Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Head-hunters of Borneo (S342: 1881)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review printed in the 3 November 1881 issue of Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S342.htm


[[p. 3]] The Head-hunters of Borneo: a Narrative of Travel up the Mahakkam and down the Barito; also Journeyings in Sumatra. By Carl Bock (late Commissioner of the Dutch Government). With thirty Coloured Plates, Map, and other Illustrations. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1881.)

     This large and lavishly-illustrated volume derives its chief value from the fact that the author is a clever artist, and that all the handsome coloured plates which form the main feature of the book are evidently careful drawings made on the spot, not imaginary designs concocted from more or less imperfect sketches or descriptions. The houses, villages, and forest scenes are all true to nature, and the same may be said of the numerous portraits of the Dyaks and illustrations of their domestic life and customs. The figures are indeed wonderfully life-like and the drawing accurate, the only fault being a very slight tendency to Europeanise the features--a kind of personal equation due to Mr. Bock's artistic studies having been made from European models. This is visible in the small and well-formed mouths of the two women in Plate 16, and in the perfectly straight and well-developed nose of the "Chief of the Forest People" in Plate 24. When, however, he has taken special pains and has had ample time to finish his drawing, as in "Hetdung, my favourite Dyak Boy" (Plate 23), he avoids this fault, and gives us a portrait as perfect and as characteristic as a good photograph.

     Mr. Bock went out to the East to collect birds in Sumatra for the late Marquis of Tweeddale, and spent about nine months in that island. He was then employed by the Dutch Government to make an excursion through the interior of Borneo, to report on some of the Dyak tribes and collect specimens of natural history for the museums of Holland. This journey, which occupied in its preparation and execution about six months, was partly over ground new to European travellers; first to the country of the Poonau Dyaks in about 1 40' N. lat., 116 30' E. long., and then up a western tributary of the Mahakkam or Koti River, and overland for a short distance to the head waters of the Teweh, a branch of the Barito or Banjermassin River. This watershed is in about 0 5' S. lat. and 115 35' E. long., and appears to consist of an undulating country with a few detached hills. It is however marked by a curious geological phenomenon very rarely met with in the tropics, a large area covered with huge angular rocks, of every shape and size and tossed about in the greatest confusion. It is called by the natives Jalan batu, or the Stony way, and our author's description of it will bear quotation:--

     "Covering an area of several square miles, and cropping up as it were in the centre of a vast forest, this Field of Stones is well calculated to arouse the superstitious dread of a savage people. Here scattered in wonderful confusion like the remains of a ruined castle: there standing erect and orderly as if carved by chisel and levelled by plumb-line and square: some in ponderous masses as large as a house, fifty or sixty feet in height and of still greater width and thickness: others heaped like so many petrified cocoa-nuts, or like a pile of forty-pounder cannon-balls: here bare and gaunt like the pillars of Stonehenge: there moss-covered and decked with ferns or gorgeous flowers: in all directions for miles and miles the stones lie scattered. Some of them have assumed fantastic shapes, in which the imagination can easily picture a travesty of the human form, or of other familiar objects: others again are marked with quaint devices, where wind and rain have put finishing touches to natural cracks and crevices, and made them assume the appearance of deliberately carved inscriptions, like those seen on ancient weather-beaten tombstones--or rather, like the curious 'picture-writings' found on scattered stones and rocks in British Guiana and other parts of South America . . . For miles our route lay through this wilderness of sterility and fertility combined--sometimes creeping between two parallel walls of stone, thrown so closely together that there was scarcely room to walk sideways; sometimes making a considerable détour to avoid a more than usually rough spot. In some places the earth was covered with small loose stones, most difficult and painful to walk over; in others, the ground seemed to be of solid rock, and great care was necessary in walking to prevent one's feet being fixed in one of the innumerable crevices, which were the more dangerous from being partially covered by vegetation. Many of the large stones were so lightly balanced on a small foundation that it seemed as if the exercise of a moderate force would be sufficient to overturn them."

     [[p. 4]] Mr. Bock was at first inclined to attribute this phenomenal region to volcanic agency; but, considering that no earthquakes or volcanic phenomena occur throughout Borneo, and that these rocks are all "a rubbly limestone," he concludes that they owe their origin to "the denuding force of the torrential tropical rains, which have gradually bared the limestone deposit." This however is a very lame conclusion, and in no way accounts for the extraordinary way in which the rocks have been fractured and heaped over each other. The only sufficient explanation is to be found in the action of subterranean waters dissolving away the limestone rock and thus forming extensive caverns, the roofs of which have at length fallen in over a large area, and thus produced the unmistakable appearances of violent upheaval and fracture. This phenomenon is however very rare on so extensive a scale, and, so far as we can recollect, this Bornean "field of stones" is almost unique. The nature of the surrounding country is not described, but the locality appears to be a low and nearly level watershed between the lateral tributaries of two great river systems, so that there might be a subterranean drainage in two directions. In many other parts of Borneo there are indications of long-continued denudation, and it may be that the very absence of volcanic phenomena, and the consequent stability of the surface for long periods, has rendered possible the amount of uninterrupted subterranean denudation required to produce this mimic representation of great volcanic convulsions.

