Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC

Jungles

Tropical rainforests may offer us all the water and shelter that we need, and they may be home to more species of animal than any other environment on the planet, but surviving here is still difficult. Understanding how to make the most of the opportunities presented can take generations to learn. Just ask the Penan of Sarawak or the Matis of Brazil.


Photo from Human Planet
A Bayaka tribesman climbs a tree in the Central African Republic to reach the most sought after of jungle foods – honey.

Introduction

Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC Jungles

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About Jungles

Tropical rainforests may cover only two per cent of the planet’s surface but they’re home to half of all its species, including humans.

Nevertheless, surviving in this hostile environment demands both skill and an intimate understanding of the jungle ecology.

The main impediments to survival in the jungle is not a lack of edible species, but the fact that most of the things you might want to eat live high in the canopy, 30 metres or so above a hungry human’s mouth. As a result, securing enough meat for dinner can be a constant struggle and rainforest-dwellers must develop an extensive knowledge of the plants and animal around them.

In Brazil, the Matis tribe use blowpipes to shoot their prey with poison darts. They make the darts poisonous by mixing the deadly sap of the curare vine with assorted parts of other plants, creating a missile with extraordinary killing power. And unlike shot guns, blowpipes are almost silent so a single party of hunters can bring down a whole troop of monkeys, one by one, without them even noticing. The Penan of Sarawak also use blowpipes in the jungle, but they don’t just limit their aim to the canopy. The Penan will often bag ground-based animals such as bearded pigs too. But with silence a must, and hunters often spread out over a wide area and separated by dense undergrowth, how on earth do they communicate? The answer is with sign posts.

The Penan have a complex sign-language in which, at its most simple, a bent twig stuck in the trail may mean 'we went this way'. At the other end of the scale might be a complex arrangement of twigs, sticks and folded leaves that communicate a need for haste, the direction to follow, the distance to travel, the state of local hunting, and the mood of the person leaving the message. But not everything the rainforest has to offer needs to be hunted. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the people living in the rainforest have learned to turn the inedible stem of the sago palm into sago flour, a staple food and important source of carbohydrates. Men, women and children all play their part in processing and pounding the stem, turning food preparation into an import communal activity.

While a few groups across the tropics are still nomadic, others are moving towards an increasingly settled existence, partly because of increased pressure on their lands. Since the 1980s various Penan groups, both settled and nomadic, have campaigned against the logging that has devastated their habitat.

In just 50 years, half the planet’s tropical forest has been cleared with as many as 100 species becoming extinct every day, often before they have even been discovered by science. Unless something is done to stop it, much of tribal knowledge and customs will inevitably go the same way.

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