A few weeks ago Jim and I went for a walk in the Kendeng highlands of Java. Jim was getting a volcano and jungle fix before heading back to Canada and canoeing while I was getting material for yet another of my stories on the bushcraft of the hill tribes of Asia.
The Kaneke are a reclusive pre-Islamic group that some anthropologists believe are descendants of a Hindu-animist priesthood from the time when Hindu kingdoms spread across South East Asia (Angkor etc.) Locally they have a reputation as sorcerers and magicians that has helped keep the outer world away.
Whatever their origin they are known now for their rejection of the modern world. They refuse to leave the forests for towns, reject schooling and modern medicine.
To the majority and most Western expats this is a foolish thing but I think they are wise. Most tribes that move to towns find themselves in slums soon to be an underclass of day labourers or farm workers, the women domestic servants, factory workers or prostitutes. A school curriculum designed by a dominant culture is almost always ethnocide. Their culture and animist religion will be ridiculed by teachers from the dominant culture. In this context that means they will have to conform to Muslim norms and Indonesian culture. Modern medicine as administered in the developing world falls short of its promise and you can be sure that tribes people are not going to be the ones who get kidney transplants to replace their diabetes riddled ones once they switch to a "modern diet" of cheap carbohydrate.
Instead they are staying put and looking after their forest refugia, an ark of plants and trees which they have been stewards of for at least 500 years. Entry to this refugia is forbidden to outsiders and only very limited access is given to their domain.
What really interested me was their use of plants in making living structures. Like fire pistons, living bridge construction is a technology found in the past among the hill tribes of Asia from the Eastern Himalayas to the Island archipelagos. Like the fire piston most peoples have lost the art.
Here is a living bridge. The red shirt is me. The bridge is about twenty-five to thirty meters across.
A Kaneke youth. His backpack is a home made Ďcottoní sack.
Nice whitewater below. It made Jim wish he had a canoe.
Jim from the living bridge
In a tropical environment this is better than steel.
Building a bridge like this takes decades and can only be done by people who have a strong sense of continuity and cooperation. Itís truly a case of building the future since you may never walk the bridge but your children and childrenís children will.
They live in villages on hill slopes or hill tops and construct stone walls and streets with river stones. No cement is used. Each stone is placed individually. The labour necessary to bring these stones up from the rivers points to a highly organized and cooperative culture unlike the majority Sundanese living in the lowlands whose villages have slick muddy lanes. They have as good access to such stones but hardly use them apart form chucking a few into muddy potholes in an attempt to even out the road.
This keeps everyone fit and their simple living means that they are remarkably healthy looking with clear eyes and skin. No fat people except me.
They are short as the picture of a door way shows.
They have interesting blades. Jim bought this one.
The bands on the sheath are buffalo horn. The handle is some kind of ebony. The wood is black but light weight. Very fine grain.
The village forged blade is Damascus.
They do not have electricity though the government has offered it. Itís strange to be in a place where it is quiet in the evening and almost completely black.
While the trees are growing into living bridges they use bamboo bridges.
If the tree bridges uses suspension bridge technology, the bamboo ones use arch technology.
There are no pillars in the river, the weight is taken by the arch. There are no nails or screws in the bridges just fibre lashings made from the Arenga palm.
This type of cordage is rough but very durable. It is said that the cordage can last for a hundred years, but probably not when taking such a load.
In any case bamboo will not last that long and the villages turn out about 4 times a year to rebuild the bamboo bridges. They dismantle and rebuild with new bamboo in one day. Amazing organisation and cooperation.
Apart from being stewards of the forest they have some interesting beliefs, most of which can be attributed to a culture attuned to its environment. I havenít worked out their belief system yet so I am guessing but it is clear that Bhumi (Sanskrit for Earth) is important. They do not wear sandals so their feet are on the ground. They do not use or ride in any form of transport; they walk. If they visit cities they walk all the way. No iron implement is used to till the soil (erosion?). They do not grow the more productive wet rice but plant hill rice (to avoid terraced fields and erosion; to intercrop with forest cover?) No nails are used in their buildings only lashing , dove tailed joints or similar friction fits.
They hunt deer, squirrels, mouse deer with nets which again requires a lot of cooperation and small prey are euthanized by suffocation. Spears are very seldom used and only for dangerous game.
Fire wise it is percussion fire-lighting.
I need to return a few times to get a better understanding of these people.