensen (1974) has written the only monograph on Iban religion. But it has omissions. Davison and Sutlive (1991) point out that it contains no information on headhunting, which was such a central feature of Iban society, and there is no discussion of the various gawai performances. Freeman (1975) reviews Jensen’s book, listing various errors and interpretation.

The recent publication of Masing’s dissertation, completed in 1981 (1997a, 1997b), adds substantial information on Iban religion in general as it includes the translation of an important ritual poetic text, a Timang Gawai Amat. The oral literature (see below) is the major source of religious themes and concepts, and it is critical for the study of Iban religion. Yet as Graham (1987:10) notes that the ‘historical and regional variability in the Iban ritual corpus is unevenly documented in the literature’. This presents a challenge to Ibanic studies.

While there is no overall study of religion, various authors have focused on certain aspects such as: ritual activities, ritual specialists, gods and spirits, cosmology, augury, symbolism, myths, etc. (The ritual texts themselves will be largely discussed in the section on oral literature.)

Ritual Activities

Masing (1997a:chapt. 2) divides the Iban ritual activity into three parts: bedera’, gawa’, and gawai. And he lists the various rituals only within the latter two categories. Sandin (1980:chapt. 4) divides the category of bedara’ into Bedara’ Mata’ (‘unripe’ ceremonies) and Bedara’ Mansau (‘ripe’ ceremonies). Bedera’ Mata’ are ceremonies for the Iban bilik family and are held in the bilik. Bedara’ Mansau are also family ceremonies held at the family gallery area. Bedara’ ceremonies are performed for propitiation or thanksgiving to the gods (Masing 1997a :25). The gawa’ rituals are ‘performed as a means of seeking divine help in countering the evil spirits who are predisposed to harm human lives and limit their success’ (Masing 1997a :25).

The gawai are the most elaborate and complex of Iban ritual activities. They may be subdivided into three categories, according to Masing 1997a:chapt. 2): the Gawai Antu, the ritual marking the termination of mourning for the deceased; the Gawai Bumai, rituals associated with farming; and the Gawai Amat, a class of rituals, considered to be the most elaborate and prestigious of all rites which are held in honor of the god of war, Singalong Burong.

This classification does not include the pelian rituals of the shaman.

There are several problems with the state of information on Iban rituals. First, we need a complete classification of the various kinds, with the variants arising in different geographical locations entered.

This analysis needs to include certain sociological information, such as who holds the ritual, whom it is for, what is the purpose of it, who provides the costs for the ritual and what are they, whom is invited to attend, which gods and spirits are invoked, who performs the ritual, i.e., head of household, head of the village, shaman, bardic priest (lemambang) either singly or in chorus, etc., what ritual texts or prayers are performed, what is the musical form in which the chants are sung, what payment is given to the ritual practitioner and his assistants for his or her work, what ritual restrictions or prohibitions are involved following the ritual and for how long for the family, longhouse neighbors, village, etc., and a plot of the actual performance as to location, steps in its progress, including the various ritual acts performed and paraphernalia used. Finally, how these ritual vary in different Iban populations is critical.

This type of analysis provides an important charter for future research. Only after such an analysis will the holes in our knowledge of Iban ritual activities be revealed, and then the proper exegesis of each text of Iban oral literature and ritual performances can take place.

Currently, we have a series of interesting reports by Sather (1977a, 1997b, 1980b, 1994c) in which he examines the various agricultural rituals and myths that are the charter for these. Also see Jensen (1974) and Masing’s discussion (1997a, 1997b) of how the Iban farming procedures and actions are embedded in the ritual texts as extended allegories, particularly in the Timang Gawai Amat, translated by Masing (1997b).

Sandin (1962b) describes the Gawai Batu, the Iban whetstone feast, with a translation of the text without the original Iban text being provided.

Sandin (1961) gives the stages of the Gawai Antu, the feast of the departed spirits, and the activities in each stage, but there are no texts accompanying this.

The Pelian Bejereki rite is also described by Sandin (1978) which involves the ritual fencing of an expectant mother. A description of the rite along with its text and a translation are given.

