The area around Niah is inhabited by a mixture of Punan, Malay, Chinese and Iban people. For general background information on the different ethnic groups in Sarawak, see the About Sarawak page.
Punan & Malay
The Punan people are the original inhabitants of the Niah area, and may be descended from (at least some) of the peoples who used Niah Cave at different times over the last 40,000 years. The Punan are closely related to the nomadic Penan, but converted to Islam (probably in the 18th century), and settled into Malay-style kampungs (villages). The Punan now mix freely with the Malays, who are thought to have arrived in the Niah area as traders from Brunei before the 18th Century, settling as fishermen and farmers. Prior to the 1900s, the Punan and Malays were the main inhabitants of the region (although the term ‘Malay’ in this context may include Muslim Melanau as well).
As the original inhabitants, the Punan hold most of the traditional rights to the birds nests in Niah Cave. The approximately 10 acres of cave at Niah have been divided into over 500 ‘territories’, for which traditional collecting rights are held. Anyone wanting to collect birds’ nests in Niah must therefore go through the Punan (or buy them out). However, most of the actual collectors today are Iban labourers.
The Chinese have had probably been visiting the Niah area, for trading birds’ nests, for at least the past thousand years. A large community of mostly Chinese traders would live in the Traders Cave during the collecting season. They built extensive (roofless) housing in the cave – in places 3 stories high, and largely made without iron nails – the remains of which can still be seen there. Some of these structures may in fact be very old. However, the main Chinese population in the area did not arrive in the area until the early 20th century, as pepper farmers.
The Iban are relative late-comers to the Niah region, although they now make up the significant majority of the population. Iban people first arrived in the Niah region in the 1930s – in the final push of the great Iban northward expansion out of central Kalimantan, begun centuries earlier.
A large Iban longhouse community (Rumah Libau) is located near the Great Cave, and makes for an interesting visit (see the Rumah Libau trail description for more details).
Myths and legends
There is a local legend about the origin of the caves. According to the legend, people living in a longhouse near where Gunung Subis is today, decided to extend their longhouse. Under their traditions, a child had to be sacrificed on the spot where the first housepost for the new longhouse would go. A child was duly selected and the sacrifice completed. But after the sacrifice, the old grandmother of the child was deeply grieved, and vowed revenge on her people. She beat gongs and danced for five days, the people of the longhouse gathering around her to see the spectacle. Suddenly the sky turned black, there was a howling wind, and hailstones were hurled down. The longhouse and all of its residents were turned to stone – thus forming the caves and the mountain above. The people can still be seen in the caves today, as stalagmites and stalactites.
(This legend is similar to origin-stories for many other caves in the region, including at Mulu and Bau. In both those locations, the stories involve a longhouse transgressing natural or customary laws, usually causing offence to an old woman and young child, and revenge being meted out by petrification – always presaged by hailstorms. Hailstones are still greatly feared here.)
There are also a number of legends about how the caves were discovered, and who discovered them – with each ethnic group apparently having a tale starring someone from their own group!
At the beginning of the collecting season, there is a big ceremony to propitiate the spirits of the cave, which is usually attended by all the ethnic groups involved in the birds nest trade. Nest gathering is a dangerous business, and the ceremony ensures the safety of the gatherers, as well as good nest numbers. (See Ecology of the Caves for more about birds nest and collection and what it involves.)
The ceremony usually involves the offering of small food items and the sacrifice of a chicken. Ethnographer Charles Hose, writing in the early 1900s, recounts that sometimes buffalo were slaughtered, and even reported that “One year, when the nests were scanty they bought a slave in Brunei, and killed him in the cave, in the hope of increasing the number of nests.” Needless to say, this practice has not been repeated since (if it indeed ever actually took place)!
Nevertheless, the ceremony is still practiced, and you can see the offering table, with its wood-shaving decorations and the remains of an unlucky chicken, at the entrance to the Great Cave.