Originally practically all of Sabah's population lived in coastal regions, in lagoons and rivers they were protected from the sea and also largely dependant upon it. With the arrival of visitors by sea many of Malaysian Borneo's natives moved inland. Bajau, Irranun, Suluk, Obian and other groups arrived from neighbouring countries and started to settle forming fishing communities in the coastal regions and islands (and still do!).
Despite the adaptation of many of Sabah's peoples to modern living many communities still live as they always have done, and all remain proud of their cultural heritage.
Of the original indigenous coastal dwellers there still exists the Ida'an and the Orang Sungei on Sabah's east coast and on the south west coast the Bisayan and Brunei people. North of Kudat is the large undeveloped island of Banggi, here the indigenous and peaceful tribe of the Banggi still live, their language is completely unrelated to any of the other four linguistic groups found in Sabah.
The largest indigenous tribes are the hill tribes, the Kadazan and Dusun tribes and their sub-tribes, often referred to the Kadazandusun, and the Murut. The Kadazandusun live mostly in the interior of Sabah, they are mountain people who believe the mountain is a resting place for the spirits of their departed, and thus it is sacred to them. The Rungus are arguably the most traditional of the indigenous tribes, a sub-tribe of the Kadazandusun the Rungus live mostly in the north near Kudat, many still live in longhouses. The Murut a group of several related tribes once lived in the longhouses like the Rungus, now they have mostly moved into single-family houses in the Tenom area and make a subsistence living from small-scale agriculture.
The Bajau have become the second largest group of Sabahan's with two distinct communities each with their separate languages. One group live on the east coast in houses on stilts and depend entirely upon the sea, much like the nomadic Bajau found through Southeast Asia. The other group live in Kota Belud and have settled to become very successful agriculturalists famed for their skill on horseback.
The Chinese, it is estimated, make up about 30% of the Sabahan population. They are thought to have been trading with the indigenous peoples of Borneo since as early as the 9th century. It wasn't however until the late 1880 when large numbers of Chinese were brought to British ruled northern Borneo. They soon settled, controlling many of the major industries such and logging and more recently palm oil. Because of their largely Christian background there has been a considerable amount of inter-marriage with the Kadazandusun. The North Borneo Charter Company also brought with them Javanese labours as well as Christians from Timor and Flores. Today the dominant group of Indonesians is the Bugis, from Sulawesi, mostly working in fishing boats or as labours in the palm oil plantations. The British North Borneo Chartered Company also brought with them Sikhs as solders and policemen.
Sabah's incredible mix of cultural and religious groups has, for the most part, coexisted in peace. There have been skirmishes particularly between tribes, where until recently headhunting was rife. The introduction of the Tamu, or market, by the British North Borneo Chartered Company largely smoothed out any frictions between tribes and different cultures. Here different ethnic backgrounds would meet and trade and share stories. Each village and town has their own Tamu and even today they are used us they always have been for trade and social meetings.