ETHNONYMS: Negritos, Pangan; subgroups: Batèk De’, Batèk Nòng, Kensiu, Kintak, Jahai, Lanòh, Mendriq, Mintil
Identification. The term “Semang” (probably from Central Aslian sema’, “human being”) was used by nineteenth-century writers for the small, dark-skinned, curly-haired people living in the forests of the Malay Peninsula. Occasionally those on the eastern side of the peninsula were distinguished as “Pangan.” Although the ideas that the Semang are a separate race and that race and culture are coterminous have now generally been abandoned, there are enough cultural similarities among the groups called “Semang” to warrant considering them as a single category. Malays usually call Semang and other aboriginal peoples “Sakai” (“savages,” “subjects”) or “Orang Asli” (“original people”); Thais call Semang “Ngò’ Pa” (“frizzy [-haired] people”). Terms used for themselves are variations of “Meni’,” among northwestern groups, and “Batèk,” among southeastern groups, meaning “human beings of our type.” At least nine distinct cultural-linguistic subgroups still exist: Kensiu of eastern Kedah (near Baling) and southern Thailand (Yala Province); Kintak of northwestern Perak (near Gerik); Jahai of northeastern Perak and northwestern Kelantan; Lanòh of northwestern Perak (near Gerik); Mendriq of central Kelantan; Batèk Dè’ of southeastern Kelantan and northern Pahang; Batèk Nòng of central Pahang (near Jerantut); Mintil of north-central Pahang (near Cegar Perah), and Mos (or Chong) of the Pattalung-Trang area in southern peninsular Thailand. There may be a few other small groups in southern Thailand.
Location. Semang generally live in the lowlands and foothills in primary and secondary tropical rain forest of southern Thailand and northern peninsular Malaysia between 3°55′ and 7°30′ N and between 99°50′ and 102°45′ E. Only the Jahai inhabit higher elevations.
Demography. The population of Semang has remained at about 2,000 since the beginning of the twentieth century, but individual groups have increased or decreased as conditions changed. The 1986 Department of Aboriginal Affairs census reports: Kintak 107, Kensiu 135, Jahai 873, Mendriq 144, Batèk (including Batèk Dè’, Batèk Tè’, Batèk Nòng, and Mintil) 822, and Lanòh 229.
Linguistic Affiliation. All Semang languages—except that of the Lanòh, who speak a Central Aslian language—are in the Northern Aslian Family of the Aslian Stock of Mon-Khmer languages. Most Semang also speak Malay, and many Malay loanwords have been absorbed into all Semang languages.
History and Cultural Relations
The Semang are probably descendants of the Hoabinhian rain-forest foragers who inhabited the Malay Peninsula from 10,000 to 3,000 years ago. After the arrival of agriculture in the peninsula about 4,000 years ago, some Hoabinhians probably became farmers while others—ancestors of the Semang—continued foraging, possibly supplementing their stores by trading with the agriculturalists. Semang probably traded with early Malay-speaking settlers as well, but relations gradually soured with the growth of the Malay population and its political power, culminating in extensive Malay slave raiding of Semang and other aboriginal peoples (i.e., Orang Asli) in the nineteenth century. The British colonial government banned slavery in the late nineteenth century and instituted policies to protect Orang Asli. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs, established in 1954 to win Orang Asli away from Communist insurgents, is now charged with providing education, health care, and economic development to Orang Asli. Relations with Malays tend to be strained because of the condescending attitude of the Malays and government pressures on Semang to become Muslims. Relations with non-Malays (Chinese, Indians, and other Orang Asli) are generally more amiable.
Until recently most Semang were nomadic, living in temporary camps lasting from one night to six weeks, and some still are. The camps consist of a cluster of lean-to shelters, each housing a conjugal family, a widow or widower, or a group of unmarried adolescent boys and/or girls. Camps range from two to twenty shelters—about six to sixty people. Camp composition varies as families move in or leave to join other camps. Since the 1960s the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has attempted to settle many Semang in “regroupaient projects” with Malay-style wooden houses. Typically these are used only as base camps by groups that also live in forest camps. The agricultural Semang groups—Lanòh, Mendriq, and Batèk Nòng—live in small semipermanent villages.
