They have many similarities to the Negroid stocks of Africa and the western Pacific Islands and are, therefore, referred to as Negritoes.
The Semangs are still in the Mesolithic Age (Middle Stone Age). They neither cultivate crops nor domesticate animals. In fact, they are almost exclusively dependent on the forests.
In search of food, the Semangs migrate continually and rarely stay more than three or four days at one place. The individual groups of Semangs are small; a band of twenty or thirty persons including children is a large one.
Each group of Semangs consists of parents and grown children with their families. Each group has its small traditional territory of about 55 sq. kms (20 sq. miles), over which its claim to the especially valuable fruits of certain trees is recognized among its neighbours.
For hunting and collecting of roots it is free to wander over the lands of neighboring groups, but it always returns to gather the heavy green prickly fruits of the tall durian trees in its own territory.
Since the group must gather its daily food as it travels, movement is slow and it does not cover a wide extent of territory: 8 to 10 kms (5 to 6 miles) would be a fair day’s travel.
The group alone is fairly defined and independent unit. In choosing a camp site, it generally follows the oldest man, and beyond the recognition of his wisdom, there is no authority and no system of leadership. Tools and ornaments belong to their individual owners.
Food indeed is often shared within the group, but not with other groups. When a man mates at about eighteen years, he usually selects a woman from a neighboring group, and often goes to live with his wife’s people for about a year or two, but later returns to bring up his family with his parents.
The sustenance of Semangs is mainly on vegetable food, hunting and fishing only when in need or as opportunity arises. They gather a wide range of berries, nuts, pith, leaves, shoots and especially roots and tubers, of which yams are most important.
The roots and tubers are dug from a depth of two to three feet with long sticks whose points have been hardened in the fire.
This is mainly women’s work, but men may also help. Little can be stored or preserved, so that the party must forage daily. The main meal of the day is usually made in the evening, but they eat also in the early morning, and have frequent eating’s in between. Yam is the staple food.
Some fruits are poisonous which are ingeniously removed in various ways. Some fruits are dried over fire; others are pounded to pulp, mixed with ashes or lime and steamed.
Food that is not eaten raw is usually boiled in tubes cut from green bamboo, which withstands the flames long enough to cook the food.
Hunting among the Semangs is sporadic and confined to relatively small game. Like the Pygmies of Congo basin, the large carnivores, such as tiger, panther, leopard and elephant, are dreaded and avoided. Likewise, rats, squirrels, birds, lizards, and occasionally monkeys and wild pigs are the usual games. The bow and heavy hardwood stake with fire-hardened point is their only weapon.
The arrow-tip is poisoned with Ipoh, a vegetarian poison obtained from the gum of up as tree. These poison trees, which grow sparsely except at higher altitudes, are owned by individuals.
Until recently, the Semangs had no dogs, and those now passed are of very little use in the chase. Game is also snared in simple noose and spring traps, and birds are lined with the sticky sap of wild fig trees smeared on splinters of bamboo, which adhere to their feet. Hunting is done by males. Females, however, may join in fishing when a group comes down to a larger river.
Apart from bow-arrow and hardened bamboo sticks, fire is also an important tool in the society and economy of Semangs. Fire is obtained by rubbing together two pieces of dried cane or by running a piece of rattan to and fro round a strip of cane.
The slowness of this method is increased by the humidity of the climate, so that fire is maintained continuously if possible and generally carried from place to place with torches of bamboo or of dried ‘ropes’ of dammar-resin which is collected in the higher ranges and wrapped in dried leaves bound with rattan.
So far as the clothing is concerned; their clothes are made from the vegetation of the surrounding forest. Both men and women wear girdles and necklaces of leaves of rock vein creeper.
These are regarded as charms, and not as clothing. A loin-cloth is made of bark-cloth strips. One of the most characteristic features of the women’s dress is the wooden comb with long teeth, which is cut from a segment of bamboo.
The life of Semangs rotates round bamboo. The toughness and pliancy of the bamboo wood, the sharpness of its cut edges and its tubular nodded form adapt it for many uses, from cooking vessels, and arrow quivers to matting and knives. A fire-hardened blade of bamboo will cut ordinary bamboo itself and keep its edge for a considerable time.
Pliant rattan canes and woods for digging sticks, bows and spears almost complete their tool materials. Animal bones are scrapped down to make awls, but stone tools, although used are much undeveloped. The splitting and scrapping of wood is generally done with rough, shapeless stones picked up at need and thrown away again.
The Sakai is an important ethnic group of the aboriginal people of Malaysia who are living in the areas of isolation and relative isolation in the central parts of the country.
Sakais are found to the south of the Semang and usually at lower levels in the densely forested valleys and plains. In some districts they have interbred extensively with Malays or Negritoes, but where mainly pure in race the Sakais contrast strongly with the Negritoes in appearance.
They are a bit taller and slender build and their skin colour is often quite light; their heads are long and narrow, and their hair, though black, is long and only slightly wavy. Their lifestyle is very similar to that of the Semangs. They construct rectangular huts walled with bark strips or palm fronds. The huts are being built about two feet above the ground and they return to them regularly.
In their hunting the Sakais exhibit another great contrast. They use the ‘blowpipe’ and not the bow. The blowpipe is a tube some 2.5 to 3.7 metres (8 to 12 feet) long and made of a particular and rather rare bamboo. The internodes of this bamboo are often as much as 2 metres (6 feet) long.
The point used inside the blowpipe is smeared with Ipoh poison, like the Semang arrow. This weapon (blowpipe) is fairly accurate up to about 23 to 30 metres (75 to 100 feet) is, however, inferior to the bow both in range and force.
The blowpipe is widely used in South-East Asia. It is used by the Negrito-Toala in Celebes, but Sakai blowpipes or blowguns are among the finest.
In the opinion of some of the anthropologists, the Sakais are allied to the Australian aboriginals and other Austroloid peoples found in South-East Asia. These include the Vedas of Sri Lanka and the Kubus of Sumatra.
So far as the food supply is concerned, the Sakais depend on vegetable food. They gather wide range of berries, nuts, pith, leaves, shoots and tubers. They occasionally go for hunting and fishing. They construct their huts on trees
Both Semangs and Sakais, where they live in much closer relation with the settled cultivators, practice ‘silent trade’. The silent trade is a process of exchange of goods with goods in which none of the barter parties converse and negotiate with each other.
They place the commodity to be exchanged at a selected place and disappear. Then, the second party (purchaser) places his commodity worth and leaves the place. This process goes on till both the parties are satisfied, and exchange their goods.
The hot and humid climate, and undulating topography covered with luxurious tropical forests, have significantly influenced the lifestyle and level of development of the Semang and Sakai people of the Malaysian peninsula.