To the Kayans, Malay is  ‘Halo‘ and Inuit ‘Punan‘ (Rousseau 1990). That’s interesting fact many rarely know – including Sarawakians. In Borneo, specifically in Kalimantan – all the once nomadic peoples who are not Kayan are called ‘Punan’. Doesn’t matter these peoples might have differences in languages, history – to them they are all Punans. Naive observers of Borneo ethnic complexities were at lost because of these. That’s partly explained why there are at least 20 heterogeneous communities in Kalimantan called “Punan”

Prof. Emeritus Jerome Rousseau

Prof. Emeritus Jerome Rousseau

When I described my fieldwork among the Inuit, the Kayan stated unambiguously that the Inuit were Punan. I tried to point out that, while both Inuit and Punan were hunters and gatherers, they were otherwise very different genetically, historically, and linguistically, and that they occupied radically distinct environments; thus, I argued, while the Inuit are like the Punan in some ways, they are not Punan (Jerome Rousseau 1990:58)

The confusion between Punan (or Punan Ba people) with the Penan and other so called Punan in Borneo were complicated by Kayan’s usage of the term Punan.

Halo is not what the Malay call themselves and certainly many of the so called Punans in Kalimantan were not initially known as such – for example the Belusu, Lisum, Bukitan.

To the Kayans Punan literally mean nomadic people. They call all the former nomads such as Punan Aput, Punan Busang, Penan in Sarawak and at least 15 different groups of Punan in Kalimantan with the exonym ‘Punan’.

In central Borneo region Kayan is the lingua franca – and majority of the ethnics – Kenyah, Berawan, Kejaman, Lahanan speak the language except for the Punan (or Punan Ba) – as we live further away along the Rejang River downriver from the Kayan.

Almost all of written information on the Punan (settled and nomad groups) were sourced from Kayans and Kenyahs, rarely from the Punans.

Henry Ling-Roth (1896) the first to refer to the Punan as ‘Punan Ba’, based his classification on Charles Hose’s works which almost entirely sourced from the Kayans and Kenyah in Baram and Belaga.

According to Rodney Needham (Straumann 2014) Charles Hose spoke Kayan and has a Kayan girlfriend; were much more familiar with Kayans than the peoples he classified as Punan.

Early authors specifically Borneo’s pioneering experts Charles Hose (1912) and Ling-Roth (1896) total reliance on their Kayan and Kenyah informants inevitably led to certain inaccuracies in their works – particularly on the non-Kayan/Kenyah such as the Punans.

Rodney Needham (1954, 55) actually had achieved greater success in resolving the Punan-Penan confusion. However the Punan Ba and the once nomadic Punans – Punan Aput, Punan Busang or Vuhang in Sarawak and at least 15 more once nomadic groups found in Kalimantan (Punan Berau, Kereho, Sajau etc,) largely unresolved.

Punan to these former nomadic group is an ‘exonym’ – a name given by the Kayan and Kenyah and not what they might initially call themselves.

Origin of the word “Punan

However, the origin of the word “Punan” in the Kayan’s usage  is rather unknown. But to the Punan Ba (should have been rightly known only as Punan) the etymology ‘Punan’ is traced to a river. The name is derived from a river – Punan River a tributary of Ba River located on the upper reaches of Ba River. It is an endonym or autonym – what we, the Punan Ba called ourselves; not a name given by others – certainly not a Kayan-given name.

All the Punans (excluding Punan Aput/Busang) in Sarawak trace their root to this part of Sarawak. No where else – unless you are referring to the other so called Punan – Punan Busang/Vuhang and Aput.

We have always called ourselves Punan, but somehow to avoid confusion many authors opted to call us as Punan Ba (cf. Rodney Needham 1955a, 55b; Ida Nicolaisen 1976) – after one of our village located in the middle of Rejang River – shown in map below known as Punan Ba (always remember without the h). That’s obviously not right and certainly incorrect.

The word ‘Punan’ as in Punan (Ba) people also mean people or human being. For example the Penan is called Punan Tanok or ‘jungle people’. The word Punan in that context means ‘human’ – and does not implies that they are ethnically related to the Punan. The generic word for people in Punan is ‘linou.’

In total there are at least 20 linguistically unrelated groups in Borneo being called Punan. So if you are writing about Punan be aware of this fact.



  • Hose, Charles, William McDougall, and Alfred Cort Haddon. The pagan tribes of Borneo: a description of their physical, moral and intellectual condition, with some discussion of their ethnic relations. Vol. 2. Macmillan and co., limited, 1912.
  • Nicolaisen, Ida. “Form and Function on Punan Bah Ethno-historical Tradition.” Sarawak (The) Museum Journal Sarawak 24.45 (1976): 63-95.
  • Needham, Rodney. “Punan Ba.” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 28.1 (169 (1955): 24-36.
  • Needham, Rodney. “Penan and Punan.” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 27.1 (165 (1954): 73-83.
  • Roth, Henry Ling. The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo… Vol. I… 1896.
  • Rousseau, Jerome. Central Borneo: ethnic identity and social life in a stratified society. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Straumann, Lukas. Money logging: on the trail of the Asian timber mafia. Schwabe AG, 2014.