Nomadic groups make small lean-tos of palm thatch. Western Semang groups sometimes arrange their lean-tos in two rows facing each other to form a communal tunnel-hut with openings at each end. More permanently settled Semang live in small Malay-style bamboo and thatch houses or, in the regroupments, in plank houses built by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until recently most Semang lived by hunting and gathering wild foods and trading forest products for cultivated foods and manufactured goods. Some groups, such as the Batek Dè’, still live this way. Yet even the most nomadic groups plant a few crops from time to time, and most work temporarily for outsiders (e.g., helping Malay farmers harvest rice in return for a share of the crop). This economy is characterized by frequent switching of activities as opportunities change. Collecting forest products for trade is usually the most favored activity, followed by wage labor, subsistence foraging, and horticulture. The Lanòh, Mendriq, and Batèk Nòng have been semi-settled swidden horticulturalists since early in this century. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs has attempted to persuade all Semang to live in government settlements, where occupants are trained in commercial crop production. Many Semang who move to these settlements—after being displaced by dams, logging, or development projects—resist full-time farming, opting instead to collect forest products for trade. The staple carbohydrate of the foraging economy is wild yams (Dioscorea ) of at least twelve species, which are found in relative abundance year-round. Other wild foods include bamboo shoots, nuts, seasonal fruits, and honey. Hunting with blowpipes and poison darts provides most of the meat, mainly from arboreal animals such as monkeys, gibbons, and birds. Digging bamboo rats out of their burrows and fishing with hook and line, nets, poison, and spears also provide animal protein. Some Semang formerly used bows and arrows to kill larger game, but this practice disappeared, for no obvious reason, early in this century. Semang seldom set traps. Slash-and-burn horticultural crops include dry rice, cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes. Foragers share foods throughout the camp; among horticulturalists food sharing is concentrated within extended families.
Some nomadic Semang keep dogs, valued as watchdogs but useless in blowpipe hunting. Young monkeys, birds, etc. may become pets. Settled groups sometimes keep dogs and cats as pets and raise chickens for food or trade.
Industrial Arts. Semang utilize forest materials, such as bamboo (for blowpipes, dart quivers, cooking vessels, water containers, combs, sleeping platforms, rafts), wood (for knife handles, sheaths, meat-drying racks), pandanus (for mats and baskets), bark (for baskets and, formerly, bark cloth), and rattan (for bindings, baskets, ladders, belts). They use metal knives and axes obtained through trade and rework metal scraps into harpoon points, spear tips, and digging-stick blades.
Trade. The Semang have traded forest products for cultivated foods and manufactured goods at least since the early nineteenth century and probably since the advent of agriculture in the peninsula. Their survival does not depend on trade, however, although life would be much more difficult without iron tools, for example. Many items obtained through trade are luxury goods, such as tobacco, or substitutes for natural foods and materials, such as rice and flour for wild tubers, sugar for honey, cloth for bark cloth. Semang have lived without trade during periods of hostilities: during intense slave raiding, the Japanese occupation, and the 1948-1960 Communist insurrection (known as “the Emergency”). Forest products collected by Semang for trade—resins, wax, thatch, plant medicines, honey, rattan, and resinous woods—vary according to demand. Trade partners include both Malay and Chinese wholesalers and shopkeepers. In the last century some Malays established patron-client relationships with groups of Semang.
Division of Labor. A division of labor by gender exists, but it is a statistical tendency apparently resulting from practical considerations rather than norms or ideology that define certain tasks as appropriate only to one sex. Most activities are done by both sexes, often working together in mixed groups or husband-wife teams. For example, both men and women dig tubers and care for small children, but women spend more time on these tasks. Most blowpipe hunting and making and repair of hunting equipment is done by men, but women may hunt and own blowpipes. Men generally do tasks that take great strength (e.g., felling or climbing large trees) or mobility (blowpipe hunting) or that are incompatible with child care, and women do tasks that take less strength and mobility (because they have to carry babies), such as digging up tubers and bamboo rats, fishing, and weaving pandanus. Individual specialization is almost entirely absent except in the religious sphere.
Land Tenure. Each group regards a certain area as its home (the saka’ ), although claims of exclusive rights to an area vis-à-vis other groups (Semang or others) are seldom made and, in any case, are unenforceable. People have access to all wild resources found in their group’s area and have the right to clear any land for planting that is not already in use. Crops, but not the land, are the property of the conjugal family that planted them, although food-sharing rules apply after harvest. Western Semang allow individuals to own poison trees and perennial fruit trees they plant or discover (a concept similar to that of the adjacent Temiar Senoi), but Batèk Dè’ regard such trees as free to all. The Malaysian government does not recognize any traditional Semang rights over land or resources.
