1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dyaks

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DYAKS, or Dayaks, the name given to the wild tribes found in Borneo by the Malays on their first settlement there. Whether they are the aborigines of the island or the successors of a Negrito people whom they expelled is uncertain. If the latter, they are descendants of an early pre-Malayan immigration. In any case, though regarded by the Malays as aliens, the Dyaks are of the same stock as the Malays. For themselves they have no general name; but, broken as they are into numerous tribes, they are distinguished by separate tribal names, many of which seem to be merely those of the rivers on which their settlements are situated. Sir Harry Keppel, who attempted to form a classification of the Dyaks according to their ethnographical affinity, divides them into five principal branches. The first of these, which he calls the north-western, includes the natives of Sadong, Sarawak, Sambas, Landak, Tayan, Melionow and Sangow. They all speak the same language, and are remarkable for their dependence on the Malay princes. The second branch, which is called emphatically the Malayan from its greater retention of Malay characteristics, occupies the north coast in Banting, Batang-Lupar, Rejang and part of the valley of the Kapuas. To the third or Parian branch belong the Dyaks of the rivers Kuti and Passir, who are said to speak a language like that of Macassar. The fourth consists of the Beyadjoes, who are settled in the valley of the Banjermassin; and the fifth and lowest comprises the Manketans and Punans, who are still nomadic and ignorant of agriculture.

Physically the Dyaks differ little from the Malays except in their slimmer figure, lighter colour, more prominent nose and higher forehead. In disposition they are as cheerful as the Malay is morose. The typical Dyak is rather slightly built, but is active and capable of enduring great fatigue. His features are distinctly marked and often well formed. The forehead is generally high, and the eyes are dark; the cheek-bones are broad; the hair is black, and the colour of the skin a pure reddish brown, frequently, in the female, approaching the Chinese complexion. The beard is generally scanty, and in many tribes the men pull out all the hair of the face. Both sexes file, dye, and sometimes bore holes in the teeth and insert gold buttons. In dress there is considerable variety, great alterations having resulted from foreign influence. The original and still prevailing style is simple, consisting of a waistcloth, generally of blue cotton, for the men, and a tight-fitting petticoat for the women, who acquire a peculiar mincing gait from its interference with their walking. The favourite ornaments of both sexes are brass rings for the legs and arms, hoops of rattan decorated in various ways, necklaces of white and black beads, and crescent-shaped ear-rings of a large size. The lobes of the ears are distended sometimes nearly to the shoulders by disks of metal and bits of stick. Tattooing is practised by most of the tribes, and the skulls of infants are artificially deformed. The men usually go bare-headed, or wear a bright-coloured kerchief. The custom of betel-chewing being most universal, the betel-pouch is always worn at the side. The weapons in use are a curved sword and a long spear. The bow is unknown, but its place among some tribes is partly supplied by the blowpipe, in the boring of which they show great skill. When going to war the Dyak wears a strong padded jacket, which proves no bad defence. A curious custom among some tribes is the imprisonment of young girls for two or three years before puberty, during which time they are not allowed to see even their mothers.

The Dyak is decidedly intelligent, has a good memory and keen powers of observation, is unsuspicious and hospitable, and honest and truthful to a striking degree. The various tribes differ greatly in religious ceremonies and beliefs. They have no temples, priests or regular worship; but the father of each family performs rites. A supreme god, Sang-Sang, seems generally acknowledged, but subordinate deities are supposed to watch over special departments of the world and human affairs. Sacrifices both of animals and fruits—and in some cases even of human beings—are offered to appease or invoke the gods; divination of various kinds is resorted to for the purpose of deciding the course to be pursued in any emergency; and criminals are subjected to the ordeal by poison or otherwise. Offerings are made to the dead, and there is a very strong belief in the existence of evil spirits, and all kinds of calamities and diseases are ascribed to their malignity. Thus almost the whole medical system of the Dyaks consists in the application of appropriate charms or the offerings of conciliatory sacrifices. Many of those natives who have had much intercourse with the Malays have adopted a kind of mongrel Mahommedanism, with a mixture of Hindu elements. The transmigration of souls seems to be believed in by some tribes; and some have a system of successive heavens rising one above the other very much in the style of the Hindu cosmogony. In the treatment of their dead much variety prevails; they are sometimes buried, sometimes burned, and sometimes elevated on a lofty framework. The Dyaks have no exact calculation of the year, and simply name the months first month, second month, and so on. They calculate the time of day by the height of the sun, and if asked how far distant a place is can only reply by showing how high the sun would be when you reached it if you set out in the morning.

In agriculture, navigation, and manufactures they have made some progress. In a few districts a slight sort of plough is used, but the usual instrument of tillage is a kind of cleaver. Two crops, one of rice and the other of maize or vegetables, are taken, and then the ground is allowed to lie fallow for eight or ten years. The inland Dyaks collect the forest products, rattan, gutta-percha, beeswax and edible birds’ nests, and exchange them for clothing or ornaments, especially brass wire or brass guns in which consists the wealth of every chief. They spin and weave their own cotton, and dye the cloth with indigo of their own growing. Their iron and steel instruments are excellent, the latter far surpassing European wares in strength and fineness of edge. Their houses are neatly built of bamboos, and raised on piles a considerable height from the ground; but perhaps their most remarkable constructive effort is the erection of suspension bridges and paths over rivers and along the front of precipices, in which they display a boldness and ingenuity that surprise the European traveller. In the centre of most villages is the communal house where the unmarried men live, which serves as a general assembly hall. Some have a circuit of no less than 1000 ft. One on the banks of the Lundi was 600 ft. long and housed 400 persons.

The Dyaks have always been notorious for head-hunting, a custom which has now been largely suppressed. It is essentially a religious practice, the Dyak seeking a consecration for every important event of his life by the acquisition of one or more skulls. A child is believed ill-fated to whose mother the father has not at its birth presented skulls. The young man is not admitted to full tribal rights, nor can he woo a bride with any hope of success, until he has a skull or more to adorn his hut; a chief’s authority would not be acknowledged without such trophies of his prowess. The strictest rules govern head-hunting; a period of fasting and confession, of isolation in a taboo hut, precedes the expedition, for which the Dyak clothes himself in the skins of wild beasts and puts on an animal mask. The Dyak curiously enough prefers the head of a fellow-tribesman, and the hunt is usually one of ambush rather than of open combat. Among some tribes it was not sufficient to kill the victim. He was tortured first, his body sprinkled with his own blood, and even his flesh eaten under the eyes of priests and priestesses who presided over the rites. Skulls, especially those of enemies, were held in great veneration. At meals the choicest morsels were offered them: they were supplied with betel and tobacco: fulsome compliments and prayers for success in battle addressed to them. Head-hunting at one time threatened the very existence of the race; but in spite of their reformation in this respect the Dyaks are not on the increase, a fact for which A. R. Wallace accounts by the hard life the women lead and their consequent slight fecundity.

The Dyaks speak a variety of dialects, most of which are still very slightly known. The tribes on the coast have adopted a great number of pure Malay words into common use, and it is often hard to ascertain their own proper synonyms. The American missionaries have investigated the dialects of the west coast (Landak, &c.), and their Rhenish brethren have devoted their attention to those of the south, into one of which (that of Pulu Petak) a complete translation of the Bible has been made. Mr Hardeland, the translator, has also published a Dyak-German dictionary.