University of Nottingham

The cultured rainforest: Long-term human ecological histories in the highlands of Borneo

Project outline

Recent research has questioned the idea of rainforests as the world's last 'virgin landscape' by revealing a long history of human modification. By contrast, some modern rainforest hunter-gatherers traditionally assumed to be remnants of a 'natural' way of life in deep antiquity may in fact be a relatively recent response to landscapes created by farmers. This project investigated long-term and present-day interactions between people and rainforest in the Kelabit Highlands of central Borneo (Malaysian Sarawak), so as to better understand past and present agricultural and hunter-gatherer lifestyles and landscapes.

Niah Caves, Sarawak.  Niah Caves, Sarawak 


Drawing upon anthropology, archaeology, environmental science, botany and GIS, the Cultured Rainforest project has provided a 50,000 year perspective on vegetation history and climatic change. Working across disciplinary boundaries, the project has been able to build a relatively continuous link between present, recent past, more distant past and very distant past. Anthropological, archaeological, and environmental datasets have been integrated into a single GIS framework to facilitate the archiving, analysis, and dissemination of the project's diverse datasets and findings. Audio files, a photographic archive and video resources are available on the project website. A 'virtual visit' of the Kelabit Highlands, showing sites where the project worked, is available at

Anthropologists used anthropological and ethno-historical methods including participant observation and the gathering of oral histories and stories to collect information on present-day and past forest life as people remember or imagine it, and the practical and cosmological aspects of people's relationship with the natural environment; and on how objects are being used today and were used in everyday life and as grave goods in cemeteries in the recent past. Work on objects involved drawing on museum collections, including those made by Monica Janowski in the late 80s for the British Museum and Sarawak Museum. Archaeologist members of the project team conducted surveys and excavated selected monuments to reconstruct the lives of past forest dwellers. Palaeoecologist members studied fossil pollen in sediment cores from archaeological sites to document the long-term history of the rainforest and human impacts upon it. The botanist on the team looked at the distribution of fruit tree species across the landscape, a marker of human activity.

Distinct cycles of forest clearance and regrowth have been detected, and evidence of human settlement going back 4500 years has been discovered. Fieldwork has highlighted the profound differences between the ways in which Kelabit farmer-foragers and Penan foragers in the present day see their respective 'proper' relationships with the landscape. While the Kelabit aim to mark the landscape (constructing megalithic monuments, cutting ditches, making rice padi fields and cemeteries), the Penan aim to leave nothing but their personal traces, a kind of aura of their having been there, with a minimal physical expression. Both groups believe that forest spirits have the role of guardians of the forest, punishing those who misbehave in relation to the living environment.

In a region where no systematic archaeological study has been undertaken, the team has identified a wide range of funerary monuments, settlement forms, and other landscape constructions dating to the last 1000 years, some of the locations being linked by origin myths and genealogies to the present-day Kelabit. Analysis of sediment cores has suggested that they are a good guide to the intensity of land use in their localities in recent centuries, possibly back to c.1000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples from the core locations provided the first scientific evidence for the potential antiquity of human-landscape interactions in interior Borneo, indicating that human occupation in the Kelabit Highlands stretches far beyond the Metal Age (the beginning of which in Borneo is commonly dated to around 500 BC). In fact, pollen and phytoliths analysis combined have demonstrated likely manipulation/cultivation of the sago palm Eugeissona at least 2800 years ago in Pa'Dalih and 1300 years ago in Bario. The cultivation of rice may also have been taking place during the same period, but evidence for this remains speculative. In the last 600 years disturbance indicators increase and evidence for rice cultivation becomes more pronounced in the Kelabit Highlands. Rice and banana cultivation are represented in the phytolith record at Pa'Buda in more recent times. During the 11th and 13th century, an explosion of trade took place between the China and Indo-Malaysian archipelago, in forest products, metals, gemstones and spices, and by the 14th-15th century, Islamic sultanates had become established in Brunei. This time period seems to corresponds to when rice cultivation and disturbance indicators increase in the Kelabit Highlands and may represent both increased trade and the period when rice became a symbol of wealth and status for the people of the Highlands.