Kin Groups and Descent. The only corporate group among the Semang is the conjugal family. Many camps contain one or more extended families, but these are transitory entities, forming and breaking up as the component conjugal families move. There are no “bands” of fixed membership that always camp together. There are no descent groups or descent ideology.
Kinship Terminology. Semang relationship terminologies are bilaterally symmetrical. They merge sibling and cousin terms but distinguish collateral relatives at the +1 and — 1 generation levels. Cousin-sibling terms contain relative age distinctions. Some groups classify cousins as “older” and “younger” according to their ages relative to Ego and some according to the relative ages of the linking parents.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Semang generally choose their own spouses; parents have little influence. Most Semang prohibit marriage between traceably related consanguines or affines. In theory the prospective husband should ask the girl’s parents for permission, but this does not always happen. The marriage “ceremony” may consist only of the couple setting up a household together. Often the couple holds a small feast. Some groups expect the groom to give gifts, usually trade goods, to the wife’s parents, and the wife to give handmade items to the groom’s parents. Horticultural groups expect a new husband to perform bride-service for a year or two, helping in the wife’s parents’ garden. Polygyny and polyandry are permitted but rare. There is no fixed postmarital residence rule. If the bride is young, the couple may stay near her parents until she feels secure. Later they may alternate between the camps of the parents or camp apart from them. Horticultural groups expect the couple to settle with the bride’s parents during the bride-service year(s). But most groups prohibit physical contact between opposite-sex affines and postpubescent consanguines.
The acceptability of divorce varies (Batèk Nòng prohibit it), but it occurs in most groups, especially among young couples without children. Either spouse can initiate divorce, which is accomplished by moving out of the joint shelter. Some divorces are acrimonious, but it is not unusual for former spouses, both remarried, to live amiably in the same camp. Prohibitions between in-laws continue even after a couple divorces. Young children of divorced couples usually stay with the mother; older children make their own choices and often alternate between parents. Stepparents usually treat the spouse’s children like their own.
Domestic Unit. The family shelter houses parents and their preadolescent children. Adolescent daughters sleep in an extension or share a separate shelter with other girls. Adolescent boys usually share separate lean-tos. Western Semang tunnel-houses provide contiguous housing for conjugal family units. Occasionally more than one family in a settled group will share a Malay-style house, but each family has its own section and cooking fire.
Inheritance. Principles of inheritance of personal possessions vary. Among the Batèk Dè’, personal possessions go to the surviving spouse, if there is one, who may distribute some of them to the children. Some personal items are left on or in the grave. Among the Western Semang, ownership of poison and fruit trees passes to the deceased’s children of both sexes.
Socialization. Both parents look after their offspring from earliest childhood, although mothers spend more time with them, especially when they are still nursing. Children learn most skills and social norms casually, by observation and practice, often in play groups of mixed ages and sexes. Children have great freedom; corporal punishment is rare. Parents teach adolescents complicated skills such as pandanus weaving or blowpipe hunting.
Social Organization. Conjugal families are the basic units of society. They are linked flexibly by bonds of kinship and friendship. There are no social classes.
Political Organization. No adult Semang has authority over any other adult or the means of coercing others. Individual autonomy is highly respected. Competent or persuasive individuals, male and female, may emerge as natural leaders, but people need not follow their advice. Some men are designated as “headmen” by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, but they are only mediators between the group and outsiders and have no authority within the group.
Social Control. There are no coercive control mechanisms. Antisocial behavior is discouraged by informal social pressure and through concepts of disease that blame anyone who mistreats or frustrates another as the cause of illness in the victim. Some norms, such as the prohibition on incest, are believed to be enforced by the thunder god, who kills the offender with a violent thunderstorm or disease.
Conflict. Semang abhor violence. Disputes between Semang are infrequent and are usually settled by a public airing of grievances resulting in a consensus solution. Individuals who do not get along tend not to camp together. They usually respond to conflict with outsiders by moving where they cannot be found.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. As the Semang have no religious authorities or written scriptures, beliefs vary from group to group and even person to person, but many elements of the belief systems are shared among Semang and between Semang and other Orang Asli. The earth is generally pictured as a disk of land resting on a huge snake (naga’ ) or turtle that floats in an underground sea. Above the atmosphere is the firmament, a cool, sandy land with flowers and fruits. The earth is connected to the firmament by one or more stone pillars, an image probably drawn from the limestone hills of the peninsula. The firmament, underworld, and stone pillars are populated by immortal superhuman beings who created the rain forest to supply human needs on earth.