Sather (1988, and in Volume I, ‘BATHING’) describes the ritual first bathing of infants including the texts used. He (1993b) has also provided a very interesting study of the longhouse as a ritually constituted structure. He describes those rites that accompany the house construction and those that establish and preserve the structure as a ritual community. Sather then analyzes the rituals that mark the major transitions in the trajectory of human life, showing how each is enacted as a journey through the longhouse structure itself, expressing its ritual symbolism.

Uchibori (1978, 1984a) provides an analysis of the ritual activities involved in Iban mortuary practices.
We will discuss the texts in these ritual activities in the section on Oral Literature below. It should be noted in passing that there has yet to be a full study of the Iban music of the chants which are sung.

Ritual Specialists

The four ritual specialists among the Ibans are the manang (shaman), the lemambang (bardic priest), the tukang sabak (soul guide), and the tuai burung (augur). The major lacunae in the study of these ritual specialists is the failure to make a sociological study of these roles including an statistical analysis of those who are recruited to these roles, to what degree can one individual hold other ritual roles, and what other secular roles they hold. For example, while the lemambang are almost always male, there are reported female lemambang. And some in the past were accomplished warriors and today village headman.

Lemambang: The role of lemambang has been translated as ‘bard’ (Scott 1956; Freeman 1975) and as ‘priest’. (See Jensen 1974 for the history of the translation as ‘priest’; Sather ms. argues that the role is that of priest.) This role is complex, and it is difficult to find a suitable English translation as it shares some aspects of the early definition of role of the Celtic bard and some aspects of the role of priest. I suggest that the best translation would be ‘bardic priest’.

The lemambang with a chorus of an assistant and two or three lemambang in training chant the texts of ritual poetry that are performed at the various timang ceremonies. Masing (1997a) has an excellent discussion of this role and recruitment to it. Also see Sather (ms.).

Shamanism: The study of the Iban institution of manang (shamanism) has contributed much to our understanding of Borneo religions and anthropological theory on the nature of shamanistic performances (see Barrett 1993; Barrett and Lucas 1993; Freeman 1967; Sather 1978, 1993a; Sandin 1983, Sutlive 1976). Graham (1987) has made a useful summary and analysis of the literature on shamanism (in consultation with Freeman), but unfortunately it is not based on any field work experience. Her criticisms of Sutlive’s (1976) analysis of the manang institution appears to be a misreading of his important argument that the role of the manang provides an alternative path for those in Iban society that do not wish to follow the usual male path of warfare.
This brings to the fore an important controversy over the psychological and social status of those recruited to the role of shaman (manang). Sather (ms.:chapt. 2:7) writes that ‘very few manang can be characterized as “deviant persons” (Sutlive 1976:71) — that is to say, individuals with a personal history of neglect, failure or rejection by others. ...manang are not normally seen as socially or psychologically defective. A number... are successful in other areas of life, most often... as bards, but occasionally as headmen, or even Penghulu (native chiefs). Like their neighbors, most manang work as farmers and in other respects lead lives that are very little different from those of other rural Iban.... Robert Barrett (1993:239), writing as a psychiatrist as well as an anthropologist, observes that, from his own experience in the Saribas, “these manang [are] mentally robust, neither psychotic nor pre-psychotic, neither effeminate nor hypermasculine”.’

Sutlive (personal communication) states this is at variance with his extensive and long-term observations in Sibu and the lower and middle Rejang River system. In those areas manang appear to occupy marginal positions and appear to be conflicted sexually. Consequently, what is needed is a sociological study of the variance between regional Iban groups in what other societal roles a manang or a lemambang can hold at the same time, as well as a study of the life histories of those who are called to these roles, including those women who are. This would help elucidate the source of these differences in the analysis of recruitment to the role of manang. It is interesting that in the areas in which Barrett and Sather work the individuals recruited to the role of manang appear to have similar social positions as Rungus priestesses who also go into trance. Rungus women who are priestesses are the exemplars of the society, and it is expected that any and all women can fulfill this role (see Appell and Appell 1993).

Furthermore, as Iban women can enter the roles of lemambang and manang, including that shamanistic role of manang bali, or transformed shaman (Graham 1987:90), in which one’s gender role is reversed, a study of these individuals could throw important light on the institutions of manang and lemambang. Much more research is needed to determine the number of women who have held such roles, and a sociological analysis of their position and life history in society which may have led them to undertake these roles.