Building on research in the Kelabit Highlands since 1986 by Monica Janowski, anthropological studies included in-depth discussions with informants of archaeological material, and genealogical work closely linked to excavation of past settlement sites and cemeteries. There was also a close focus on the relationship between the practical and the cosmological relationship with the environment, particularly as expressed through the legend of the Kelabit 'culture hero' Tuked Rini. Social networks and relationships represented by Kelabit material culture were also examined, from basketry obtained from Penan, to the plants in house gardens. Anthropological studies have clearly demonstrated how, in recent centuries, the forest is both a centre of ecological richness and knowledge richness, supporting the 'cultured rainforest' premise.


Ongoing influence

The project further developed existing links which project members had with the Sarawak Museum, stemming from previous research in Sarawak. Building on previous research by Monica Janowski and Huw Barton in the highland area, it also developed close relations with particular Kelabit and Penan communities. These will be important in developing future research plans.

Presentations on the project have been made to Sarawak Museum staff, to the Administrative Officer for the Kelabit Highlands, and to the Kelabit themselves, including a presentation in the community of Pa' Dalih, which hosted the team for the period of the research. The work of the team has been reported on 'e-Bario', an internet site based in Bario, the main administrative centre in the Kelabit Highlands. e-Bario is an important communications system for Kelabit people throughout Sarawak and beyond. The project has also been reported in the main English-language newspaper in Sarawak, The Borneo Post.

'In addition to an academic monograph (2011), papers, and dedicated symposia at international conferences, two exhibitions have been curated by Monica Janowski, working with the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (April-June 2013) and the Sarawak Museum (August-Dec 2014) helping to reach a large general audience. The findings of the research are very relevant to the future of the people of the Kelabit Highlands in terms of both establishing the depth of human residence in the highland area and of use of wild resources of cultivation - important in establishing future rights to use of the resources of the highlands - and in relation to their cultural heritage. The book Tuked Rini, Cosmic Traveller. Life and Legend in the Heart of Borneo by Monica Janowski (2014) has been produced with a view to its accessibility to the Kelabit themselves and to its use in teaching young Kelabit about their own history, and hundreds of free copies will be distributed among Kelabit.

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (37 months)

Principal Investigator:
Professor Graeme Barker

Higher Education Institution:
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

Project team:
  • Huw Barton, University of Leicester
  • Chris Gosden, University of Oxford
  • Chris Hunt, Queen's University Belfast
  • Monica Janowski, SOAS, University of London

Selected Publications

The project team have published widely on their research findings. Selected publications are listed below, with a full list also available to download.

Jones, S.E., Hunt, C.O. and Reimer, P.J. (2014) 'A late Pleistocene record of environmental change from the northern and southern Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo', Journal of Quaternary Science 29: 105–122.

Janowski, M. (2013). Tuked Rini: Cosmic traveller from the Heart of Borneo. (Kuching and Copenhagen: Sarawak Museum and Nordic Institute for Asian Studies.)

Janowski, M., Barton, H., and Jones S. (2013). Culturing the rainforest: the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, in Kathy Morrison and Suzanne Hecht (eds) The Social Life of Forests. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

Jones, S.E., Hunt, C.O. and Reimer, P.J. (2013) 'Forest disturbance, arboriculture and the adoption of rice in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo', The Holocene 23 (11): 1528-1546

Jones, S.E., Hunt, C.O. and Reimer, P.J. (2013). A 2300 year record of sago and rice use from the southern Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, The Holocene 23(5): 708-720.

Ewart, I. J. (2013) Designing by doing: building bridges in the highlands of Borneo, in W. Gunn, T. Otto and R. Smith (eds.) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, pp. 85-99. (Oxford: Berg.)

Janowski, M. (2012) Imagining the force(s) of life and the cosmos in the Kelabit Highlands, in M. Janowski and T. Ingold (eds) (2012) Imagining Landscapes, Past Present and Future, pp.143-163. (London: Ashgate)

Janowski, M. (2011) Rice beer and social cohesion in the Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak, W. Schiefenhovel & Helen Macbeth (eds) Fluid Bread, pp. 183-195. (Oxford and New York: Berghahn.)

A full list of project publications is available to download here. PDF file icon


Related links


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071