The general term used for any of the indigenous groups that are found in Peninsular Malaysia is ‘Orang Asli’ which literally translates as the ‘original people’. They are divided into three main tribal groups: Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. The Negrito usually live in the north, the Senoi in the middle and the Proto-Malay in the south. Each group or sub-group has its own language and culture. Some are fishermen, some farmers and some are semi-nomadic.
The largest ethnic group of Sabah, the Kadazan Dusuns form about 30% of the state’s population. Actually consisting of two tribes; the Kadazan and the Dusun, they were grouped together as they both share the same language and culture. However, the Kadazan are mainly inhabitants of flat valley deltas, which are conducive to paddy field farming, while the Dusun traditionally lived in the hilly and mountainous regions of interior Sabah.
The second largest ethnic group in Sabah, the Bajaus make up about 15% of the state’s population. Historically a nomadic sea-faring people that worshipped the Omboh Dilaut or God of the Sea, they are sometimes referred to as the Sea Gypsies. Those who chose to leave their sea-faring ways became farmers and cattle-breeders. These land Bajaus are nicknamed ‘Cowboys of the East’ in tribute to their impressive equestrian skills, which are publicly displayed in the annual Tamu Besar festival at Kota Belud.
The third largest ethnic group in Sabah the Muruts make up about 3% of the state’s population. Traditionally inhabiting the northern inland regions of Borneo, they were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce headhunting. Now, they are mostly shifting cultivators of hill paddy and tapioca, supplementing their diet with blowpipe hunting and fishing. Like most indigenous tribes in Sabah, their traditional clothing is decorated with distinctive beadwork.
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