When the first Iban longhouse was built at Nanga Jela is not known.  Genealogies and other oral materials suggest that 14 generations ago there were Iban farmers in the region who displaced and most probably absorbed earlier groups of mostly hunting and foraging people known as Bukitan.  Over the next centuries, longhouses were built and rebuilt and the families of Nanga Jela made fields along the Jela and Engkari streams each year and planted them to hill rice and vegetables.  In and around those fields they lived off the land: hunting, foraging and gathering and also tapped rubber, hunted wild boar and deer, planted fruit trees and gathered leaves, ferns, bark and vines for food, shelter and medicine. There, finally, they also buried their dead. The rocks, hills, streams, and swampy places of Nanga Jela all made up parts of a complex human-shaped landscape. It was also a living history and a book of tradition, a source of identity and a representation of social relations.  The stories written in this landscape matched and complemented the great songs, epics, and genealogies that generations of Iban of the Engkari created, recited, and recreated without need of alphabets or print.


Between 1984 and 1985, the longhouse at Nanga Jela along with 21 other communities that once housed a combined population of about 3000 persons disappeared beneath the waters of a lake created by the Batang Ai Hydropower Dam. In addition to peoples’ homes, an estimated 8500 hectares of farmland, orchards, rubber gardens, forests, graveyards, and beaches were obliterated. With these landscapes, a large part of the history of one of the longest-occupied Iban territories in Sarawak was drowned. Many of the former community members took up residence in resettlement areas developed by government authorities near the dam site. Others left for other parts of Sarawak, and their descendants scattered around the world.