Deep ancestry of collapsing networks of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Borneo
Theories of early cooperation in human society often draw from a small sample of ethnographic studies of surviving populations of hunter–gatherers, most of which are now sedentary. Borneo hunter–gatherers (Punan, Penan) have seldom figured in comparative research because of a decades-old controversy about whether they are the descendants of farmers who adopted a hunting and gathering way of life.
In 2018 we began an ethnographic study of a group of still-nomadic hunter–gatherers who call themselves Punan Batu (Cave Punan). Our genetic analysis clearly indicates that they are very unlikely to be the descendants of neighbouring agriculturalists. They also preserve a song language that is unrelated to other languages of Borneo. Dispersed travelling groups of Punan Batu with fluid membership use message sticks to stay in contact, co-operate and share resources as they journey between rock shelters and forest camps. Message sticks were once widespread among nomadic Punan in Borneo, but have largely disappeared in sedentary Punan villages.
Thus the small community of Punan Batu offers a rare glimpse of a hunting and gathering way of life that was once widespread in the forests of Borneo, where prosocial behaviour extended beyond the face-to-face community, facilitating successful collective adaptation to the diverse resources of Borneo’s forests.
J. S. Lansing, G. S. Jacobs, S. S. Downey, P. K. Norquest, M. P. Cox, S. L. Kuhn, S. F. Malik, H. Sudoyo, P. Kusuma, Deep ancestry of collapsing networks of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Borneo, Evolutionary (2022) 1-38