There’s fewer places on the planet as wild as Borneo. Covered in lush, unrelenting jungle, it’s the third largest island in the world and home to one of the oldest rain forests on the planet. The territory is split between Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia and has a deep history of political instability and inter-tribe beef.
Thanks to the island’s thorough forest cover its indigenous tribes have enjoyed a little more privacy than those in more accessible parts of the world. Secreted between the trees live the Dayak people. One of the largest tribes, they comprise 200 ethnic subgroups, each with slightly different cultures and customs spread sparingly across the island. Even today there are estimated to be as many as 20 million Dayaks living off the bountiful land.
Head hunting is deeply rooted in their culture and is as relevant today as it always has been. Back in 1838, British adventurer James Brooke rocked up on Borneo’s shores to find the Brunei sultanate fending off a violent Dayak rebellion. He managed to put down the rebellion and pacify the tribes and became Governor of Sarawak (the largest Malaysian state). Brooke did manage to reduce the amount of head hunting that went on, but not for long. He spent years fighting a losing battle against various Dayak tribes. Any expedition into the deep jungle to fight a tribe that were experts in forest life was never going to be an easy trip.
The photo above from 1896 shows some traditional Dayak tattoos which represent a tree trunk and the wings of a hornbill, both of which are meant to protect the bearer from the wrath of the gods.