Although there is little activity in the village, soon there will be a mass exodus as the village relocates to another site. Though this may seem strange to us, the Batek have no concept of land ownership. Rather, they are just stewards, looking after the land. So they have no difficulty in moving every five months to allow the forest to replenish. All Batek are animists, without organised or codified religious beliefs. Instead they see the world, especially the river and jungle, as being animated by spirits. It is the respect for the spirits that command the entire village to move if someone dies. The departed are very important and are considered to act as intermediaries between this world and the next.
Uprooting the village is just the start of a hugely elaborate burial ritual, in which the body is brought by procession to a hut, similar to the ones in the village, but constructed in a tree some 50 metres high. The body is covered and left with its possessions alongside it, together with food for the spirits. It is then left undisturbed for two to three years, upon which time the village returns to procure a bone from the skeletal remains. This is then buried, so returning the family member to the forest.
Although sharing is at the heart of village life, some items are considered personal property, such as a blowpipe for men, or a hair comb for women. The blowpipe is a work of art, hollowed from two trunks of young palm using monkey bone tied to rattan. Once hollowed, a piece of cane is used to make the smooth barrel bore. Resin seals the mouthpiece. The darts are made from pine leaf, which is thin and flexible. The dart’s plug creates an airtight seal. The tips are then dipped in a natural poison that can paralyse and kill a man. With monkeys watching from the trees, a villager demonstrates how it’s used. Amazingly he’s accurate to the millimetre from a distance of over 30 metres.
The duties of the men here are simple: make huts (without roofs), make blowpipes, go hunting and mate. Mating is done solely from within the village and the family units are large. When the family expands, the huts aren’t extended as in the longhouses of other parts of the Malaysia. Instead the village just makes a new hut, as it only takes a day. Apparently having eight children or less is to be seen as a lazy man. I’m asked how many children I have - I have none. I’m made to feel very lazy.
Other personal items are acquired through interaction with the local Malaysian village. One boy, dressed in more westernised clothing, shows me where the food is cooked and how the fire is started. He uses two carved sticks and when one breaks, pulls out a classic red Victorinox Swiss Army knife and carves another. After some considerable effort the tinder is glowing and he tries igniting dried palms. When this fails he pulls out an old lighter and sets the lot on fire. Inevitably, the Batek way of life is changing, but not as hugely as it might be. Except for a few pieces of man-made tarpaulin, Batek architecture remains as it has been for thousands of years. There is no design here, so development is slow. Changes only occur when present solutions fail. Then the problem is tackled on a one-to-one scale using whatever is at hand.