or Mrabri are an ethnic group of Thailand and Laos, and have
been called "the most interesting and least understood people in
Only about 300 or fewer Mlabris remain in
the world today, with some estimates as low as 100. A hill tribe in
northern Thailand along the
border with Laos, they have
been groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers.
The group in
Thailand live close to the Hmong and northern Thai. The group
living in Laos live close to other ethnic groups as well.
The name Mlabri
is a Thai/Lao alteration of the word
, which appears to come from a Khmuic term "people
of the forest" – in Khmu
means "person" and bri
"forest". They are also known
locally as Phi Tong Luang
(Thai: ผีตองเหลือง, Lao:
ຜີຕອງເຫລືອງ) or "spirits of the yellow leaves", apparently because
they abandon their shelters when the leaves begin to turn
Genetic analysis of the Mlabri group by Hiroki Oota and colleagues
led them to observe that the mtDNA
diversity, suggesting to them that the Mlabris were founded 500–800
years ago from very few individuals. This hypothesis was contested
in the journal PLoS Biology
in 2005 in
an exchange of articles between Hiroki Oota and colleagues, and
The Mlabri live an extremely primitive lifestyle. They are nomadic
and have no real houses, making instead temporary shelters from
palm leaves and bamboo-string. Previously they wore a loin-covering
of bark or cloth, though now most Mlabri wear old factory-produced
clothes procured by trade with other tribes in the area. They are
hunter-gatherers, although far more of their food comes from
gathering than hunting. Women give birth alone in the forest and
infant mortality is very high.
They have few regimented social ceremonies, and are said to have no
religious system to speak of, although it is reported that they
believe in some spirits of the forest and other natural features.
Marriages are concluded after simple request, with no bride-price,
and the dead are buried near where they died before the tribe moves
German anthropologist Hugo Bernatzik published an ethnography of
the "Yellow Leaf People" in 1938 which reflected his brief
observations of the tribe in the mid-20th century.
- Bernatzik, Hugo, The Spirits of the Yellow Leaves
Leipzig 1938; London: R. Hale. Translated by E. W. Dickson.
- Oota, Hiroki and others, "Recent Origin and Cultural Reversion
of a Hunter-Gatherer Group", PLoS
biology, 2005 March, volume 3, number 3.
- Schliesinger, Joachim, Ethnic Groups of Laos, vol.
2, White Lotus 2000, pp. 187-197
- Waters, Tony, "Comment on 'Recent Origin and Cultural Reversion
of a Hunter-Gatherer Group," PLoS
Biology 2005 August, volume 3, number 8.
- Trier, Jesper Invoking the Spirits - fieldwork on the
material and spiritual life of the Mlabri, pp. 325, 2008 July ISBN
- Schliesinger, Joachim, Ethnic Groups of Laos, vol. 2,
ISBN 9744800364, p. 187