All groups believe that numerous immortal superhuman beings live on the firmament and stone pillars and under the earth. Some superhumans once lived on earth as humans and return occasionally to visit or listen to the singing of the Semang; they may be met in dreams. Most superhumans are anonymous and grouped in broad categories, often associated with natural phenomena such as wind and fruit (e.g., the Cenoi of the western groups). Some have individual names and identities and may be termed “deities.” The most prominent is the thunder god (Karey; Batèk Dè’; Gobar) who sends thunderstorms to topple trees on Semang who break prohibitions (telañ or lawac ), for example, against mocking certain animals or mixing incompatible foods. In punishing humans, the thunder god may collaborate with a female deity of the underworld—called the “Grandmother” (Ya’) and sometimes confounded with the earth-supporting snake (naga’) — who produces a flood beneath the offender. The thunder god also punishes offenders with disease or a tiger attack. To avert his wrath the offender makes a blood offering by scraping a small amount of blood from the shin with a knife, mixing it with water, and throwing it to the thunder god and Grandmother. Most groups personify one or more other celestial beings (e.g., Kensiu; Tapn). After death Semang become immortal superhumans and can visit earth.
Religious Practitioners. Ritual specialists (hala ) are thought to communicate with the superhumans through dreams or trance, or even to be superhumans themselves. The latter, called “big hala'” among the western groups, can take on the body of a tiger and protect the Semang by driving off ordinary tigers. “Small hala'” are ordinary mortals who know some curing techniques. The potential to be a big hala’ is hereditary, descending bilaterally to both sexes, but a big hala’ must learn songs, spells, medicines, and techniques. Big and small hala’ receive such knowlege from superhumans through dreams or from other hala’. The best method is to wait at the grave of a “dead” shaman until he appears in tiger form, then return him to human form by blowing incense over him; the shaman will then teach the novice.
Ceremonies. The major rituals, including the blood offering, center on communication with the superhumans. Some western groups believe the Cenoi can possess shamans in trance, speak to the people through them, and convey songs or instructions for curing. The Batèk Dè’ hold singing sessions to ask superhumans for fruit and, after the fruit season, to thank them. In cases of serious illness, singers may go in trance to meet the superhumans, who may teach them cures. Rites of passage are little developed except in connection with death.
Arts. Blowpipes, quivers, and bamboo combs are decorated with geometric and floral patterns. Both sexes wear flowers, leaves, and pigments, especially at singing sessions.
Medicine. Semang attribute most diseases to breaking prohibitions or to the intrusion of noxious substances from the environment, especially in food. Herbal medicines are drunk in infusions or massaged into the skin. Curing songs and spells are acquired from superhumans. Shamans may convey the healing power of the superhumans to the patient through magical quartz crystals (cebu ), in the west, or cooling dew (mun ), among the Batèk Dè’.
Death and Afterlife. Most groups believe that after death the shadow-soul goes to an island afterworld at the western horizon, but it may first linger at the grave as a dangerous ghost. Tigers are thought to come to devour the corpse. Thus death rituals combine protective measures, such as fleeing the site of the death and erecting symbolic barriers around the grave, with measures to hurry the shadow-soul on its way, such as burning incense. Most groups bury the corpse in a shallow grave. Some personal possessions are placed with the body or in a leaf shelter on top of the grave, and food and water are provided for the deceased. The Batèk Dè’, who believe that the afterworld is above the firmament, place the corpse on a platform in a tree to assist the shadow-soul in reaching the sky and to protect the body from tigers. Most groups reserve tree burial, or burial with the head above ground, for great shamans.
Endicott, Kirk (1979). Batek Negrito Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Evans, I. H. N. (1937). The Negritos of Malaya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schebesta, Paul (1928). Among the Forest Dwarfs of Malaya. Translated by Arthur Chambers. London: Hutchinson.
Schebesta, Paul (1954). Die Negrito Asiens: Wirtschaft und Soziologie. Vienna and Mödling: St. Gabriel-Verlag.
Schebesta, Paul (1957). Die Negrito Asiens: Religion und Mythologie. Vienna and Mödling: St. Gabriel-Verlag.
Endicott, Kirk. “Semang.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. 13 Aug. 2016<http://www.encyclopedia.com>.