     Mr. Bock gives us a pretty full account of the Dyak tribes of Southern Borneo and all that he could learn about them, and the general impression of his descriptions, aided by his life-like portraits and domestic scenes, is, that there is a wonderful similarity between all the chief tribes of this great island both in physical and mental characteristics, though there are many specialities in habits. In the south we find a decided indication of Pacific influence in the general practice of tattooing, in the custom of pomali or "taboo," and perhaps even in the practice of cannibalism by one tribe--the Tring Dyaks. In the south, too, the use of the blow-tube seems to be almost universal, whereas it is comparatively rare in the north; but in their general character and habits, customs, ideas, and superstitions, there is a practical identity which renders much of Mr. Bock's volume a repetition of what has been more full and accurately described by St. John, Grant, and other writers.

     We may however note a few of the more novel or interesting facts recorded. Mr. Bock never saw an orang-utan, so that this animal is evidently far less abundant in the southern than in the north-western parts of the island. He describes the effects of a great drought in 1878--a year before his visit--which destroyed the forest-trees over large areas and caused the destruction of birds and game, and the failure of crops, to such an extent as to cause a famine, and this on the equator in an area of dense forest where rains are usually of almost constant occurrence. Almost the only amusing episode in the book is the account of an earnest attempt to discover the much-talked-of "tailed men" of Borneo. Tjiropon, an old and faithful servant of the Sultan of Koti, declared, in the Sultan's presence, that he himself had seen some of these people in the Passir country. He called them "Orang-bontoet," or tailed men, and added the usual statement, that the tail was from two to four inches long, and that the people cut holes in the floor to receive it, so that they could sit down comfortably! Mr. Bock thought this so absurd that he disbelieved the whole story, but the Sultan of Koti was greatly impressed by it, and it was decided to despatch Tjiropon on an embassy to the Sultan of Passir with a letter requesting him to send by the bearer two of the "Orang-bontoet." After a long absence he returned, and met the party at Banjermassin as agreed; but he was very crestfallen, and would say nothing except that he had delivered the letter, and had not been able to procure any tailed men. Thereupon the Resident of Banjermassin, at Mr. Bock's request, himself sent a party to Passir with a letter to the Sultan, requesting him to say if there really were any tailed men in his country, and what had happened to the former messenger. After twenty-five days' absence the party returned, with a message from the Sultan of Passir explaining the whole matter. It appears that the Sultan's personal attendants are known by the term "Orang-boentoet di Sultan di Passir"--literally "the tail-people of the Sultan of Passir." The Sultan declared he had never heard of any other "orang-bontoet." He was very angry at two of his suite being so unceremoniously asked for, and ordered the messenger to depart instantly on pain of being flogged--a threatened indignity which sufficiently accounted for poor Tjiropon's silence. When again spoken to, however, he exclaimed,--"Before Allah! I have seen the Orang-bontoet long ago, and have spoken to them, but I could not see them this time."

     Among the few natural-history facts noted, are, the conspicuousness of the wild bees' nests "at variance with the almost universal habit among all animals to conceal their nests as much as possible." But these nest evidently come under the category of objects which exhibit warning colours, being sufficiently protected by the stings of their inhabitants. The remarkable tenacity of life of the Loris tardigradus is well illustrated in the following passage:--

     "One day I wounded one, and knowing its tenacity of life I strangled the little animal, then cut it open and pierced its heart. An hour elapsed before I waited to skin it, and when I took down the body I found it still alive, its lovely eyes wide open. When, hoping to finally despatch it, I pierced its brain with a needle, it began to shriek, and still some minutes elapsed before it was actually gone."

     An equal tenacity of life is found in the allied Galeopithecus, which could be killed neither by breaking the spine, nor piercing the brain, and it is not improbable that the continued survival of these very ancient types in the midst of higher forms may be in part due to this extreme power of endurance.

     The journal of the Sumatra expedition contains little of importance, and all that is new or valuable in the volume might have been well compressed into a couple of magazine articles or papers for the Geographical Society. The illustrations however furnish the real raison d'être of the book; and besides the portraits of natives already referred to, attention may be called to the plate "Crossing the River Benangan," which gives the very best and most accurate idea of an equatorial forest that the present writer has ever met with.

Alfred R. Wallace


*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Return to Home