In the analysis of Iban shamanism the work of I. M. Lewis is frequently used for comparison (1971, 1986). However, Lewis’s theoretical propositions are derived primarily from African studies. Unfortunately, the extensive study of trance behavior by Bourguignon (1976, Bourguignon, ed., 1973) has been ignored in attempts to describe and explain Iban shamanistic behavior (also cf. Winkelman 1986, 1990). And little work has been done to compare the Iban institution with trance behavior found in other Borneo societies. To facilitate this work in Appell and Appell (1993:37) I have called for a more precise description of the behavioral environment in the analysis of dissociative behavior, in which the social geography of the relationship between the individual, his or her soul or souls, and the spirit world, including his or her spirit helper, the temporal processes of this relationship and the definition of the self in this behavioral environment are delineated.

In this latter instance it is important to define closely the number of souls an individual has and which, if any, of these travel during dream and trance. Authors on Iban shamanism report the manang sends out his soul to deal with malevolent spirits, but generally they do not indicate which of the souls are sent. Among some authors there appears to be an underlying assumption that there is just one soul. In other Bornean societies if there were just this one soul and it went wandering, a person would die. The Ibans believe in multiple souls, as many other groups in Borneo do, according to Vinson Sutlive (personal communication). Sutlive states that according to one informant, these ‘souls’ include semengat, iang, ayu, sukat, panggau, buluh ayu, and bulu. Therefore, it is possible for one of those souls to leave the body in a dream or trance without the person dying. Studies of Iban manang need to determine which soul leaves the body during trance, and what is its relationship to its ayu. How does this critical plant counterpart of the individual figure in the movement of souls?

At the present time many critical questions have yet to be put to Iban shamanistic behavior to elucidate the full nature of this institution.

Tukang Sabak: ‘soul-guides’ (cf. Sather ms.). In the lower Sri Aman Division, according to Sather, these are virtually always women. During the funeral night that precedes burial, the tukang sabak sings the death dirges (sabak) that send out her soul to guide the newly departed soul of the dead to its proper place in the otherworld (Sather ms.:chapt. 1:9).

Tuai Burung: According to Freeman (1961b) recruitment to being a community augur is a result of a dream experience. And the role of augur was frequently held by a longhouse headman.

The vast and beautiful texts of ritual poetry, which were either sung or spoken, were performed by the first three specialists, the manang, the lemambang, and the tukang sabak, at various ritual occasions. This ritual poetry (leka main), Sather (ms.:chapt. 1:1) writes, constitutes the central core of Iban religion. It will be discussed further when we consider the Oral Literature of the Ibans in the next major section.

Gods and Spirits

All the various publications mentioned in this discussion provide information on the various gods and spirits. Jensen (1974) includes a discussion of some of the gods and spirits, and Masing (1997a) presents a classification of these. But what is missing in the study of Iban religion is a full biographical description of each of the gods and spirits, drawing together from the oral literature their history, personalities, characters, powers, domains of authority, and so on.


Freeman’s (1960a; reprinted 1961a) work was the first systematic study of augury among the Ibans, or for that matter any ethnic group in Borneo. He concluded (1961a:147) that augury is ‘a beneficent and beneficial commentary on human purposes, a system of divine guidance for the well-being of man’. Others have discussed augury (see Richards 1972; Jensen 1974; King 1977; Sandin 1980a; Dove 1985a). Sather (1980a, 1985) also deals with augury, particularly agricultural augury. Dove (1993c) argued that augury had direct implications for the cultural ecology of the Kantu’, Ibanic speakers of Kalimantan. He extends to the Ibans the anthropological theory that augury and divination randomizes subsistence strategies, and he concluded (1993a:152) that there is a large amount of indeterminacy in swidden agriculture and therefore ‘the Kantu’ practice of bird augury randomizes... swidden strategies and thereby enhances their adaptation to their environment’. As yet there has been no study equivalent to that of the Ibans on augury in any other society of Borneo.


