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Sea Tribes of Indonesia

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Sea Gypsies Indonesian culture
Bajau kids. photo credit : NG Choo Kia

# Who are the sea gypsies?

Many countries have traveling people, nomadic tribes who move around with the seasons and live in their vehicles on the road gathering together as clans at various times of the year. In southeast Asia, with its myriad of islands, sea gypsies have a similar lifestyle albeit on the ocean. The most famous are probably the Moken of Southern Thailand, though, as we will see, Indonesia in fact has more tribes of ' Orang laut ' ( literally: sea people). They are also found in Malaysia, the Philippines and Burma. These tribes described themselves as " being born, living and dying on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea”. They usually only spend a few months on land during the wettest part of the monsoon. Children learn to swim before they can walk and have exceptional aquatic abilities. In fact, certain tribes have even physically evolved to be even more efficient in the water.

# 'Sea People' of Indonesia

Indonesia has large populations of two of the three 'sea gypsy' tribes of Southeast Asia. These tribes are the Orang Laut (literally 'Sea People') and the Sama Bajau people. In Thailand and Burma, the Moken people rule the seas.

Map By Obsidian Soul (on Wikipedia)

As can be seen from the map the Orang laut and Sama Bajau people are distributed across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Sultana of Brunei. In Indonesia, the Sama Bajau population numbers 345 000 people. Though the data may be incomplete, the population of the main Orang laut tribe, the Desin Dolak (or orang kuala), would seemingly reach around 17500 people. Each large tribe is broken down into a multitude of smaller sub-tribes.

sea people Indonesian culture
Traditional houseboat ( Bajau Tribe)

# Everyday life

Though their traditional lifestyle is very much under threat, some tribe members still stick to the 'old way of life'. Traditionally, one family unit (usually 5 people) used to live on one houseboat. The houseboats would travel together as a 'clan flotilla' with the boats of other family members and they would all collaborate for fishing or for the organization of religious ceremonies. The chosen clan the nuclear family travels with can be that of the husband or the wife.

At certain times of the year, their flotilla would meet up with others (who may also be related to them) at common mooring points, often near freshwater points and island cemeteries. This was often for special ceremonies and weddings. Sea gypsies often do not sail very far; for instance, the Sama bajau tribe rarely travels further than 40 km from their home mooring. However, being stateless they used to sail across national borders across the region, though this is being more and more regulated. Nowadays though most sea gypsy tribes are found living on houses on stilts near their home moorings, or where they are allowed to settle.

They are highly skilled fishermen and their deep knowledge of the sea means they are able to catch enough to feed themselves and a little more to trade for rice and to sell. They are often hired to help with fishing, setting nets and other sea-related activities.

Indonesian culture sea people ocean
Bajau lady dancing on traditional boat, photo credit shutterstock

# Incredible physical adaptations.

Sea gypsies learn to swim before they learn to walk and spend an enormous time free diving and evolving in water. Thanks to this, their bodies have evolved making them even more efficient divers. Scientists have studied the incredible physical adaptations that have improved the sea gypsies' abilities underwater.

Eyes that see better underwater

In a famous study lead by two specialists of the sea tribe people, it was shown that Moken children could see twice as well underwater as European children. The reason for this, as well as the adaptation allowing lesser reddening, irritation and reaction to seawater, was that the Moken children's pupils constricted maximally underwater, allowing them to see much better and focus on small shells and other foodstuffs they usually forage for. It was shown that with practice other humans can also achieve this and that this ability eventually disappears if not used regularly. However, sea gypsies develop this naturally by having a constant need for it. Interestingly, this ability is less common in adults since the 'hardening' of the eye after puberty makes such extreme pupil contractions more difficult.

Humans with scales

In unpublished notes, one of the people who has most studied sea gypsies (and co author of the study mentioned in the previous paragraph) observed that these water people's skin apparently responded to sustained exposure to seawater by developing a white, scale-like layer, with an appearance somewhat resembling that of the hereditary dermatological disease ichthyosis. This was only seen in the Suku Laut in Riau in western Indonesia, and among Bajau in Sulawesi in the East, but not in the Moken at Ko Surin. The skin would go back to normal after several months of washing with fresh water when staying on dry land.

Larger Spleens due to natural selection.

A 2018 study showed that Bajau people's spleens are about 50 percent larger than those of a neighboring land-based group, the Saluan, letting them store more haemoglobin-rich blood, which is expelled into the bloodstream when the spleen contracts at depth, allowing breath-holding dives of longer duration. After over one thousand years of free diving, scientists' hypothesis is that this has evolved due to natural selection. Indeed, this larger spleen as well as a heightened peripheral vasoconstriction response are related to certain genes and the Bajau people seem to have 'naturally' selected a number of genes that are related to better breath-hold diving and hypoxia response.

And also this

These sea tribes have the longest daily apnea time reported in humans, sometimes 5 hours per day (!), and in certain tribes like the Sama Bajau, some individuals pierce their eardrums from an early age to not have to bother with equalizing, making them hard of hearing in their golden years!

Sumbawa Bajau people sea gypsies Indonesian culture
Bungin island in Sumbawa. Most Bajau people live in villages on stilts these days.

# A dying lifestyle.

The traditional lifestyles of these mostly stateless people does not fare well with modernization. The South-East Asian sea tribes are getting more and more sedentary; and with modernization and sedentarisation has come poverty. Destructive – and dangerous for the users- fishing practices have come with poverty as well as chopping down mangroves. Environmental and social NGOs in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have started bringing their support to help these nomadic people adapt more sustainably to modern lifestyles and get access to education and health services. Certain countries have adopted heavily criticised inland/dryland sedentarisation programs, whilst others, like Indonesia, have endeavoured to give the sea gypsies a special status whilst still helping with better insertion into modern society. These proud seafarers need all the help they can get from governments and other groups to protect their incredible culture and traditions and to continue to survive, or rather, exist, with dignity in today's world.

P.S :To get a feel for what the life of a Bajau kid is like, watch the film 'The mirror never lies' ('Lautan Bercermin' literally: the ocean reflects)


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