Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World' by Julian Baldick

A quick note: a couple of days ago, I acquired a copy of Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World by Julian Baldick, a scholar of religion, formerly of King's College, who unfortunately died last year.  This was his last book and, as the title says, it is an attempt to identify commonalities and differences in the religious beliefs of speakers of Austronesian languages.  It's up-to-date, has excellent recommendations (e.g., from James Fox), and is quite good reading.  I saw a copy in Blackwell's (although I bought mine online), and as it is rare for books like this to be published, and as it cites most of the major ethnographies of eastern Indonesia and the Pacific - super-underrepresented areas - I'm glad it exists.

I'm about halfway through, and it has been reasonably good so far.  Needless to say, it covers more ground than merely what we would classify as religion.  There are a few basic mistakes, actually - typos, of course, but also some accuracy issues, as will happen with any work of similar scope.  For example, Baldick calls the majority ethnic group of West Timor the 'Atoni', instead of the now-more-common name, Meto.  It is notable that despite relying on 'Atoni' evidence for some of the book's conclusions, the bibliography contains none of the work of Andrew McWilliam, even though McWilliam has written extensively on Austronesia, the Meto, and even headhunting, one of the core features of Baldick's vision of proto-Austronesian culture.  He also misses out R. E. Downs's article on headhunting in Indonesia, which is still key to discussions of it.

I also have a bit of a problem with the presentation.  For a start, there are no maps or diagrams that would help clarify the relationship between the various branches of Austronesian or their geographic distribution.  Baldick took the Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumezil as an inspiration and arranged his book the way Dumezil organised his, with separate sections on Western, Central, and Eastern Malayo-Polynesian speakers (never mind that these are artificial divisions) and a conclusion that attempted to draw out the similarities.  I much prefer the approach of M. L. West, a classicist whose work on Indo-European religion, poetry, and myth is perhaps the most interesting you'll find.  West divides his book on the basis of topic, with separate sections on poetic metre, storm gods, and warfare (&c.), which is a much more effective comparative device, to my mind.  But I suppose your mileage may vary.

I'll be reviewing the book as soon as I've finished reading it.  Until then, though, I recommend it.  If you're at all interested in ethnology, prehistory, or the limits of what can survive in human communities from such great time depths, then it is certainly worthwhile reading.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

What kinds of descent are there?

Descent is the transmission of names, rights, duties, membership in organizations, and other properties from parents to children.  It's key to understanding life and law in almost all human societies in some sense or other, and I suspect the concept is part of our phylogenetic inheritance - the idea of maternal and paternal connections conferring some kind of advantage or disadvantage being found in plenty of other primate societies.  The thing is, descent isn't so simple, and there were arguments throughout the early twentieth century about how it worked and why.  Those arguments have pretty much come to a halt in Europe and America as the topic of descent, and of the formal study of kinship as a whole, has become deeply unfashionable.

Austronesian Archery

Lots of words have now been reconstructed to proto-Austronesian, the reconstructed ancestor of the Austronesian languages probably spoken on Taiwan between around 4000-3500 BCE.  There are plenty of words for common objects and ideas - houses, for instance, or parts of the body.  Other terms refer to technologies, and the reconstructed words allow us to say that the speakers of the protolanguage used the associated technologies.  Two of these are *panaq, meaning 'to shoot', and *busuʀ, meaning 'bow' (as in, bow and arrow).

There are a couple of different versions given by different linguists, but they're all pretty close.  For example, Zhang Yongli's Seediq Language Reference Grammar (2000), which also lists some proto-Austronesian vocabulary, gives *buƭug for 'bow', as well as *buhug for proto-Atayalic (one of the Taiwanese sub-families of Austronesian), although *panaq is the same.  However you swing it, proto-Austronesian had words for bows and the action of shooting them.  I'm also sure proto-Malayo-Polynesian had a word for 'blowgun' (*sumpit), but I'm not so concerned about that right now (although see my earlier post on blowguns here).

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Jason Colavito on Jason and the Golden Fleece

Jason Colavito has written an interesting series of posts about his work on the myths of Jason and the Argonauts.  His book on the subject is going to be published at some point and his posts are mostly clearing up little problems of analysis, but they're a fascinating insight into the difficulties of producing analyses of early European and Near Eastern myth, given the profusion of influences, societies, languages, cities, peoples, and places that could have been responsible for certain words and phrases.  So check them out:

Aea: An Indo-European or Near Eastern Dawn Land?

Georgia and the Golden Fleece: The Politics of Mythology

The Kursa and the Golden Fleece

Sign up to his blog for more interesting stuff on a range of topics, from Lovecraft to Apollonius to Ancient Aliens.  I'm constantly surprised at the depth of his knowledge on all of these topics, so I expect you will be, too.