All of the various works listed above and the texts discussed in the section under Oral Literature contribute to our understanding of Iban cosmology. Sather’s work in particular is of importance here. In his article (1992) on the longhouse he makes a major contribution to the cosmology of the Ibans in his analysis of the longhouse as a ritually constituted structure. He shows how the ritual processes makes explicit the basic social and cosmological categories that structure Iban experience. While this fine analysis is a major contribution to Iban ethnography, this study, like most of the ones discussed in this review does not address the issue in anthropological theory on the relationship between the jural personality of the social units and their ritual entification. All ritual activity in Bornean societies results in the creation of property, goodwill with the gods, which carries with it certain jural rights. Thus, from the study of other Bornean societies, it is clear that these two domains cannot be treated as if they existed without interconnections (see Appell 1976b). In fact the use of such an analysis may elucidate the processes by which social units may be either growing in societal importance or are slowly degenerating in response to social change.

Recently Barrett (1993) and Sather (1993a) argue that the Iban cosmos is divided into the two categories of seen and unseen. However, the realms of the seen and unseen are not separated geographically but overlap. Freeman (1967:317), in contrast to this view, argues ‘the Iban world view... recognizes no firm boundary between phantasy and reality, between the imagined realm in which demons roam and the natural world of everyday experience. In dreams, the Iban say, the soul enters directly into the realm of spirits, but a man in a wakeful state may also do this, as, for example, wandering... through the rain forest. Conversely, spirits can enter the world of man there to assume a fully substantial form.’

This suggests that this argument of a cosmos divided between the seen and unseen does not fully represent the Iban view of the world but needs further working. This dichotomous view has boundaries that are too rigid deal adequately with all the phenomena in the relationship between humans and gods and spirits. Instead, it appears that the Iban world incorporates both humans and gods and spirits in a relatively seamless fashion, and different aspects of this world are perceived through changing levels of consciousness.

Explanation and Interpretation of Religion and Rituals

Those scholars working to describe and explain Iban religion have yet to become self-conscious of their theoretical position that they bring to the data and to discuss its weaknesses and strengths. As a result, the study of Iban religion seems to progress largely separated from the theoretical discussions on the nature of religion and its explanations (see Saler 1993 for a summary of these). The explanations of augury, for example, are largely couched in functionalist terms. Augury functions to rationalize choices. Much of the work of Sather is concerned with the interpretation of symbols and the symbolic statements being made. But, as I have noted, the symbolists have yet to include fully the sociological in their work. The thread of intellectualist interpretations lies largely implicitly in much of the study of Iban religion. In this religious belief is viewed as a theoretical structure that explains causal relations among phenomena (see Saler 1993:139).

Psychoanalytic interpretations have only been advanced by Freeman. Freeman in his study of myth, ritual, and symbolism was the first Bornean anthropologist to seek psychoanalytic explanations of these as representatives of unconscious processes (Freeman 1967, 1968, 1979; see Paul 1989). Unfortunately this approach has not been extended to other societies in Borneo. Freeman (1967) in analyzing the malevolent kuklir offers a psychoanalytic explanation for belief in this incubus. Sather (1978c) adds to our understanding of the kuklir and related beliefs by situating them in their social and ideational context. He argues that these beliefs reflect notions of sexual peril in Iban society, sexual antagonisms, and conflicting values relating to marriage and procreation. ‘Sexual peril arises only from those aspects of sexuality that entail a fundamental conflict in moral values or principles that order social life’ (Sather 1978c:346).

Freeman (1968) contains only peripheral reference to Iban ethnographic data, but he advances an explanation in part for the widespread association of the mockery of animals and thunder using not only psychoanalytic theory but also a view of universalistic psychic unity of human beings based on a universal biological heritage. Robarchek (1987) criticizes Freeman’s assumptions in a detailed and convincing argument.

However, it should be noted that none of these approaches are exclusive or contradictory. Together they provide a total explanation of Iban religion.

9. Oral Literature.

It is through the oral literature of a culture that we can perceive its soul. It is in the oral literature that the cosmology of a society is revealed. And Iban oral literature is vast, incredibly beautiful, and very fragile. It remains in the memory of the elder generation, who are rapidly dying out. It does not survive under conditions of modernization and education. Yet it is through such literature that a society can maintain its roots to the past as well as its dignity. And there is a need for immediate action to recover this literature. Sather (ms.) remarks on the decline in the numbers of ritual specialists, the erosion of ritual speech that has occurred since he began his research, and the fact that it is not possible to find interpretations for all the metaphors and words in the pelian texts he collected, for that is now lost.

