Sea Nomads, Keepers Of Skulls, People Who Celebrate By Jumping On Trampolines – These Are A Few Of Sabah’s 32 Very Different Ethnic Groups in Cultural of Sabah – THE VILLAGE PEOPLE 

FORTY-TWO HUMAN SKULLS, AN AWESOME REMINDER OF ONE ASPECT OF Sabah’s past, hang from the rafters of a house on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu. Taken during the 17th century by Monsopiad, a famous headhunter, they are regarded as powerful spiritual talismans and are still treated with great respect in the small cultural center known as Monsopiad’s Village. Nothing scandalized 19th-century Westerner more than tales (often exaggerated) of headhunting in Borneo, but for most tribes- including Sabah’s Murut and Kadazandusun – the taking of heads was a complex cultural ritual carried out only on specific occasions.

Although anthropologists have difficulties agreeing just how many indigenous ethnic groups exist in Sabah (most agree on 32), they can be divided into four major language families: Kadazandusun, Paitanic, and Bajau (indigenous languages); and Chinese (the largest non-indigenous language). Over the last two centuries, immigration has added to this already complex cultural mix, with people from the southern Philippines (mostly Bajau, Irranun and Suluk), Indonesia, and China making Sabah their home.

The largest indigenous group, the Kadazandusun live primarily on the west coast and in the interior region. Traditionally, cultivators of rice, their ritual celebrations revolved around the rice cycle. These rituals, including the most important event of the year, the Harvest Festival or Pesta Ka’amatan, are presided over by priestesses, generally known as Bobohizan. These women conduct complex rituals complete with lengthy chants in an archaic language, passed down by word of mouth over generations. Today, many Kadazandusun (like Sabah’s other ethnic groups), can be found in all walks of life as teachers, business people, doctors, or office workers.

Others still follow their traditional lifestyle, but the only Kadazandusun tribe which continues to live in communal dwellings or longhouses is the Rungus, whose home is the northwest of Sabah. Most indigenous groups are renowned for their skill in weaving baskets; the Rungus not only make some of the finest basketry in the state but also weave fabrics, do intricate beadwork, and fashion metal gongs used in ceremonies. It is possible for visitors to taste the traditional longhouse life in Bavanggazo, a small settlement south of Kudat.

Another Dusunic group, the Muslim Bisaya, live on the Klias Peninsula south of Kota Kinabalu, and along the lower reaches of the Padas and Klias Rivers. The Bisaya are best known for harvesting the sago palms which grow in swampy ground; they fell the palms, rasp the pith of the trunk and extract the starch which was once eaten as a staple.

The Murut, a collection of about 12 different sub-groups, lives in the hilly southwestern region of Sabah. They are renowned as hunters and even today, it is rare to see a Murut on foot without several hunting dogs in tow. Once longhouse dwellers, most Murut have adopted modern housing, but they still retain one important element of the longhouse in the village Balai Raya ( community hall): the Lansaran, an ingenious wooden trampoline that adds a very special touch to Murut celebrations and cultural heritage.

Paitanic-speaking people, most of them living in the north and center of Sabah, live mainly along rivers and call themselves Orang Sungei (literally “people of the river”). Another group belonging to the same family is the Ida’an, who live along the east coast and converted to Islam as far back as the 15th century. In the past, both the Orang Sungei and the Ida’an practiced cave burials, and it is still possible to see the remains of wooden coffins and burial urns in some of the caves and rocky overhangs along Sabah’s east coast, including in the Danum Valley region.

The Ida’an, however, have a far more important use for caves. For centuries, they have been harvesting valuable bird nests from the limestone caves between Semporna and Lahad Datu. Twice a year during the collecting season, the usually empty village at the mouth of a cave comes to life as collectors, owners of rights to harvest the nests, itinerant traders, cooks, families, and family pets take up residence for six to eight weeks.

The Bajau, originally from the Philippines, sailed across the Sulu Sea to settle along the coasts of Sabah. On the west, the Bajau of Kota Belud is famous for their colourful costumes, and their skills as horsemen. One can meet up with the Bajau on the weekly market, or Tamu at Kota Belud, where they trade water buffaloes (essential for work in the irrigated paddy fields), cattle, and horses.

The Bajau’s skill as riders has led to their nickname, Cowboys of the East. Another group of Bajau, who speak a different dialect, settled on Sabah’s east coast, especially around Semporna. These Bajau Laut or Sea Gypsies were persuaded to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle only recently. Traditionally, they live on the lipa-lipa boats and only come to the shore for water, firewood and to bury their dead.

The east coast Bajau and other traditional fishing folks such as the Suluk and Tausug celebrate their colourful past each year in Semporna’s Lipa-Lipa Festival, when gaily decorated boats take part in races, and where other traditional games and dances are performed.

Today, most Sabahans reserve their traditional costumes and rituals for specials occasions, yet their age-old tradition of hospitality and easy-going egalitarianism is always present.

Source: Sabah Tourism Board