Austronesian Headhunting - Some Thoughts

Headhunting is a practice that can comfortably be ascribed to the speakers of proto-Austronesian due to its near ubiquity among their descendants.  Prior to European imperial domination, the idea of beheading strangers and taking their heads home was found throughout Austronesian-speaking island southeast Asia (the Philippines, much of Indonesia, non-peninsular Malaysia, Brunei, and Timor Leste), island Melanesia (the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), parts of coastal New Guinea, and non-Sinitic Taiwan.  Emphasis on the head was considerable in Polynesia and Micronesia, too, and heads were clearly important booty in pre-colonial New Zealand as well.  There is still a tendency to treat headhunting as something created by colonialism instead of exacerbated by it, but this simply is not the case; it is a tradition of prehistoric ancestry, not European introduction.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

'Bad Death'

One of the most pervasive features of Austronesian heritage is the category of 'bad death'.  This is a category that has been covered explicitly in dozens of academic publications, probably because its association with death and ritual has aroused the interest of ethnographers throughout Austronesia.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Maps - Language and Population Density

The maps in my post yesterday, showing the distribution of some language families in South America, got me thinking.  Most of the land coloured in as containing speakers of a particular language is uninhabited, and the languages themselves are spoken by relatively low numbers of speakers.  Moreover, there is often great diversity at a lower level.  As Michael Heckenberger tells us of the Upper Xingu, plenty of indigenous South Americans speak not only different languages, but even languages of different stocks.  The solid blocks of colour are completely inaccurate and give the bluntest, least nuanced understanding of the distributions.  I understand that many of them were produced by amateur cartographers/Wikipedians, but most maps in professional publications are no better.

So I was wondering if there was a way to simultaneously encode population density and language to give a more rounded picture of how things are on the ground.  There must be a way to do it, and then you'd only need accurate data to put on the chart.  Granted, South American languages families are poorly documented in every sense, including their present-day (let alone prehistoric!) distributions, and the numbers of speakers are low anyway and would probably barely show up on a map of the whole of South America, but...

I'm busy this evening, but if anyone out there knows of any attempt to do this, I'd really appreciate it if you could pop a note or link in the comments.  If I find anything myself in the next few days, I'll post something about it anyway.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Language Contact in South America

It would be fair to say that most of South America's language families are controversial in some way or other.  There are some established language families that are accepted as valid by most linguists, including Quechuan, Chibchan, Gê, Panoan, Tukanoan, Tacanan, Arawak, Carib, Chon, and Tupian, and these are useful hooks for hanging hypotheses about South American prehistory on.  There is a clear, solid distribution of Gê languages in the Brazilian eastern highlands, an equally solid distribution of Chon languages in South America's tail, and Tupian languages are only found south of main trunk of the Amazon, all of which can tell us something about the prehistory of each of these regions.  But the details and possible inter-relationships of these families have yet to be resolved.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

'The Ecology of Power' by Michael Heckenberger.

      I've recently been reading Michael Heckenberger's 2005 book, The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, AD 1000-2000 (Oxford: Routledge), about the pre- and post-Columbian societies of the Upper Xingu river, Brazil.  Heckenberger is moderately famous, as archaeologists go, for his research revealing the existence of complex chiefdoms and inter-connected polities in pre-Columbian Amazonia.  He has featured in two popular books that have significantly increased the exposure of Amazonian archaeology - Charles Mann's 1492, a great book about the pre-Columbian Americas, and David Grann's The Lost City of Z, a gripping account of the life of Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British explorer who disappeared in the jungle while looking for native Amazonian cities.  The latter is to be made into a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch, which should further increase exposure.  Heckenberger also contributed the Amazonian section of one of archaeology's standard texts, The Human Past (2013, Chris Scarre [ed.], Thames & Hudson), so he's quite a big name.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The genetic gallacy and argument from tradition in action...

I saw this post over on Zero Anthropology about Sergei Lavrov's recent statements on international relations, and I left a comment saying that Lavrov's words were nice enough, but they attempted to excuse barbaric acts on the grounds that they are 'tradition'.  I was told that I'm Eurocentric (somehow) and backward, and there was the not-so-subtle implication that I'm an imperialist pig-dog who supports the United States government in everything it does (I'm not even American, of course).  You can see the short exchange so far on the site.

Ancient Astronaut Pyramids

Indonesia doesn't feature prominently in ancient alien mythology.  This is a good thing, of course, and it means that Indonesian archaeological sites aren't full of hawkers selling ancient alien garbage, as you'll find at Palenque and Teotihuacan.  However, it is symptomatic of the general ignorance in the English-speaking world regarding Indonesia.  If modern Indonesia is a mental black hole for most people outside of Indonesia and the Netherlands, then ancient Indonesia might as well be another planet.  Ancient Aliens and other similar media ignore Indonesia primarily because it isn't already well-known.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: A Small Overview

I don't have a particular structure to what I'm writing about eastern Indonesia - I'm happy to write about a set of interconnected topics and let them coalesce over time into a more comprehensive picture - so my posts don't necessarily have a consistent theme.  But the picture I've been trying to build up so far is of an ethnically, linguistically, and genetically diverse region bound together by a number of shared cultural traits, many of which derive from a common prehistoric heritage.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Village Defence

