The Iban or Sea Dayak (Dyak) are a riverine group of rice cultivators
inhabiting the interior hill country of Sarawak (Malaysia) and parts
of Indonesian Borneo. They were mistakenly named Sea Dayak by the
British who came into contact with them in the 1840s, at which time
many were involved in coastal piracy with the Malays. The name Iban
is from the Kayan language and means “immigrant.” It was introduced
into the literature in 1901 by Haddon and has continued to be the
accepted term (Freeman 1958: 50). The Iban refer to themselves by
the name of the longhouse village or river where they reside. They
have no cover term for all Iban.
Presently the Iban occupy the “remote jungle-covered ranges of the
underdeveloped interior zone of Sarawak, and also certain of the inaccessible
headwaters of the great Kapuas river in what is now Kalimantan or
Indonesian Borneo” (Freeman 1959: 15). The main rivers of their occupation
are the Batang Lupar, Saribas, Krian, and Rejang. Some Iban have moved
to coastal and urban areas.
The Iban speak a dialect of Malay (Malayan subfamily, Austronesian
family) that is distinct from other Bornean languages. It does, however,
contain many loan-words from other parts of Borneo, as well as some
In Sarawak, the Iban population was estimated to be 330,000 in 1971
(Sutlive 1973: 77). As far back as 1947, they comprised over a third
of the country’s population and in some areas were the dominant ethnic
group. They are principally a rural people; the cities are still mainly
the preserves of the Malays and the Chinese. Freeman’s population
distribution map (ca. 1950) shows the Iban located along Sarawak’s
major rivers and their tributaries, with the densest concentrations
along the Rejang in the Third Division (one of Sarawak’s five major
political divisions) (Freeman 1955:12). No figures are available for
the Kalimantan Iban.
The climate of the Iban region is wet and it is not uncommon for annual
rainfall in the interior to reach 180 inches. Heavy rains, flat delta
land, and swampy inner coastal regions combine to cause frequent flooding
of the best agricultural land. The rainfall pattern is, however, very
erratic and its variability presents great difficulties for swidden
agriculturalists. Those farmers who, with government assistance, have
begun to practice wet-rice cultivation may use herbicides to clear
their smaller fields and are thus better insulated from climatic variations.
The temperature range is approximately 72 degrees-88 degrees F., or
22.2 degrees-31.1 degrees C.
Three quarters of Sarawak is still covered with primary forest, the
remaining quarter with savannah and secondary growth. Soils are generally
poor. Most cleared forest areas can be used only for a season or two,
and then must be left fallow for 15 to 20 years. Contrary to what
early observers supposed, the shifting agricultural techniques of
the Iban were probably the best adaptation to this poor soil, causing
the least disturbance and allowing the small cleared areas time to
The tropical forests provide the Iban with a variety of trees, leaves,
fibers, and foods, which they exploit themselves and have found to
be profitable exports (especially rubber and timber).
Rice cultivation is the occupation of 89 percent of the Iban population
(two-thirds of the country’s rice cultivators). But fewer than 40
percent are self-sufficient, and most Iban must buy rice to supplement
what they grow (Sutlive 1973: 201). Iban are no longer free to move
their settlements after exhausting an area, but they still shift their
fields every few years to allow the land to regenerate. Rice agriculture
is a highly ritualized activity and is really a complete way of life,
rather than just an economic pursuit. Nearly all of the religious
ritual has to do with insuring the success of the crop. Along with
the rice, mustard, cucumber, pumpkins, and gourds are planted in the
same fields and ripen at different times. Maize, cassava, changkok,
and pineapple are also grown. Fowls and pigs are kept under the houses,
to be eaten on festival days. Wild pigs are hunted with dogs, but
salt fish, obtained from Malay fishermen, is more popular. Fighting
cocks are kept by the men for gambling.
The common Iban settlement is a single longhouse composed of from
4 to 50 independent family units (an average of 14 in Baleh region)
that are called bilek families. The bilek family is small, ranging
from 3 to 14 members, with an average of about 5.5. It is usually
composed of two or three generations, but two adult, married siblings
never co-reside. Each bilek family constitutes a separate household
that cooks and eats together, owns its own land, cultivates its own
crops, has its own rituals, charms, taboos, and its own sacred rice.
There are no large-scale corporate groups above the bilek family.
The bilek family is the status-conferring group. Children are named
after grandparents, thus providing continuity with ancestors and an
identification with the kin group. Among the status-conscious Iban,
these names provide links with their illustrious forebears. Membership
in a bilek family, and hence the longhouse, may be by birth, marriage,
or adoption. A family may also join a longhouse because of ties of
Postmarital residence is called utrolocal, which is an equivalent
concept to ambilocal residence. A couple may reside with either set
of parents (or in their longhouse), but they must choose between one
or the other. Uxorilocality and virilocality are equally common. Preferred
marriages are within the kindred, especially with first to fifth degree
cousins. Marriage within the longhouse is as common as marriage outside.
