On 6 April 1899 Charles Seligman wrote a letter to Robert Etheridge, the Curator of the Australian Museum. It was posted from Sarawak in Borneo where Seligman was conducting his fieldwork with Alfred Haddon and other members of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait, British Papua and Borneo.

'I am sending you a few things from this district. Nearly everything is of Kenyah manufacture'. He explained that they were one of ‘the two most powerful tribes of the district’. Then he promised to send a blowpipe and described how the blood-stained darts were carried in the quiver.

By July the same year all artefacts, nearly 30 in total, were registered and included in the Museum Collection. This small selection of artefacts reflects, perhaps in a somewhat superficial way, various aspects of Kenyah culture. But it is the first sample of artefacts from the indigenous people of Borneo in the Australian Museum.

It also shows how the Anthropology Collection has been gathering evidence of great cultural richness of Oceania, as well as numerous, and sometime surprising, similarities. Those similarities point to human links across land and sea, brought by trade – propagation of domestic plants, animals, technology, beliefs and ideas. And sometimes they point to a common ancestry.

Jacket made of tree bark. Kenyah people, Borneo.
Jacket made of tree bark. Kenyah people, Borneo. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

Among the Kenyah artefacts is a jacket made of tree bark. Bark cloth in Oceania was common and evolved into outstanding quality on technical and artistic levels. It was, however, largely replaced or marginalised in western Oceania, when highly refined textile weaving was developed, possibly via Chinese and Indian influence. In spite of different decoration styles, a smoking pipe from Borneo would not be out of place among various Papuan cultures and where their influence had reached, including islands of Torres Strait and north Queensland in Australia. An ingenious string instrument, called a banjo by Seligman, has its equivalent of strikingly similar construction in India.