Life in much of eastern Indonesia was precarious until fairly recently.  That isn't to say that people there didn't have time to trade or create works of art or poetry, or that everything they did was a hard slog, but life expectancy has always been low there, and is still low.  Population growth was minimal until the late nineteenth century.  There were simply too many threats to life, including geological, viral, and human enemies, from volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and malaria to headhunters and slave-raiders.  Here, I'm going to look at some of these.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Marriage, Part II

In my last post on marriage as a total social fact in eastern Indonesia, I provided the bare bones of a description of eastern Indonesian symbolism so as to make marriage more comprehensible in the area.  Here, I provide examples and show how it functions in marriage alliance itself.

To see the functioning of the recursive complementary cosmological dualism outside of the context of marriage, let's look at the example of the sacrificial post, a common feature of villages in Nusa Tenggara Timur.  They are usually to be found in the centre of the village, often but not always on a raised stone platform.  Examples of these are the Nage peo on Flores and the Meto hau mone found in West Timor; the latter means 'male tree', which should tell you something about its symbolism.  They are usually Y-shaped, with a central trunk forking into two subsidiary branches.  The post is used for tying up animals for sacrifice (blood sacrifice being another common feature of eastern Indonesian societies - blood is considered 'cooling').  In former times - i.e., before so-called 'pacification' by Dutch and Portuguese imperial forces - the posts were also used to hang heads on after headhunting raids.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Marriage as a 'Total Social Fact', Part I

In my last post on marriage alliance, I wrote about how it works in theory - how different rules governing who you can and can't marry will affect the relationships between the inter-marrying groups, how wife-givers typically have a superior position to wife-takers, how MBD-FZS marriage ideally creates long-lasting asymmetric relationships between wife-givers and wife-takers, and how the asymmetrical nature of these relationships necessitates bonds between three or more groups at a time.  That's the ideal of asymmetric marriage alliance/MBD-FZS marriage/matrilateral cross-cousin marriage/circulating connubium (all names for the same thing), and it doesn't only apply in eastern Indonesia, the area I'm particularly interested in.  These are the basic features of MBD-FZS marriage.

So how does it manifest in eastern Indonesia?  Why do they have this particular arrangement?  What else is it linked to?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Southeast Asia in World Histories

As someone with a strong interest in southeast Asia, I can say that it is uniquely poorly served by world history books.  Andrew Marr's loudly-trumpeted book - probably the most popular world history of the past few years, and one with its own BBC adaptation - presented itself as comprehensive, but included no references at all to pre-modern southeast Asia.  Even Angkor is absent, which is just... there are no words.  Given that southeast Asia actually has more people than the whole of Europe including the entire population of Russia, at over 600,000,000 inhabitants, this is a bit of an oversight.  And it's a common trend.  It's not that Marr is a bigot who hates southeast Asians (well, I assume that's not the case), but rather that it is considered acceptable to skip southeast Asia and concentrate on India, China, and - obviously! - Europe.  It seems to be thought of as a place for tourism and cuisine, not serious academic understanding.

Dumb 'World' Histories

Reading this post on 'Big History', so-called, by Michael Smith, I'm reminded of all the problems I have with world histories and even regional historical surveys.  Usually, they're lacking in archaeological nous, have little or no accurate prehistoric content (a big problem when discussing the pre-Columbian Americas, Africa, and the Pacific), and repeat common misconceptions found in older material.  There's also a clear bias towards white males of the second millennium CE.  The European peninsula features far too heavily in world histories, as do men (the achievements of women are naturally underplayed), noble and royal life (poor people are just too badly documented, aren't they?), and the last five hundred years (you know how few sources there are on pre-modern history, don't you?).

Open a history of the world at the middle and I'll be surprised if you're not in the seventeenth century at that point (look in a bookshop and try it - bonus points if it's the eighteenth).  More often than not, Europe will be the focus of attention.  There are some exceptions to this, but world histories that treat history as something with truly global roots are few and far between.  That results in a general lack of familiarity with the really interesting things found outside of Europe, before five hundred years ago, or made by women, and that has the effect of making history boring (not to mention all the other things wrong with this approach to human life).

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Austronesian-Ongan Languages

Since I posted recently about a paper by Juliette Blevins potentially linking Malay semangat and its various Indonesian cognates with proto-Oceanic *manaq through the notion of ancestral power (amongst other things), I thought I'd highlight this paper in Oceanic Linguistics from 2007 in which Blevins attempted to demonstrate a connection between proto-Austronesian and proto-Ongan, the reconstructed ancestor of Jarawa and Onge, languages spoken in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.  The islands are fairly near Sumatera, but this isn't a case of Malayo-Polynesian languages having shifted to Andaman from Indonesia in late prehistory or something like that.  The connection is with proto-Austronesian, which is believed to be about 5,500 years old or so.  Wiki also has a brief summary of the arguments.