Iban oral literature is also critical for anthropological theory, for it provides information on that stage of the human condition when individuals lived in small, relatively isolated farming communities and had the time to let their creativity expand and mirror by song and chant, by stories and epics, the nature of their lives, their sorrows and joys, and their relationship to the ultimate.
But it has consequences far beyond this. The Iban literature is complex and in aesthetic development equal to any of the great literatures of the world. As such it has much to contribute to the vast and accumulating universal knowledge of the human condition for the members of all societies and cultural traditions to treasure and keep safe for all to enjoy. Therefore, it is critical to record as much as possible and translate it before it is too late. We are thankful to the vision of the Tun Jugah Foundation for currently sponsoring so much effort on the collection, preservation, and translation of this important cultural treasure.
The oral literature of the Ibans can be divided for convenience into historical accounts; religious literature, which includes the long chants and songs which accompany ritual actions; myths and legends; and secular literature, such as riddles, sayings, etc. The secular literature and myths and legends will not be discussed here. Much of all the oral literature has yet to be collected and analyzed.

Sutlive (1979) provides an important introduction to the varieties of oral literature of the Ibans and their significance for understanding socialization and Iban culture. He provides a list of publications of Iban folk literature including those by the Borneo Literature Bureau. Maxwell (1989) in his extensive survey updates this list and discusses what needs to be studied. Masing (1997a) provides the Iban classification of ritual activities and discusses the varieties of timang, the general term for ritual chants. Unfortunately, there is some conflict in these several classifications, which needs to be resolved. For example Maxwell refers to timang as epics, while Masing calls them, and I think more appropriately, ritual chants.

Historical Accounts. Sandin (1967b, 1994) has been in the forefront of collecting historical accounts of the Ibans. Sather (1994a) in his introduction to Sandin’s materials analyzes the importance of this literature for historical reconstruction in a sophisticated analysis of the usefulness of this for recreating the history of the Ibans before European contact. The quality of historicity of Iban literature is remarkable and some explanation needs to be advanced as to why this is so. Brown (1988) has argued that historicity is a function of social change. Where there is no social change, there is little history. The vibrant expansion of the Ibans may correlate with the usefulness of their oral literature for historical reconstruction.

Much more work must be done on historical accounts of the Ibans in various regions to complete the reconstruction of Iban history.

Religious Literature. The ritual poetry, either sung or spoken, creates incredibly beautiful, aesthetic performances, the loss of which will impoverish world culture. Sather (ms.:chapt. 1:7) writes that “The structuring metaphor of all Iban ritual performances whether these are performed by the soul-guides, bards, or shamans, is that of a ‘journey’ (or jalai)...” constituting travel narratives.

Sather (1977b) records and translates the Iban first rites of harvest (Nanchang Padi), and (1980b) reports on the prayers involved in the bilik’s agricultural activities and performed by members of the bilik. Sandin (1977) has recorded and translated the Gawai Burung. Masing (1997a, 1997b), as noted, has translated the Timang Gawai Amat. And Sather (ms.) provides a translation of several pelian texts, performed by manang for healing, and a Gawai Betawai.

Prayers of Iban agricultural augury have been recorded and translated by Sather (1985).

Sandin has translated various piece of oral literature: an Iban death dirge or sabak (1966); and a text of the Gawai Burung rite (1977).

What is needed is the collection of a number of texts from different regions and from various performers so that a study of variation can be made in language, narrative story, and cosmology.

10. Regional Variations in Iban Culture.

It should be noted that the culture of Ibanic speakers has regional variations. Sather (1994a:29) writes that the Sarawak Ibans commonly recognize three major regional groups of Ibans in West Kalimantan. These are the Kanyau, Merakai, and the Danau Ibans.The Kalimantan Ibans themselves recognize two main divisions — Merakai and Emeran (which encompasses the ‘Kanyau’ and ‘Danau’ categories). The Merakai Iban have been the subject of recent ethnographic research by Frank McKeown (1983), as have he Emperan Ibans by Reed Wadley (see Bibliography) and Emily Harwell whose work is currently in progress..

