Dayak Mandau

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Circa 1890

This sword has a very special significance to me because it allowed me to make the longest journey of my life so far, from my home in Florida to very close to the island of Borneo where it was made.

As I began work on this chapter, I pondered the intricate, almost psychedelic carving of this sword's hilt and wondered about the mind state of the Dayak tribesman who carved it. I realized that he was probably experiencing a drug that I had no experience with, indeed one that, although the fourth most commonly used addictive substance on the planet, is almost entirely unknown in western cultures. That drug was betel nut (for more on this topic see the article linked below*), habitually used by between 300 and 600 million people. That thought led me to conduct experiments in my laboratory at the University of Florida, which established a connection between betel (areca nut, actually) use and nicotine addiction**. I even managed to get a picture of this sword included as a figure in my scientific article. The article then led to my receiving an invitation to speak at an International Conference on Betel Quid and Areca Nut Use† in Kuala Lumpur. I took the opportunity of a National Cancer Institute sponsored trip to Malaysia to make a side trip to Bali.

Dayaks are the aboriginal people of Borneo, those living on the coast are known as the Sea Dayaks but most live (or lived) in the deep forests of the mountainous island where for many years they evaded the attention of the Dutch and the modern Indonesians, who now populate the coastal regions. In their isolation, the tribal people retained their animistic beliefs and unique cultures which included ritual head hunting. Borneo has many rivers that run from the highlands to the coast with each river valley separated from the next by nearly impenetrable forests, so that the tribes of one valley would have limited contact with that of the next and nearly no knowledge of tribes two or three valleys away. Contact between tribes led to conflicts and contests for dominance, which resulted in the cranial trophies that were required to sanctify new long houses, village edifices, or ceremonies.

It is the way of the flow of a river that provided not only sustenance but also sanitary removal of wastes (each village would have a common outhouse or mandy built over the river), that the upstream tribes would feel superior to those downstream. That was the nature of life on Borneo until the early 20th century when "civilization" began to encroach from the Muslin Indonesians settled on the coast. Life for the Dayak of Borneo changed very rapidly after World War II and Indonesian independence when the government far away in Jakarta realized there was great money to be made selling out the forests of Borneo to foreign logging companies. Head hunting was suppressed and Christian missionaries moved into the villages and built small churches among the remaining longhouses.

In the Dayak times, when they lived in village longhouses that housed several families, the people were at home with the river, the jungle, and its spirits. Across the river from the village each family would have a small cleared section of jungle where they practiced ancient "slash and burn" agriculture, growing whatever crops they needed to supplement what they could take out of the jungle and the river.

Dayak warriors put a lot of careful work into crafting their mandau. Although the blade itself with the hand placed brass inlays were probably the work of a native blacksmith, the rest of the sword was probably fashioned by its owner. Carving was done with the traditional side knife, which also certainly served other practical purposes. The sheath and cords are made from the materials of the jungles. The masterwork of the sword however is the carved hilt, topped with a lock of trophy hair. I puzzled over it and eventually decided I saw the artist pictured atop a dragon of his own devising, phallus prominent.

Although the mandau is a serious weapon, it is not as formidable as the kampilan shown for comparison. The mandau also had to serve as machete to accommodate life in the jungle.

Borneo has changed greatly in the last 50 years with the coming of the timber companies and the missionaries. Slash-and-burn plots have been replaced by rubber and palm oil plantations. Although tour companies will offer to take you to see the Dayaks, you are more likely to find remnants of these people in modern government subsidized housing rather than living in traditional long houses at the river's edge and see them wearing T-shirts and plastic sandals. Whereas once the capricious rivers were the only means to travel between the coasts and the interior, there are now roads and lumber moves by truck and not just by floating down river. Iconic images of hornbill and other spirits have been moved to village museums.

* Betel, the Orphan Addiction

** Nicotinic Activity of Arecoline, the Psychoactive Element of "Betel Nuts", Suggests a Basis for Habitual Use and Anti-Inflammatory Activity

Dr. Papke's Betel Research

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