First "discovered" around the turn of the 20th Century, the Kelabits, a tribe of fierce warriors and headhunters who saw off anyone entering their territory, were generally given a wide berth by neighbouring tribes. Their origins are not known. Culturally and linguistically, they are distinct in many ways from the other thirty or so tribes in Sarawak.
Under broad conical hats, they wore their hair long at the back or done up in a bun held in place by pins of metal or horn. Around the waist hung a long sword-parang with a curved staghorn hilt and wooden scabbard. The men had two holes on each ear, pierced during infancy. The bottom hole was adorned with heavy brass ear rings which greatly extended the ear lobes so that they often hung down to the shoulders. In the upper hole, kept open by wooden plugs, the warriors wore leopard's fangs.
The women had elaborate tattoos, a fine lacework of dots and lines, on almost the entire lower limb, from the foot to well up the thigh, so finely decorated that from a distance, it looked as though they were wearing blue-black stockings. They also wore brightly coloured skull caps, and their eyebrows were plucked for the sake of beauty.
Their homeland, now called the Kelabit Highlands, is pretty much a large plateau ringed by a series of jungle-covered mountain peaks.
Lying at an altitude of between 3400 to 6000 feet above sea level in the north-eastern corner of Sarawak, their territory extends to the Sarawak edge of a central mountain spur that divides Borneo along the middle. On the other side of this spur lies the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, formerly part of Dutch Borneo.
One of the smallest tribes in Sarawak and, now, a branch of the Orang Ulu, the total Kelabit population of about 6000 people represents a mere 0.4% of Sarawak's population of 1.5 million, just 0.027% of Malaysia's 22 million. Less than a third of them live in the highlands. The rest have moved away to the towns, for further education, to find jobs, and so on.
3rd March, 2003.