Inspirational object #1: Tuntun

Today I’d like to introduce you to someone special. Say hello to Tuntun.


‘Tabi’, wai!’ (G’day, mates!)

Tuntun lives in my studio, in my ‘Borneo Corne-o’ where I keep all my illustrations and research materials for The Celestial Kris. The platform on which he sits is level with my desk, so he’s at the perfect height to watch me write. He comes from the Iban people in Sarawak – southwest Malaysian Borneo.

The Iban used to be some of the most feared warriors in South-East Asia because they collected the heads of slain enemies. They lived closer to the coast than some of the other indigenous people of Borneo and sometimes raided villages or traders’ ships at sea. This is why they’re sometimes called ‘Sea Dayak’ (‘Dayak’ being a collective name for indigenous Bornean peoples, of which there are more than 50 distinct cultural groups). Unlike some other tribes, the Iban didn’t have a strict class system, and they used to have a tradition of free love. Many of these customs, for better and for worse, largely petered out over the last century or so as Christianity, Islam, federal law and capitalism spread throughout the island. When you work in an office to send your kids to university, headhunting just isn’t compatible with your lifestyle, no matter how much you might hate Norman from HR.

These days, many Iban and other Bornean tribes, such as the Bidayuh, Kayan and Kelabit, have adapted their traditions to fit into contemporary Malaysian society. Not many people live in traditional longhouses (like the one pictured below) with their whole extended family anymore.


It would be wrong to say that globalization has driven indigenous culture to extinction, though; people have simply survived by adapting. Many are still hunters, farmers, blacksmiths and artists. The best way I can describe it is like this. In 2012, my family and I hiked in the highlands of Borneo with a Kelabit guide, and stayed in his village. His family mainly used the tribal longhouse for weddings, festivals and so on. Our guide’s house combined modern materials with traditional ones – iron nails and ironwood, concrete in the outhouse but a traditional hearth in the kitchen. His family raised chickens, water buffalo, rice and pineapples in the traditional way, but drove their kids to school on motorbikes and watched reality TV in the evenings. They still gathered vegetables from the jungle, but they did their hunting with rifles. They had running water, but you had to flush the toilet by tipping a bucket into it.


Dayak-inspired fashion by Sarawak artist Cedric Ong


A Kayan wedding blending contemporary and traditional clothing and customs

One group largely refuses to assimilate, preferring their traditional way of life. They’re heavily marginalised because of it. The Penan people, unlike most other Dayak people, were traditionally more mobile and didn’t have longhouses or farm the land, but managed large home territories. Many of them still live in the rainforest, and as such have little need for schooling or jobs. They rely on the jungle for survival, and often prefer blowpipes with poisoned darts to hunt deer, pigs and monkeys. When you don’t earn money, blowpipes are cheaper to obtain and reload than a gun. Blowdarts have a shorter range than guns, but they’re virtually silent, so if you miss, it doesn’t scare off all the game within earshot. The poison, made from toxic tree sap, spreads through an animal’s blood and kills within a minute and a half. Cooking the meat nullifies the poison, which breaks down at a certain heat, so it’s okay to eat game killed this way.

We met some Penan on the Borneo trip, because our guide wanted to buy a parang (machete) from them before our trek – the Penan in that region are excellent blacksmiths. The Penan struck me as clever, tough and strong, but the hardship of living in the jungle was plain. Their community leader had a boiling fever and, because the Penan live by nature’s calendar, he didn’t know that the local clinic was closed on the Sunday when he’d tried to walk there. (We postponed our hike for a day so that my parents and our Kelabit guide could drive the poor guy to get some medicine.)

Anyway, that’s a little bit about how indigenous people in Borneo live today. The Iban these days live a bit like the Kelabit: they get their meat from the supermarket, or with a rifle. You’re more likely to find artifacts like my Tuntun in an antique shop than the jungle.

But a few generations ago, they lived by farming, raiding and trading (with other Borneans as well as the Chinese and Europeans). They also hunted, as the Penan still do today.

And that’s why Tuntun was made.


Tuntun is… well, a tuntun. The Iban used to hunt with traps as well as blowdarts, and a tuntun is a guardian made to watch over a pig or deer trap. The traps used to be laid across game trails. They were made with a tripwire, and vicious spears on springs that would impale the animal.