But there are more distantly related groups of Ibanic speakers, which can be brought together into a larger linguistic classification along with the Sarawak Ibans and their closer allies. These Ibanic speakers include the Mualang, Bugau, Desa, Kantu’, Air Tabun, and others, according to Sather (1994a:29) nearly all of whom live in Kalimantan Barat.

The interesting contribution of these studies is that the fundamental features of social organization as outlined by Freeman are found in all regional variations of culture and agricultural ecology of the Ibanic speakers. Yet their cultures differ in certain aspects. However, no satisfactory explanation for the source of these variations on Iban culture has yet been advanced.
Studies of these related Iban societies have produced major contributions to anthropological theory. Drake (1982) studied the economic life of a Mualang village, testing several anthropological models. He used a formal model of an economic system to avoid any contamination from the study of other systems or from ethnocentricity. He warns (1982:308) that the concept of an economic anthropology ‘requires the imposition of our categories and concepts on other societies at the risk of a certain amount of conceptual violence’. And this echoes my cautions above on divorcing the study of religion from the study of other aspects of Iban society as it is through ritual behavior that the dimensions of other relations, particularly jural relations, are elucidated.
Drake also finds that the usual anthropological concepts of classifying sociopolitical order, that is the models of tribal and peasant society, are limited and not applicable. Although Sahlins’s ‘domestic mode of production’ theoretical framework fits Mualang society, his contrast between tribal and peasant society did not sufficiently delineate the characteristics of Mualang society. One of Drake’s conclusions bears repeating. He states (1982:302) that hinterland Bornean societies defy the various anthropological models of societies ‘because political process has an inordinately small role in ordering their social lives... jural order — not political maneuvering — is to a very large degree the basis of orderly social life’. Thus, he argues (1982:303) ‘...the hinterland Bornean societies fit neither the politically oriented models of tribal society of Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service, nor the kinship dominated models of British structural functionalism’.

Dove’s research among the Kantu’ has led to a large number of productive publications that test, enlarge on or challenge many anthropological theories as well as many development policies (see the bibliography). Dove (1985a) reports on the results of his exceptionally detailed study of the swidden agricultural economy of the Kantu’. This research and the extensive data he collected extended our understanding of the processes of swidden agriculture beyond the work of Freeman’s pioneering study. In his study of the inputs and outputs of the swidden economy Dove was concerned with the diversity of swiddening strategies of household and village and the diversity and uncertainty of the local environment. He demonstrated the functional properties of this system of agriculture in terms of response to environment and the scarce resources of labor. And through the analysis of historical materials he was able to establish the constant process of adaptation made historically in the system by the society in response to challenge (1985a, 1985b, 1993b). Dove’s discussion of emergent nature of the land tenure system as it responded to historical changes affecting the Kantu’ is of fundamental importance to the study of both agricultural and land tenure change.
Dove (1983b) argues that the function of cutting primary forest for swiddens originally can be explained in terms of the advantage it provided in headhunting warfare. It continues as a result of it’s providing the jural advantage of establishing land rights.

In 1984 Dove published his test of the early twentieth century work of the Russian peasant economist, A.V. Chayanov, pointing out that the study of the relationship between population and agriculture has been less often studied in societies practicing extensive agriculture as among the Kantu’. He confirms Chayanov’s theory and refines it, pointing out the importance of scarcity of labor in contrast to land in swidden systems at different stages in the agricultural cycle and domestic cycle. One of his conclusions that the scarcity of labor helps to explain the absence of fixed classes or ranks is contestable since there are highly stratified swidden societies in Borneo.

Not only has this research by Dove been productive in terms of contribution to the development of anthropological theory and social theory in general, he has succinctly argued in a number of articles that only by understanding the indigenous socioeconomic and jural system can productive development take place. As part of this theme Dove has been concerned with dispelling the negative stereotypes that are used by those in the sociopolitical centers of rural populations which result in unrealistic development planning. He thus has demonstrated the constant adaptability of these peoples, the importance of their store of critical knowledge that is generally ignored, and how plans for development that do not consider this knowledge, the local environment, and the adaptations of the local peoples are deficient. They result in failure by being inappropriate to the people and the environment (see Dove 1981b, 1983a, 1987, 1988a, 1988b, 1993a, 1996a, 1996b, 1997) (GNA).

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