the savage civilisation

Known as the “barefoot anthropologist”, Tom Harrisson was a polymath whose knowledge of ecology, ethnography and archaeology of Borneo lives on today. While he was not above controversy, his contributions to understanding the effects of positionality of the observer on the communities they observed were before its time. Exploring but never quite de-stabilizing the civilized/savage dichotomy, this 9-part BBC documentary is a departing point to introduce the ambivalent character of Harrisson, betwixt ‘civilization’ and ‘savagery’.
This page is managed by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa.

The nine episodes, narrated by Hugh Gibb, an English filmmaker, and Tom Harrison, then based in the Sarawak Museum, reflected Harrisson’s multi-disciplinary approach to Borneo, the place which he dedicated much of his professional efforts to. They ranged from prehistory to anthropology and natural history to ethnology.

01 Borneo from the Beginning

Archaeologists dig for signs of prehistoric man in the caves at Niah. The archaeological process is described by Gibb and Harrisson as human remains, shells, pottery, beads, tools, and burial tombs are evaluated.

02 Birds Nest Soup

Gibb and Harrisson document the collection, sale, processing, cooking, and consumption of edible birdsnests from the great cave of Niah.

03 Cavemen of Today

As they attempt to trace the ancient past of particular tribes along the Niah River, the investigation leads them to discovering cave paintings, burial grounds and six dances and games of Niah death rites.  Filmed and narrated by Barbara and Tom Harrisson.

04 Peoples of the Tinjar River

Examples of the arts and crafts of the Kenyah and Barawan peoples, including music and instrument making, painting, wood carving, beadwork, and body tatooing, are presented along with other daily life activities.

05 The Dyaks

Gibb and Harrison document the religious practices, agriculture, cooking methods, textiles, headhunting and the overall culture and lifestyle of the Iban Sea Dayaks living on the Skrang River.

06 The Rainforest

Picking up on the previous episode on the Dyaks, this episode looks a little more into their everyday lives. Insects, marine and plant life, and animals, including the endangered rhinoceros and orangutan, are also shown closeup.

07 Fisherman of the Coast

With special emphasis on the activities of women and children, Gibb and Harrison document a variety of fishing methods used by a fishing village on the Sarawak River Delta.

08 Highlanders of the Equator

The way of life of the Kelabit highlanders of Borneo is described. Daily activities include stone carving, beadcraft, breadcraft, basketry, carpentry, irrigated agriculture, trapping, fishing, cooking, and salt production.

09 The Swamp

Probably one of the earliest films about Mangrove habitats, this episode focuses on the mangrove tree swamps in the river deltas around Borneo. Along with Kelongs, the birds and animals that live in the swamp are shown in closeup.


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