First made in the Sarawak native tribe, a traditional blowpipe is also known as the sumpit. They were originally used as hunting tools and weapons of warfare. Even though they still make an effective hunting tool, the more common modern uses are as props in traditional dances or for decorative purposes.
Making a traditional blowpipe can be a painstaking process because of the detail involved. The type of wood used is what determines the efficiency of the blowpipe. A hard, heavy wood such as belian, selangan, batu and a specific type of bamboo, called temiar/ temiang, are all used to create a strong, beautiful blowpipe. The wood needs to be harvested at a certain time of the year in order to avoid termites or getting a poor quality. The traditional method used in making them is to bore the centre of a long piece of wood with an iron rod.
There are two different types of blowpipes that can be made:
- One in which the shooter places their mouth over the opening.
- A blowpipe that covers the shooter’s mouth. In this type rubber padding is attached to the opening, to ensure that no air escapes when the shooter blows.
Sumpits are normally made about 6ft long, which makes it possible to take them on hunting trips. At this length they are still long enough to be able to shoot the darts in the correct way, upward and out, in order to hit the target.
The darts that are normally used in traditional blowpipes are also known as damaks, and are most frequently carved from the soft wood of palm trees. After this they are washed and left out to dry, avoiding putting them in direct sunlight. In order to guarantee the target’s death, the tips of the darts can be dipped in a poisonous secretion that comes from the Ipuh tree. This poison is extremely effective in killing animals, and enemies, whenever it enters the bloodstream. Makers of the blowpipes limit revealing the process of acquiring the poison because of the high possibility of accidental deaths.
It is very important that hunters and warriors clean their blowpipes after each use, in order to maintain the weapon’s effectiveness. This can be done by stuffing an oil-laced string into the hole and pulling it all the way through, as many times as necessary, until the blowpipe is clean. The oil also greases the passageway for a smoother release.
Traditional blowpipes hold great value to the tribes that use them. They ensure that the tools are treated with great respect, because of the connection with their ancestors. To maintain this respect a blowpipe should never be stepped over or carried under a clothesline.
Traditional blowpipes demonstrate the skill and accuracy that our ancestral hunters had, and the patience they used in making these weapons that would allow them to hunt for and protect their tribe.