I probably shouldn’t call him Tuntun because the human figure on the top is actually the monkey-tailed Iban hunting god, whom the Iban affectionately call Buat (or used to, anyway). But I called him ‘the tuntun’ for so long that it became his name.

My Tuntun is just over a metre tall. He’s made of ironwood, a hardwood native to Sarawak which is prized by the indigenous people because it resists the rot which is so prevalent in the rainforest. These days, some people carve human figures out of softwood and paint it black with shoe polish for the undiscerning tourist market. Not my Tuntun, though. Not only does he have the real heft and strength of ironwood, there’s a watermark on the base of his post where he’s been driven into the ground. There are also traces of mud in the little crannies all over his surface.

Tuntuns are brilliant because they have three functions.

One is to help a man to set the trap. A tuntun helps him measure the height of the tripwire so that a pig or deer will set it off properly.

The second is to warn other people. A little man on a post is the sort of signal that a human recognises – because we’re excellent at spotting things that look like human faces – but a pig or deer likely doesn’t. A spear in the thigh isn’t necessarily fatal… but in Borneo, in a time before antibiotics, it might as well have been.

The third function of a tuntun is spiritual, and to me, this is the most interesting part.

A tuntun has to have a human figure on the top because in traditional Iban religion, everything has a soul. So the figure on the top gives the god Buat a mouthpiece through which to call the souls of deer and pigs, and summon them to the trap. He watches the trap and protects it for the hunter.

Mine is pretty special because he has lots of little extra flourishes. Firstly, he shares his post with three sacred predators that help strengthen the power of the trap.


An orb-weaver spider…


… a snake…


… and a monitor lizard.


These predators are good luck in indigenous Bornean cultures. For some – like the highly stratified Kayan – an apex predator belongs to a ‘higher order’ of animals, and only aristocracy can wear or create their images. For others, like the egalitarian Iban, apex predator spirits can be enlisted to protect humans. Snakes, crocodiles and goannas used to be carved over longhouse doorways to defend the tribe from evil spirits. They are symbols of cunning and strength. The goanna on this one gave me the inspiration for the gods and guardian spirits in The Celestial Kris.

The second special touch I’d like to point out is that my Tuntun is nude. The artist went to the trouble of carving nipples, a bottom and a penis (although no toes, oddly enough). Most Iban men used to wear loincloths, but genitals often feature on items with a spiritual function. This is because evil spirits are thought not to have genitals, and are perplexed and scared by them. In fact, the general rule in Bornean indigenous art is that the scarier the face and the more grotesque the genitals, the better the guardian is at frightening evil spirits away.

The final thing I’d like to point out about my wonderful Tuntun is that he represents the person who made him.

My Tuntun is covered in lots of tiny marks, made by his creator’s knife. In the olden days, all indigenous men and women of Borneo were artists. An Iban girl wasn’t a woman, for example, until she had made a pua kumbu – a 2×1.5 metre elaborate tapestry for decorating the longhouse at festival time. Men were smiths and carpenters, and women wove cloth and baskets. Each kept the secrets of their craft from one another, presenting only finished gifts to their relatives and lovers. In times of plenty – which, in fertile Borneo, were common – carving or weaving gave people something to do and kept the tribe supplied with clothes, farming equipment, weapons, spiritual protection and festival paraphernalia.

Most tuntuns are basic; they don’t have fingers or hunting animals, but just the sitting Buat figure and some notches to measure the tripwire. So I like to think that the man who made my Tuntun added all these details simply to give himself a project to while away the hot afternoons. He put a lot of care and effort into it, just because he wanted to.


I started this post intending to just show you some photos, and it turned into quite a ramble, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway. I owe much of my research to the incomparable Heidi Munan and her reference books ‘Beads of Borneo’ and ‘Sarawak Crafts’.


5 thoughts on “Inspirational object #1: Tuntun

  1. Karen Casey says:

    This was really informative. I have one I found on someones rubbish heap yesterday and have been trying to find out what he is and where he came from. From there I was going to choose a name for him, but he is now Tuntun.
    Happy to send photos if you’d like to see him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amelia says:

      Oh my god! I can’t believe someone would throw out a tuntun – but that’s amazing! How big? If he’s only short, like a foot tall, he might be an agom which is the Iban word for rice-field guardian. There are lots of different spirits/carvings for different purposes!

      Would love to see it.


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