Classifying Combs – And the People Who Wore Them

9 minute read

A patterned bamboo hair comb from Malaysia, one of several combs in the collections at MAA, challenges us to reflect on how we describe and categorise objects, and indeed the way museums label and classify the people who made them.

A bamboo comb with an incised pattern.

Figure 1. Woman’s bamboo comb, with an incised ‘Cucumber seed’ pattern. Collected by W. W. Skeat in Siong, Kedah, Malaysia, 1896-7. MAA Z 14705.

This comb, with its ten slightly uneven teeth, two little horns and a curved body incised with a pattern of diamonds and bars, was made in the 19th century by people now known as the Orang Asli (‘first people’ or ‘native people’) of the Malay peninsula. The official term ‘Orang Asli’ was adopted by the Malaysian government in the 1960s to encompass many disparate groups of indigenous people. During British colonial rule, several attempts had been made to classify people using the names they gave themselves, but over time, terms for indigenous people such as ‘Sakai’ and ‘Jakun’ acquired pejorative connotations. ‘Orang Asli’ is now accepted as a neutral term, but individual indigenous communities continue to identify themselves as distinct named groups.  

Orang Asli groups form a tiny minority, less than one percent of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic population. The term embraces various distinct, indigenous communities speaking different languages and with various ways of life; some live as nomads or semi-nomads in forests or mountains, while others have relocated to urban areas or government-sponsored re-settlement villages. Today, tourists might buy a comb similar to the one above as a souvenir from Taman Negara, the national park in Pahang, Malaysia where a group of ‘Orang Asli’ people who call themselves ‘Batek’ still live on customary land.  

Combs as Evidence of a Culture 

Visitors to Malaysia have written about, collected from, and photographed Orang Asli people since colonial times, and MAA cares for hundreds of photographs and objects from Orang Asli groups. The comb above was collected in the 1890s by Walter William Skeat (1866-1953). Skeat was a Cambridge-born colonial official who carried out several ethnological expeditions to the mountains and forests of Malaya, publishing his major book on the subject (with his friend C.O. Blagden), Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula in 1906. The title of the book reflects the views of the time, and the book itself contrasts customary beliefs of indigenous people with the dominant religions of Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity.  

A challenge for museum curators today is to ensure that our catalogues use terms for cultural affiliation which are respectful and acceptable to people today. At the same time, it is also important to accurately record words and phrases used in the past, which can give us precious clues about the provenance of objects and images in our care. The original catalogue card for the comb above indicates that Skeat himself sought to classify both the people who made it and their designs. He records the comb’s source as ‘Semang (Pangan)’ people living at Siong, Kedah. 

Before the term ‘Orang Asli’ became common, the indigenous people of Malaysia were often divided into three groups: Semang, Senoi, and Proto-Malay. The word ‘Semang’ derives from an indigenous term meaning ‘human being’ (Endicott 2016; Manickam 2015). Historically, Semang people, mostly living in the northern part of the Malay peninsula, were sometimes described as ‘Negrito’, an inaccurate, racialized categorisation based on physical characteristics including darker skin tone and tightly curled hair. According to Skeat and Blagden (1906: 21), Semang living on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula were locally known as ‘Pangan’, with the possible meaning of ‘friendly people’. 

In the catalogue card, Skeat clearly attempts to use local terms such as ‘Semang’ and ‘Pangan’ to refer to the people he met and described. But he also uses examples of material culture as markers of ethnic (or subethnic) cultural boundaries. For instance, he describes practices around personal adornment which distinguish Semang people from the ‘Sakai’, noting that while Sakai people often tattooed their faces and bodies, the Semang and Pangan rarely did so. Instead, they were notable for wearing bamboo hair-combs (Skeat and Blagden 1906: 53), like those he collected for MAA. 

For Skeat, the hair-comb itself is material evidence of a distinctive ‘Semang’ culture (encompassing the Pangan people in the east). He goes on to show that the patterns used to decorate hair-combs like this relate to a particular set of cultural beliefs about illness and the natural world that mark the Semang out as an ethnic group. 

He describes the pattern on the comb very precisely as ‘cucumber-seed’, believed to protect women against venomous reptile and insects (Skeat and Blagden, 1906: 419). In so doing, he refers to a thorough and systematic study of bamboo combs carried out by Hrolf Vaughan Stevens (1835-1897). Stevens was an early scholar of Orang Asli people and a key proponent of the ‘Pan-Negrito theory’ which, as described above, suggested that the Semang people of Malaysia were related to African pygmies. Skeat was excited by Vaughan Stevens’s report that Semang women wore decorated combs as magical charms against disease, and that the bamboo designs represented specific jungle flowers used for medicine.

Drawing of a comb and a flower, the jungle geranium.

Figure 2. Sketches of a comb and a design made by Orang Asli people and representing a Ixora (jungle geranium) flower. Published in Skeat and Blagden (1806). MAA LS.124092.TC1.

Combs as Items of Personal Adornment

Ten combs are neatly arranged in rows of three. Three of the combs are decorated with tufts of herbs.

Figure 4. Documentary photograph of ten combs worn by Orang Asli (historically ‘Negrito’) people and in the care of the Perak Museum, Taiping, Malaysia. Perak Museum, 1935. MAA N.12522.EVN.

