This indigenous tribe rarely live on land, and go spear fishing without scuba gear.

How would you define a society? Any group of people that live together as a community with organized institutions. If that’s your thought, you aren’t far from right. A society might also have a well defined territory of it’s inhabitants, a common language, and some medium of economic exchange. With all that said, there’s an exceptional indigenous tribe of people who have long lived on the waters of Southeast Asia. Dear friends, meet the Bajau people — a sea-dwelling society with bodies like no other humans.

Related media: Indonesia. Bajau (Sea Gypsies Tribe)

Once Upon A People

The Bajau people are a sea-dwelling community who mainly live on the ocean of Southeast Asia — across the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia — living on long houseboats known as lepas; without even a homeland that they would call their own. They have no sense of time and age — no clocks, no calendars, no birthdays, no nationality, no currency.

They are often known as “sea gypsies,” since their lives are mainly at sea, and they’ve even evolved for life on the sea, with internal organs and body capabilities unlike our own. The precise origin of the Bajau people remain unknown, but we do know enough evidence to trace their history. They are an ethnic group probably of Malay origin who have dwell almost exclusively on the ocean for centuries.

There might be other sea nomads who have existed in history, the Bajau people remains the last seafaring community still in existence today. They are a migratory community who drift from place to place and remain unattached in any official sense to any of the neighboring countries. The story of the Bajau people is in their own oral folklore traditions, which is passed down from generations.

Legend has it that, there once lived a man whose actual name was “Bajau.” He was a very huge man who led his people fishing, and due to his extreme body mass, it would displace the river with an overflow, making it easy for them to fish. But unfortunately, the neighboring tribes got jealous of him and sought to kill him with poisoned spears. However, Bajau survived, and so did his people till today. 

According to rough estimates, they number about one million people. See for yourself how they live in the gallery below:

Masters On Sea, Expert At Diving

You might be wondering: How on Earth in the depths of the ocean can a Bajau person survive diving without a scuba gear? Simple answer: as deep as you can’t. They live on the ocean mainly for fishing, and only come ashore to trade or to seek shelter during a storm — usually small dwellings built on stilts over the sea. They are exposed to the ocean so early in life, and children as young as eight years old learn how to swim and fish hunting.

As a result, most of the Bajau are expert free-divers. They are able to dive down to depths more than 70 meters (230 feet), stay 19 meters (60 feet) submerged underwater for several minutes, and usually spend roughly five hours a day underwater. As a matter of fact, they’ve evolved to live on and underwater in ways that make them scientifically distinct from other human beings.

A 2018 study published in the Journal Cell found that the Bajau people have spleens 50 percent larger than the average human. A spleen serves as a reservoir of oxygenated red blood cells which are released into the bloodstream in the case of shortage of oxygen. A larger spleen means a larger reservoir of red blood cells and thus more oxygen and a greater ability to stay underwater. 

Divers will spend hours underwater fishing during which they capture between two and … (18 pounds) of fish each day, only wearing a pair of wooden googles — no scuba gear. Because they spend so much of their time diving, many of the Bajau people wind up with ruptured eardrums thanks to the pressure underwater — and some will purposefully perforate their eardrums to make diving easier.

A Heritage Under Siege

Image: Wikimedia Commons | A Bajau man poses with his daughter. 2015.

Today, more and more Bajau people tend to live on land — with some groups now permanently land dwellers. For several reasons, its possible that the current generation could be the last able to sustain themselves off the water. One of them being the global fish trade disrupting their fishing traditions and ecosystems. Commercial methods of fishing like the use of cyanide and dynamite are compelling the Bajau people to abandon their fishing culture.

They’ve also switched to using heavier wood in making their boats because the lighter wood their used to is of a tree species that’s now extinct. Their new boats require engines, which needs fuel, making their economic livelihood unbearable, and that’s making them seek refuge on land. But that’s not all: the stigma associated with being nomadic has also forced many to give up their lifestyle. 

It seems adapting to urban culture has given them access to things they wouldn’t have received by living as nomads. However, losing their heritage as sea dwellers is what’s of concern; to them fishing isn’t just a trade and the ocean isn’t just a resource, its more to them than just a culture.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Tue, Aug 06, 2019.


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