The Iban are strongly monogamous, but in the early years of marriage,
divorce is simple and not uncommon. Inter-ethnic marriages, though
dangerous in some ways, often help to establish and maintain advantageous
commercial relations. Recently, educated Iban have tended to marry
later. They are looked on as valued marriage prospects, regardless
of their backgrounds, because of their high earning potentials.
Longhouse communities are almost always located along watercourses.
Populations of these communities vary from averages of 80.5 (Baleh
region) to 137 (Sibu District). The upper ranges do not often exceed
200. In Baleh, where virgin forest is plentiful, communities are composed
of single longhouses located every one or two miles along the river.
In the Sibu District, where the government has long since curtailed
the migratory settlement pattern, clusters of longhouses within hailing
distance of one another are common. Nevertheless, these clusters do
not represent villages. Each longhouse has its own well-defined territory,
within which each bilek family has its own hereditary lands. A longhouse
has no property of its own. Each longhouse community usually has a
core group of founding members, related cognatically, who occupy the
center of the house. Membership in the house is usually through relations
with one or more of these families. In Baleh the rate of interrelatedness
was lower than in Sibu’s more permanent longhouses, where interrelatedness
was sometimes 100 percent (Freeman 1955: 9; Sutlive 1973: 360-361).
There are two important longhouse officials. The tuah burong is an
augur, who reads the omens, especially from birds, before all important
events and is important events and is generally responsible for the
ritual wellbeing of the longhouse. The tuah rumah is the administrator
and custodian of adat, Iban customary law, and the arbiter in community
conflicts. He has no political, economic, or ritual power. Usually
a man of great personal prestige, it is through his knowledge of custom
and his powers of persuasion that others are induced to go along with
his decisions. Influence and prestige are not inherited. The Iban
emphasize achievement, not descent.
Although Iban society is classless, it is a very status-conscious
and competitive society in which personal achievement is important
for providing status and prestige in the community. The acquisition
of wealth and the production of consistently good rice crops are the
main criteria of success. The institution of pejalai (bejalah), in
which young men travel to distant areas to gain wealth and experience,
is an old and important part of Iban life. To return with valuable
items is the object of the trip, and his numerous tattoos testify
to a man’s travels. Iban women do not travel, and their lack of contact
with the outside world has made them and their craft styles more conservative.
Women are not, however, of a lower status. Households heads are women
as often as they are men, and women have traditionally played an equal
role in public meetings (Gomes 1911: 80). While the two principal
offices in the longhouse are limited to men, the rights of men and
women are equal in matters of property and inheritance.
Iban religion revolves around augury, omens, and rice. There are a
great number of gods and spirits, with Petara, who some see as borrowed
from the Hindu, at the top. Ancestor worship is important, but the
assurance of a good rice crop is the principal function of the religion.
Rice is believed to have a soul, and it must be treated respectfully
and propitiated in order to provide a good yield. In a number of areas,
Christianity has been adopted in addition to, rather than in place
of, the old faith. It is viewed as another method of bringing good
The Iban have long been in contact with other ethnic groups. First
the Chinese and Malays, and later the Europeans. While there has been
some friction, especially with the Chinese over land claims, relations
have been generally peaceful. The Chinese form the majority of commercial
middlemen and shopkeepers in both the rural and urban areas. It is
only recently that Iban have begun to run their own stores, and very
few have been successful without Chinese backing. The Malays, through
their membership in the army and, since 1966, through Sarawak’s association
with Malaysia, are powerful politically. Independence of spirit and
their inability to work together have kept the Iban from gaining political
power commensurate with their numbers. Inter-ethnic marriages are
common and accepted, but ethnic conflicts have flared from time to
time, as in the mid 1960s, when violent rioting brought armed government
A brief summary of Iban culture based on sources in the file as well
as on others not included here may be found in LeBar (1972: 180-184).
J. D. Freeman (c.f. 1955, 1958) is the modern authority on Iban culture,
and his sources cover many aspects of their life.
Culture summary by Martin J. Malone
Freeman, John Derek.
Iban agriculture: a report on the shifting cultivation of hill rice by the Iban of Sarawak.
London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1955.
12, 148 p. illus., maps.
Freeman, John Derek.
The family sustem of the Iban of Borneo.
In Jack Goody, ed.
The Developmental Cycle in Domestic Groups.
Cambridge, University Press, 1958: 15-52.
Gomes, Edwin H. Seventeen years among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo: a record of intimate association with the natives of the Bornean jungles.
With an introduction by the Reverend John Perham.
London, Seeley, 1911.
343 p. illus.
LeBar, Frank M., ed.
Ethnic groups of Insular Southeast Asia.
2 v. New Haven, Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972: Vol.
Sutlive, Vinson Hutchins, Jr.
From longhouse to pasar: urbanization in Sarawak, East Malaysia.
Ann Arbor, University Microfilms, 1973.
4, 10, 479 l. illus., maps, tables.
(University Microfilms Publications, no.
Dissertation (Anthropology) — University of Pittsburgh, 1972.