This photograph was used by the British anthropologist Ivor H. N. Evans (1886-1957) to illustrate his ethnographic monograph, The Negritos of Malaya (1937) which drew on over 20 years of visiting Orang Asli communities around the Malay peninsula. Evans worked at the Perak Museum as an ethnologist and curator for the colonial Federated Malay States Museums, and much of his time was spent on collecting expeditions and archaeological digs. The two combs (for which Evans gives their Orang Asli name, kinaid or kinait) in the bottom right of this photograph come from Jeransang, Pahang, where Evans reported purchasing them on a collecting expedition for the Perak Museum in May 1925 (Evans 1927: 21). 

Evans completely disagreed with the ‘flower theory’ of bamboo combs proposed by Stevens and advanced by Skeat. He argued that both men had misinterpreted the words that they were given and made other mistaken assertions about Orang Asli beliefs and practices based on a simple lack of knowledge. He quotes a man named Tokeh, whom Evans knew well, and who denied that combs had any magical or medicinal use. Instead of their assumed properties, Evans focused on concrete facts about the combs as items of personal adornment, and on the different patterns and shapes used by different makers. 

A young woman is standing with her back to the camera. She is wearing a black skirt with supplementary cloth covering. She has a bamboo comb in her hair and is carrying a bag over her shoulders.

Figure 5. Full-length portrait of a young Kintaq Orang Asli (historically Negrito) woman, standing with her back to the camera, and wearing a black fungus rhizomorph skirt with supplementary cloth covering. She has a bamboo comb in her hair and is carrying a bag over her shoulders. Kupang, Kedah, Malaysia. I.H.N Evans, 1935. MAA N.166993.EVN.

Like Stevens and Skeat, Evans described and categorised designs of combs that he observed. But he preferred to classify them (and by extension, the people to whom they were associated) according to the geographical location where he encountered them. This is somewhat problematic for nomadic people who tend not to identify themselves with specific places, but goes some way to address the problem of clustering separate groups of people under a single ethnic group name.  

In his Papers on the Ethnology and Archaeology of the Malay Peninsula (1927), Evans underlines the cultural differences between groups of people typically described by anthropologists as ‘Negrito’. In his characteristic, somewhat opinionated style, he writes,  

‘[combs] appear not to be used at all by the Negritos of Chong, Trang, S. Peninsular Siam [I.e., Thailand], while, though in use among the Bateg of Pahang, the specimens made by them are both rudely manufactured and rudely decorated… I think one may say that the Negritos of Perak carry off the palm for the beauty of their combs, both with regard to workmanship and decoration, but those of parts of Kedah are not far behind…’ (Evans 1937: 77) 

Evidently, Evans is more interested in describing the processes that individual craftsmen used to manufacture the combs and their designs, rather than attaching any magical meanings to them. He also notes that each comb represented a relationship between an individual man and a woman, since men typically carved the combs for women to wear, before the women added bunches of herbs for fragrance.  

Evans made repeated visits to Orang Asli communities between 1912 and 1935 and was apparently warmly welcomed by the people he visited. One of these men was Pandak, of whom he wrote in 1937:  

‘…I sent word to Pandak and Suli (two of the Lanoh Negritos [i.e., Semang or Lano] of Lenggong in Upper Perak whom I have known for many years) that a European was coming to see them and that they should treat him as they did me. The answer came back, however, that they did not wish to see anybody but Tuan [i.e., ‘Mr]’ Evans – flattering to me, but not so pleasing for the European visitor’ (Evans 1937: 38).  

The relaxed relationship which Evans apparently shared with the Orang Asli people seems evident in this photograph of a woman identified as ‘Pandak’s sister’, from the same Lano group who were living in Lenggong. Wearing a bamboo comb in her hair, she is grating a forest fruit and smoking a cigarette. 

A woman wearing a sarong is squatting on the ground grating a fruit known as Perak. She has a cigarette in her mouth and her hair is pulled back with a comb. Behind her sit four young girls dressed for dance.

Figure 6. Portrait of an Orang Asli woman wearing a sarong, with a cigarette in her mouth, and her hair pulled back with a comb. She is squatting on the ground, grating what Evans’ noted as Perak fruit. Behind her sit four young girls dressed for dance. Lenggong, Perak, Malaysia. I.H.N. Evans, 1935. MAA N.11965.EVN.

Concluding Remarks 

Evans certainly saw his own work as continuing the research of Skeat and Blagden on the Orang Asli and he describes his 1937 book as ‘an attempt to bring [their work on Semang culture] up to date’. He engages with their discussion of the symbolism of bamboo combs, but largely rejects it. Instead, his priority was to record details of a marginalised culture which seemed on the verge of extinction. In the early 20th century, Orang Asli populations were shrinking rapidly because of disease and poverty, as well as the loss of land to commercial farming under British colonial rule. In fact, Evans has used his own position as a colonial official in British Malaya to support the opening of the George V National Park (later renamed Taman Negara) in 1938 as a protected area of rainforest. 

For Evans, the combs were interesting because of the skills and knowledge of the people who made them using tools and resources from their forest environment. He was interested in the relationships between the men who made the combs and the women who received them as gifts, and he recalled particular relationships such as that of Pandak, his friend and Pandak’s sister, whom he photographed. Although some of the language he uses appears dated and even offensive (for example, his description of combs as ‘rudely decorated’), in many ways his work represents a more humane and compassionate face of British colonial anthropology.

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