Malaysia is a land of diversity that is known for embracing different cultures and ethnicity from almost every part of the world throughout its history. However, what is less known about Malaysia’s multi-cultural population are its indigenous inhabitants and many tribal groups.
The Orang Asli, meaning ‘original people’ or ‘first people’, are the inhabitants of the land which is now known as Malaysia. They are believed to have settled in Malaysia around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.
Today the Orang Asli is comprised of several tribes, each with its own beliefs, language, and traditions. These tribes are generally categorised into three groups, based on their geographical presence.
Negrito – also known as Semangs, they are the Orang Asli residing in the Northern peninsular region.
Senoi – they are the tribes who reside in the central part of the Malay land.
Besides Malaysia, there are Negrito and Senoi tribes that inhabit regions in Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma.
Proto-Malay – they are the aboriginal Malays who have settled in the Southern regions and are believed to have migrated to the south from the islands of Indonesia.
The Orang Asli are again divided into two groups based on their linguistic background – Austroasiatic and Aslian.
Though each Orang Asli tribe account for a tiny fraction of the country’s total population today, the total population of indigenous people from all of the many tribes that inhabit the country makes up for 12 percent of the population, more than the third-largest single ethnic group – the Indians.
Like any other tribal community, the main occupation of the Orang Asli is fishing, agriculture or hunting. The blowpipes used by them (which are made of bamboo) for hunting monkeys and birds are extremely accurate till 20 meters distance. There is still a minor community that leads a nomadic life in the Taman Negara forest area. They relocate themselves in accordance with changing seasons and the availability of food.
Today only a minority of Orang Asli people find work in towns and cities. Most of those who do, take up government jobs or become taxi drivers to earn a living.
The states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have their own indigenous ethnic groups, who are known as:
The indigenous tribes of Borneo islands are known as Dayak people. Linguistically they belong to the Austroasiatic tribe. Dayaks are again divided into multiple ethnic groups out of which the Bakumpai and Dayak Bukit are the main. Agriculture is their main occupation with rice being their main produce. Hence it is evident that rice is also their staple food.
Kadazan is the primitive ethnic group of the Sabah. They are found living in the western parts of Sabah and are again farmers by profession. Although they cultivate rice extensively the tribe is popular for the fermented drinks that they prepare using rice. Toomis and linteau are the two most popular drinks that are made by fermenting rice.
Kaamatan is the popular harvest festival that the indigenous group of Kadazan tribe celebrate. The day is declared a state holiday in Sabah.
Ibans are the indigenous tribes of Sarawak, Borneo Island. Known as the Sea Dayaks by the British, their population is concentrated in and around the coastlines of the Kapuas and Rajang rivers. The Iban were a successful war tribe that were feared of until the arrival of the Europeans. Headhunting was a practice that was practised for tribal expansion.
In present times the Ibans have access to facilities such as electricity and telephone lines. Compared to the other tribes the Ibans are more urbanised today with many youngsters moving into the cities to find work. However, during festivals and special ocassions they still continue to practice their traditional culture.
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