Borneo is one of the world’s most biodiversity-rich regions, home to ancient rainforests and an immense variety of wildlife.
Among its inhabitants are the Punan Batu, a group of contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers with a unique genetic makeup and lifestyle that reflect the deep ancestry of the region. The Punan Batu people live in the forest surrounding Mount Batu Benau in Bulungan Regency, North Kalimantan Province.
Our recent study, published in the journal Cell Reports, sheds light on their genetic history and cultural heritage, offering a rare glimpse into a way of life that was once widespread in the forests of Borneo.
We began our research with a community engagement program to get informed consent and support for our project from the Punan Batu community.
We then worked with phlebotomists, medical professionals trained to perform blood draws and health personnel from the local health centre to collect 30 blood samples from the community.
We also provided free health and blood biochemistry checks using point-of-care tests. We returned the results to the participants and the local health centre for any necessary follow-ups.
The Punan Batu are part of a larger group of Punan/Penan, the forest hunter-gatherer group, who was believed to have shifted mainly into a sedentary lifestyle. Living in harmony with nature, the Punan Batu still follows a nomadic lifestyle.
They travel in family groups, moving between network of rock shelters and forest camps. They rely on the forest for their food, medicine and materials.
Our genetic analysis revealed that the Punan subgroups in our study are closely related, albeit in distant locations from neighbouring indigenous groups which rely on farming. So, Punan is not only a cultural identity but also a genetic identity.
Interestingly, unlike most people living in the archipelago of Southeast Asia comprising Indonesia and the Philippines, there is no gene flow from Austronesian-related ancestry to Punan Batu.
Austronesians are a linguistic and cultural group that originated in Taiwan and spread across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, bringing with them farming, seafaring and pottery skills.
The lack of Austronesian-related ancestry in Punan Batu indicates that they have remained isolated from the significant waves of migration and cultural diffusion that have shaped the region.
This finding challenges the idea that they are the descendants of farmers who reverted to a hunting and gathering way of life. Instead, it suggests that they have preserved their genetic integrity over a long period, resisting the influence of other groups and retaining their unique genetic heritage.
Language and lifestyle
The Punan Batu are unique not just in their genetic makeup but also in their language and lifestyle.
As described in our 2022 research, they preserve a song language, the Latala language, that is unrelated to other languages of Borneo, even to any other languages in Southeast Asia.
The Punan Batu people use Latala as a particular language for artistic expression, similar to how some poets use ancient languages such as Homeric Greek, Latin or Old Javanese. Latala is currently only used for poetry. This shows ancient cultural inheritance, further evidence of their distinct demographic history.
This language, passed down through generations, is a significant part of their cultural identity. It contains rich oral traditions, such as myths, legends and songs, which reflect their worldview and values.