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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Innermost Borneo: Studies in Dayak Cultures by Bernard Sellato.

Borneo, comparable in size to Texas (or the combined United Kingdom and France), is the planet ~ third largest island in the WORLD.

 Lying on the Equator, it possesses stunning tropical rain forests, among many other natural resources, and a broad variety of traditional cultures, among which the Dayak have long achieved world fame. T
his volume traverses thirty years of acquaintance with and work on the great island and its peoples. The author first went to Borneo in the early 1970s as a geologist, and has returned many times as an anthropologist and historian. The essays collected here focus on a set of small tribal minorities living in one of the most remote corners of the Borneo hinterland, the Muller Mountains. 

Among these groups, the Aoheng, with whom the author spent a number of years, feature prominently. With a multidisciplinary approach, this volume examines various facets of these peoples’ lives and cultures, from their history, economic system, and relation to the’ natural environment, to their social organization, beliefs, rituals, and world views. Altogether, it offers a comprehensive picture of innermost Borneo’s traditional life.

Innermost Borneo: Studies in Dayak Cultures.
by Simon Strickland
SELLATO, BERNARD. Innermost Borneo: studies in Dayak cultures. 221 pp., maps, illus., bibliogrs. Singapore: Univ. Press, 2002. [euro]42.00 (paper) 
Bernard Sellato's authoritative studies of the nomadic tribes of Borneo have contributed greatly to the understanding of this ethnographically and historically complex field. This modest volume brings together various published and unpublished papers which help to place Bornean nomadic societies in a clearer light. 
Following a brief introduction, Sellato reviews early written sources on Borneo with particular reference to Nieuwenhuis's expeditions, and introduces the more general reader to the ethnography of the Upper Kapuas and the Upper Mahakam river systems. Researchers will find particularly useful the bibliography of early writings and Sellato's summary of the myriad ethnic groups of the region. The demographic data were collected one to two decades ago and are therefore dated: they indicate scale and the need for a systematic demography of these populations, but serve no clear analytical purpose. The meat of this volume is provided in the following ten chapters. These set out a range of arguments and pinpoint gaps in the evidence, but do not generally advocate any single overarching theory. 
Sellato documents, for example, how a liberal market and licensing system have enabled the Aoheng and others to overexploit edible birds' nests for personal gain. He argues that their behaviour effectively undermines concepts of sustainable development. However, the analysis is broad and shallow rather than systematic or evidence-based, and more data would be needed to substantiate these claims to a wider audience. 
Sellato's account of Bornean social organization extends well beyond the nomadic groups, and is both comprehensive and clear. He classifies the societies of Borneo according to nomadic, non-stratified, and stratified divisions. Applying Levi-Strauss's concept of the 'house', representing the family group as a legal entity, he argues that only stratified and a few non-stratified Bornean societies conform even approximately to this model. The scattered autonomy of nuclear families inhibits the emergence of 'houses', yet these can exist at different social levels. This analysis takes us well beyond Leach's observations on the importance of the 'house-owning group', which appears restricted largely to sedentary swidden rice cultivators of Sarawak, and reminds the reader that on Borneo social organization tends to ignore the political boundaries criss-crossing the island. 
More orginally, Sellato argues that utrolocality is correlated with former nomadism, and that Kajang groups were probably utrolocal and nomadic before adopting uxorilocality under Kayan influence (p. 98). This argument is more speculative and perhaps less persuasive than others in the book. Nor is the evidence presented as clearly as it might have been. However, this is fertile ground for analysis. It calls for a more subtle and comprehensive treatment of kinship terminology and practice than that shown here. 
Sellato's review of theories of origin of nomads in chapter 7 is full of insight but again short of the requisite linguistic and genetic evidence. He concludes that contemporary hunter-gatherers in Borneo stem from a culture independent of rice cultivators, and are not 'devolved' agriculturalists as some would have it. On this analysis, the Punan today represent what can happen when hunter-gatherers abandon the nomadic life for sedentary existence.The final six chapters are short case studies of Bukat myth, and of ethnogenesis, ritual, oral literature, and taxonomy of stone among the Aoheng. These emphasize the importance of delving beneath the face value of myths; and they illustrate the capacity of an ethnic group to emerge through the use of multiple terms of self-reference, of multiple types of leadership, and of ritual action conferring cultural identity while expressing a form of 'class struggle'. Sellato sees culture as largely unsystematic 'bits and pieces' (p. 187). Yet he also speculates that a quadripartite Aoheng social structure of aristrocrats, priests, warriors, and workers might have arisen by chance. It is a shame that he does not risk comparison with parts of South Asia where similar forms have been thought to obtain, perhaps even to have characterized an ancient substratum in the region. 
Although most of the chapters in this book have already been published as articles, and the initial impression is of a somewhat unsystematic collection, this volume brings Sellato's more scattered papers together in a coherent, thoughtful, and enlightening way. Observers and anthropologists of the Bornean social world should be grateful, and will anticipate his further publications with keen interest.SIMON STRICKLANDCabinet Office** The views expressed are the reviewer's 
alone and have no official UK government status.



Harold Colton said...

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