Skip to main content

This website is no longer being updated. Visit Dartmouth Now for all news published after June 7, 2010.

Dartmouth News
>  News Releases >   2008 >   February

Peaceful, egalitarian hunter-gatherers retain traditions despite homeland loss

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 02/26/08 • Rebecca Bailey • (603) 646-3661

Kirk and Karen Endicott
Kirk and Karen Endicott (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

In the 1970s, the Batek people of the Malaysian rainforest were living much as their ancestors probably had for thousands of years: in groups of families, moving every few weeks to a fresh spot from which to hunt small game, dig tubers, and gather forest products for trade with outsiders.

Wide-scale logging of the Malaysian jungle in the 1980s decimated all but a fraction of the Bateks' land and left the remaining forest criss-crossed with intrusive logging roads. Yet, unlike many other indigenous peoples, the Batek have been able to hang on to their traditional way of life.

This people's story is the subject of a new book by a Dartmouth College husband-and-wife team, Kirk and Karen Endicott, who are among the leading authorities on this group. The Headman was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia (2008, Waveland Press, Inc), recounts ethnographic observations the Endicotts made during stints of fieldwork spanning nearly four decades. The book is accompanied by a 37-minute DVD, The Batek: Rainforest Foragers of Kelantan, Malaysia.

The book combines the interests of Kirk, a professor of anthropology, and Karen, who has a master's degree in anthropology and is director of communications at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. In their fieldwork, Kirk focused on the Batek's economy, social groups, and religion, while Karen focused on gender relations and roles and childrearing.

In all these aspects, Batek culture displays striking characteristics, the Endicotts say. The people acquire few possessions – possessions are a nuisance for nomads – and are expected to share food, regardless of who obtained it. Violence, aggression and physical coercion are abhorred, considered offenses not only against humans but against the superhuman beings who are the Batek gods.

Even more unusual, there are few differences in the way men and women behave and contribute to camp life. Both rear the children; and, although generally men take care of hunting (using bamboo blowpipes and poison darts) and women take care of digging tubers, both genders take part in both these activities and neither activity is conferred a higher status, the Endicotts say. As for leadership, as the book title suggests, even a group's "headman," or chief, may be a woman, as was the case in the group they lived with in 1975-1976.

Their first contact with the Batek occurred when Kirk lived with a group in 1971-73 as a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. In 1975-76, he returned with Karen to live with a different group of Batek while he conducted additional fieldwork and she researched a master's thesis on the differences in gender roles she assumed – based on her reading of ethnographies of other hunter-gatherer groups – she would find.

Kirk Endicott blows bubbles for Batek children during his 1976 fieldwork. (photo by Karen Endicott)

"One day during our fieldwork, Kirk and I were sitting there in our tent, and I said to him, 'I'm not going to have anything to write about, because there doesn't seem to be much difference between male and female roles.' And then I realized that was the point – that there actually was no big difference." From then on, she said, she specifically looked for gender-linked behavior, and found very little. "To realize this was an egalitarian society was pretty amazing," she said.

In 1981 Kirk joined the Dartmouth faculty. Around that time, the Malaysian government began selling off the rainforest to logging companies, turning the stripped land into plantations and establishing posts at which the Batek and other indigenous people (Orang Asli in Malay) were expected to farm and make permanent homes.

The Endicotts returned to Malaysia in 1990 for what they thought would be a six-month stay in a village. "We went back assuming we would be studying the Batek's transition to a sedentary way of life because of all the logging," Kirk said. "We got to the post and found there was hardly anyone there."

They found that the Batek had retreated to the one part of their traditional land that hadn't been logged, the area lying in and around the Taman Nagara National Park, and were living as they had before.

This cultural continuity surprised the Endicotts. "Our hypothesis was that the Batek would have had to settle down and would have had many changes in their lives because of it, including a lot of changes in gender relations," said Karen. "It turned out that they were managing to do a mix of economic activities, but they weren't abandoning their approach to life and their core values."

Kirk visited the Batek again in 2004 and found them still living much as they had in 1990 - despite increasing contact with outsiders and greater access to material goods.

The DVD was made from still photographs and 11 hours of video footage Kirk shot in 1990, edited with the help of Dartmouth student Teddy Mathias '09. The DVD shows such ordinary activities as setting up camp, hunting, gathering food and forest products, and trading with outsiders. Men and women and boys and girls work and relax side by side, the children clinging to adults of either gender.  The sounds of the rainforest mingle with the laughter and talk of the children and adults.

For those tempted to romanticize the Batek, the Endicotts point out the costs of living as they do. "Batek have few of the creature comforts Americans take for granted, and they suffer from numerous tropical diseases," said Kirk. "It's a utopia only in the sense that it is what people in a society with high stress wish their lives were like."

The Endicotts continue to work with the Center for Orang Asli Concerns in Malaysia on matters concerning the welfare of the estimated 130,000 indigenous people in Peninsular Malaysia. Proceeds from sales of the book/DVD will support health care and other basic services for the Batek and other indigenous groups.

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

Recent Headlines from Dartmouth News: