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'Living' in Nage, or the Meaning of 'Life' in an Eastern Indonesian Society.

My subject is ideas about living things recorded among the Nage people of eastern Indonesia, and how these may relate to recent writing on 'animism'. Anthropologists will hardly need reminding that Tylor defined 'animism' as the 'belief in spiritual beings', the most basic form of which was the 'soul'. In Tylor's view, this soul concept originated in early people's experience of 'life' (Tylor 1958:II:20), and more particularly in their attempts to explain 'two groups of biological problems' (Tylor 1958:II:12; emphasis added): 'the difference between a living body and a dead one' and 'those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions'. For Tylor, however, animists attributed souls not just to animate beings but to things moderns would consider inanimate and lifeless--like stones, heavenly bodies, and manufactured objects--and this idea too he ascribed to a belief that such things possessed life (Tylor 1958:II:61). (1) Accordingly, in possibly his earliest published discussion of the concept, Tylor defined 'animism' as 'the theory which endows the phenomena of nature with personal life' (Tylor 1866:82, cited by Stringer 1999:554, n3; emphasis added). Citing Comte and Hume, he later explained this belief in inanimate things being alive with reference to a natural human inclination that we would nowadays call anthropomorphism--a 'primitive tendency' to conceive of 'all external bodies ... natural or artificial, as animated by a life essentially analogous to our own' (1958:II:61-62). And he then went on to argue that this notion of 'object souls' required for its 'full conception' a 'phantom or apparitional spirit', which, however, was easily acquired from the appearance of artefacts and natural objects in visions and dreams (ibid.:62).

In his account of 'object souls', Tylor therefore maintained his view of a concept of life as logically prior to the 'soul', conceived as a personifying and hence individuating attribute of both animate objects and ones Westerners would consider inanimate. Tylor's theory of the development of religion from ancient attempts to explain 'life' has long been discarded. Yet the view that people in small-scale, non-literate societies draw the line between living and non-living very differently from scientifically educated moderns has survived among writers of quite various theoretical persuasions (see e.g., Boyer 1996 and Guthrie 1993). Most notably, proponents of a recently refigured 'animism' have portrayed an attribution of life to inorganic objects as characteristic of possessors of a newly defined animist 'ontology'. Writing on South Asian hunter-gatherers, Bird-David (1999:74-75) thus construes animism as entailing a situational treatment of objects like stones as living things, while, rather more categorically, Ingold asserts that in 'animic ontology', or the 'animic cosmos', the sun is alive, as are wind, the moon, stars, and thunder (Ingold 2011a:72-73). Ingold, it should be noted, depicts this ontology not only as typical of non-western societies but as standing in opposition solely to a Western or 'scientific' view, and furthermore as a normal human experience of the world (Ingold 2011a:68) distorted by science and Cartestianism.

In another variant of the new animism, Descola (2013) treats animism as one of four distinct 'ontologies', albeit one contrasting mostly with 'naturalism', the philosophical position characteristic of Western thought which the author deems culturally unusual. Descola is primarily concerned with these as four ways of identifying and distinguishing humans and non-human animals, which, he argues, may be conceived as resembling or differing in regard to their possession either of similar 'interiorities' (or essences) or 'exteriorities' (or physical being). However, in Descola's scheme also, animists can conceive of inanimate as well as animate things as living, and additionally as entities essentially similar to humans (2013:248), and in a similar vein, Viveiros de Castro (1998:472) has portrayed South American animism as entailing not only a 'perspectival' understanding of animals and plants as persons, or spiritualized subjective beings, but also a possible extension of this view to 'meteorological objects and artefacts'. Other anthropologists who have described small-scale societies as treating inanimate things as alive include Cruikshank (2005), Kohn (2007), Pedersen (2001), Praet (2013), and Pitrou (2015)." However, since new theories of animism have mostly been advanced by anthropologists who have worked in small-scale and largely food-collecting groups in South America or Siberia, somewhat more relevant for the present discussion are recent interpretations of Indonesian and other Southeast Asian societies not just as 'animist' but more specifically as ascribing life to objects (see Tsintjilonis 2004:426; et seq. Allerton 2013:97-98; Bovensiepen 2014:127-28, 131-32; Arhem 2016:21). To be sure, neo-animists are mostly concerned with non-westerners attributing, if not 'souls', then human-like personhood or intentional agency to animals rather than to inorganic objects. But insofar as they also speak of these qualities being further ascribed to things inanimate, then by implication they equally conceive of these too as being considered alive--or in Tylor's phrase, as possessing 'personal life'. Possibly significant in this connection is a very general tendency in new animist writing to lump organic entities, spirits, and inanimate objects under the heading of 'non-humans' or 'non-human beings'.

The present paper reviews evidence from the Nage of Flores Island which raises questions about the apparently dominant anthropological view that members of small-scale, subsistence-based societies, in Southeast Asia or elsewhere, typically conceive of inanimate objects as living things. As I show, Nage generally consider only humans, non-human animals, and plants as being 'alive' (muri), a property which, as their own statements reveal, minimally entails a combination of the ability to reproduce and die and to move or for their condition to visibly change over time. The Nage case is particularly relevant to the question of cross-cultural variability in concepts of 'life' not only by virtue of a socio-economic profile which includes hunting as a valued activity (Forth 2016:23, 25, 105-06) but also because, by the criteria of recent formulations, some Nage beliefs and practices might indeed be construed as 'animistic'--including mythological and ritual depictions of certain inanimate objects as living subjects. Apart from discussing how Nage views on what is and what is not alive might locate them ontologically in relation to similar groups, I consider how this case prospectively contributes to recent discussion of 'animism' and, conversely, how newer theories of animism might inform an understanding of Nage thought and practice. One crucial point that arises in this discussion concerns the distinction, largely ignored or glossed over by new animist theorists (see e.g., Arhem 2016) but clearly revealed in Nage ethnography, between on the one hand, the possession by humans, animals, and plants of their own life--and possibly an interior essence (sometimes expressed as 'soul') linked with personhood and intentional agency--and, on the other hand, the representation of certain things as being inhabited by or otherwise associated with anthropomorphous and seemingly animate free spirits (in Nage called nitu). Drawing on cognitive anthropology, I then discuss a different way of understanding the Nage material, one that does not entail casting the Nage as animists or possessors of any culturally particular ontology, but as people who, like humans everywhere, can maintain different representations of the same phenomena in different cultural settings.

As will become clear, a special concern of the present paper is variation in views of what is alive (Nage muzi) and what is not, found among people distinguished by age and gender. Deriving from questioning over 40 Nage men and women, this variation reveals what may seem a surprising pattern, namely, that older informants were noticeably more inclined than were younger people to distinguish things as animate or inanimate in much the same way as contemporary Westerners, as were males more than females. As I show, internal variation of this sort is readily explained by factors of recent social change and does not signal a transformation from a dominant animist ontology to one that is not animist or vice versa. And I also argue how a cognitivist approach is better able to explain this variation, by interpreting contrary representations of the same objects as implicating different ways of knowing and representing these which are available, not just to Nage, but to participants in any culture.


Proponents of the new animism, including a recently advertised 'anthropology of life' (Pitrou 2015), largely treat 'life' as an analytical category, inferable from ritual practice or implicit in cosmological knowledge conveyed by ritual specialists (e.g., Tsintjilonis 2004:431-32). Therefore I should immediately emphasize that my principal concern is an indigenous view of life discernible in Nage applications of muzi, 'living', '(to be) alive', and in their interpretations of cultural representations which might suggest that sometimes they do treat things not ordinarily classified as muzi as being alive. Residing in the central part of eastern Indonesian island of Flores, the Nage are a people I have known since 1984 and have visited on 17 separate occasions. The present discussion more specifically concerns an ethno-linguistically definable population of some 12,000 I have elsewhere distinguished as Central Nage, but whom I hereafter refer to simply as Nage. Nage social organization and economic life are relatively simple: their most inclusive corporate groupings comprise non-localized clans and multi-clan villages, and even today the majority of Nage are primarily engaged in subsistence cultivation, raising animals, and hunting. Before the 1960s and to a diminished degree at present, both game and fish regularly contributed to daily protein intake--the flesh of large livestock still being reserved for ritual occasions. Regardless of its dietary significance, hunting is a major factor of Nage male identity, and among their most important ritual performances is a collective ceremonial hunt, an annual event articulated with other major rituals--including annual pugilistic competitions held before the hunt and less frequently held large-scale buffalo-sacrificing. Moreover, wild animals play an important role in Nage cosmology (Forth 2016:135-48), specifically in their representation of relations between humans and free spirits (nitu), and it is also noteworthy that, well into the 20th century, water buffalo, the major sacrificial animal, comprised mostly feral animals especially captured for the kill, while pigs, the second most important sacrifices, formed a continuous breeding population of both wild and nominally 'domestic' specimens (Forth 2016:78-79, 92-98). This is not to argue that Nage are essentially hunter-gatherers like some Amerindian or Siberian 'animists'. However, it is significant for the present discussion that, in terms of demography and economy, and by virtue of the oral character of their indigenous culture, Nage are in many respects comparable to these. And in regard to hunting especially, it is also worth recalling Castro's claim that the association of Amerindian animism (or 'perspectivism') with a 'valorization of hunting' is 'a matter of symbolic importance, not ecological necessity' (1998:472).

After three decades of fieldwork during which I had come to know many Nage extremely well, some years ago I felt justified in concluding that Nage regarded life as a property only of humans, animals, and plants, and that they did not conceive of objects like stones, water, or heavenly bodies as being alive (muzi). I knew, for example, that Nage regard special stones as possessing extraordinary powers and even as capable of independent movement, specifically as being able to return to their owners after being alienated. But I had never heard people speak of these stones as living things, and when I asked them they consistently denied such stones were muzi (alive). Other ideas similarly indicated that Nage do not regard inanimate objects as being alive. For example, the standard phrase tana li'e, watu wonga, 'earth producing seeds, stones coming into blossom', describes an impossible state of affairs, and certainly one radically different from what people know at present, that will spell the end of the world. Although it is obviously possible to conceive of something being alive but not possessing a 'soul', I also never found evidence for objects like stones or soil being thought to possess mae ('soul')--a concept I revisit below (see also Forth 1998:47-55). In relation to the prevalent anthropological view of non-western peoples as drawing the boundary between living and non-living things differently from members of modern societies, Nage therefore appeared odd. So to test my provisional conclusion, I began questioning people more systematically about what things they considered living and what they did not.

Questioning was conducted during three field visits from 2013 to 2015, when I consulted 43 Nage, including 26 men and 17 women. Participants, all of whom had some previous familiarity with me, were initially selected opportunistically, but I was subsequently able to stratify the sample on the basis of age and gender (see Table 1).

As can be seen from Table 1, the sample was somewhat skewed towards older people. Some 60% (26 of the 43) were 55 years or older and were therefore born before 1960. This date is significant, as the pace of social change, especially in regard to conversion to Christianity and mass education, began to quicken considerably in the late 1960s. The preponderance of older people partly reflects my preliminary aim of exploring a possible indigenous cosmology relatively unaffected by Christian doctrine and modern education. The total number of males, composing 60% of the overall total of 43, is similarly higher than that for females. This is largely incidental, reflecting differences in availability of or access to individuals. The number of males 55 and older, who composed 60% of the male sample (17 of 26), was higher than the number of younger males, whereas among women the two groups were roughly equal. These disparities too are explained by an initial concentration on older people combined with the generally opportunistic nature of the method. (The implications of age and gender distribution in relation to the results of questioning are discussed later.)

The figures reflect the results of relatively open-ended discussions initiated by asking individuals about what they considered and did not consider muzi ('alive' or 'living'). Besides 'living, alive', Nage muzi has several other senses that require attention, especially insofar as these may have affected ethnographic conversations. Much like English 'to live', muzi can also mean 'to dwell, reside', or 'to inhabit, be present in (a particular place)'. In this sense, muzi is synonymous with meza ('to dwell, occupy a place'), and when necessary, Nage can specify this meaning with the composite expression muzi meza. Not only humans are described as 'living in' certain places; animals are as well--as when fish, for example, are described as 'living in water' (muzi one ae)--and so are spirits. In the sense of 'being alive' or 'capable of life', Nage further describe animate things as muzi mata. Mata is 'to die, be dead', so the expression more exactly translates as 'to live and die' or 'to be mortal', a condition which, as everyone recognized, applies to all animals, humans, and plants. Especially in reference to humans, muzi can also mean 'to live' in the senses of maintaining or participating in a particular way of life (as in 'they live well') and 'to behave, conduct oneself (in a specific way)'--as when people are disapprovingly described as 'living like dogs and pigs' (muzi bhia lako wawi).

Apart from the foregoing, muzi has the distinct meaning of 'new', in which sense it does of course apply to inanimate objects, including artefacts like tools and clothing, as well as to animals and plants. A newly acquired horse is thus ja muzi, a 'new horse', while a 'new stone'--meaning, for example, a stone recently obtained to serve some purpose--is watu muzi--In this instance, Nage express the opposite condition--being 'old'--with olo. Thus, a horse which a person has owned for years is ja olo, whereas an 'old stone'--one that has been in place for a long time--is watu olo. In the sense of 'living, being alive', by contrast, the opposite of muzi is either mona muzi ('not living, inanimate') or mata ('dead'). Nage themselves are well aware of these distinct meanings, and they certainly recognize that not everything that is muzi in the sense of being 'new' or 'recently acquired' is necessarily 'alive'. Therefore, when talking about living things, I was always able to ensure that people understood I was asking about things which were muzi in the specific sense of things that they identified as being alive.

It is also important to note that, unlike corresponding terms in both English and the Indonesian national language (Bahasa Indonesia), Nage muzi ('living') and mata ('dead') are not applied to changes in inorganic objects or substances. For example, whereas English-speakers speak of a fire as being 'alive' or 'dead', or the wind as 'dying', Nage have special terms for these conditions. For fire, these are lila 'to ignite, catch, burst into flame', and beza, 'to go out, be extinguished', and Nage also have special terms to describe the rising and setting of the sun and moon, different phases of the moon, and the appearance and disappearance of stars. Nowadays, people often use mata ('to die') for recently introduced electricity--thus listrik mata ('the electricity has died') describes cuts in the power supply that Nage with electricity nowadays experience with considerable frequency. Similarly, when electric power is restored they can then say the electricity 'lives again, has come back to life' (muzi walo). But these usages obviously relate to a recently introduced modern technology and moreover reflect Indonesian national language usage, as of course does listrik itself. In addition, Nage alternatively speak of electricity 'igniting' (lila) or 'going out' (beza), thereby extending terms formerly applied only to fire.

Asking people about things they considered to be 'living' or 'alive' yielded just three categories: human beings (kita ata), non-human animals (ana wa), and wild and domesticated plants. This is not without significance, yet the response is obviously not sufficient to conclude that Nage regard these alone as being alive, so I began enquiring about specific kinds of objects. These included stone or stones, earth or soil (awu), water (ae), fire (api), wind (wa, angi wa), the sun (mata leza), the moon (wula), stars (dala including dala co, 'flying stars', that is, shooting stars), thunder (tegu), and lightning (sile bhela). Because of the largely open-ended character of these conversations, I was not always able to question everyone about all 10 categories. Also, I did not think to ask about fire and soil until after I had begun questioning, so for these I obtained responses from just 29 and 34 individuals, respectively (of the possible total of 43). But in all other cases the response rate was minimally 37, thus results for the several categories are broadly comparable.


Results set out in Table 1 show the proportions of people who appeared reasonably confident that a given category comprised things that could be considered living (muzi). In varying proportions, others either responded that an entity was definitely not living (mona muzi) or that they did not know, often adding that they had never heard anyone speak of the thing as muzi. As the figures show, in no instance did the majority of people describe an inorganic entity as being alive. The highest figure was for fire (41.5%), the lowest was for stone (2.5%), and the average for all 10 categories was 21%. Consistent with the especially low figure for stone is the standard phrase kaju watu, 'wood (and) stone', which denotes inanimate objects in general. Here, 'wood' refers specifically to dry or dead wood (kaju tu), and Nage equate the expression as a whole with the national language term benda mati, 'dead things'.

Questions like 'is the sun alive?' frequently led people to expand on their answers, giving reasons why they thought something was or was not living. Informants thus mentioned how an object moved, produced sound, or exhibited agency (for example, causing other things to move, like the wind, or causing destruction, like fire, lightning, and flash floods). Noteworthy here is evidence suggesting that the more an object possesses perceptual qualities (visibility, audibility, and perhaps smell--in the case of fire, for example) and the more manifest its agency, the more people deemed it to be living; accordingly the figures for fire and water are higher than those for objects that are invisible or silent. However, these attributes were not only adduced by people who thought objects were alive but also by many who did not. Despite variations in people's responses, judgments concerning whether something was or was not animate in all cases referred to readily observable empirical qualities, a circumstance consonant with what I have elsewhere described as a pervasive Nage empiricism (Forth 2016). Reasons for something definitely not being alive thus prominently included the fact that a thing never died, did not bear offspring or in any way proliferate, did not breathe, or that it did not grow or appear to change and always appeared the same (for example, stone--and the sun with regard to form and size). Some people who interpreted inanimate things as being alive mentioned how regularly observable changes in these--for example, fire igniting and going out, or the rising and setting of the sun--could be conceived as analogous to life and death in organisms. However, it should be recalled that, in all instances, Nage designate such changes with special terms, and as people often remarked, one normally does not use muzi (to live) and mata (to die, be dead) to denote change in any inorganic phenomenon. Also, it is important to stress that people phrased their remarks in terms of analogy and, on this basis, did not infer that the thing in question was alive (muzi).

Insofar as a minority of Nage were able to conceive of inorganic entities as 'living', it would appear they were able to do so only insofar as 'living' was construed in some special sense. In addition to selectively focusing on empirical (and especially visible) properties of things suggesting they were or could be alive, some among this minority, and then mostly younger informants, remarked how an object--for example, soil or water--was essential to life in humans, plants, and animals. However, life-sustaining properties of non-organic things were also mentioned by people who did not think these were themselves alive, and even people who judged inanimate objects to be living revealed in further conversation that they did not regard these as dying or producing offspring.

Regardless of internal variations, the figures displayed in Table 1 accord with my ethnographic interpretation--formed, it should be recalled, before engaging in more directive questioning--of Nage as typically restricting 'life' (muzi) to animate objects. But the totals for the 10 inorganic categories tell only part of the story, for further insight into Nage ideas about life is available from differences among people according to both age and gender. Although only a minority of Nage identified things like soil, water, and the heavenly bodies as being alive, it might nevertheless be speculated that this reflects an older view--an indigenous cosmology transformed by modern education and conversion to Christianity. (3) Among Nage, education, literacy, fluency in the national language, and familiarity with Christian doctrine are all inversely related to age. Thus, if interpretations of inanimate objects as living things did reflect an older worldview, such ideas should be more prevalent among older people. By the same token, an attribution of life to things inanimate should be more common among men than women, and especially among older men, since they are the principal directors of ritual and the recognized authorities on indigenous cosmology.

The results shown in Table 1, however, reveal precisely the opposite. People younger than 55 (those born after 1960) interpreted inorganic entities as living things more often than did older people with respect to 8 of the 10 categories, and in most cases the differences were marked. Recalculating from figures given in the table reveals that 23.5% of the younger group thought stars were alive whereas just 12.5% of older people did so, while similar differences are revealed for stone (6 versus 0%), soil (12.5 versus 5.5%), water (35.5 versus 24%), wind (26.5 versus 16.5%), and thunder (29.5 versus 20%). For two other categories the difference is smaller (23.5 versus 19% for lightning and 23.5 versus 20% for the moon), yet the score for younger people still exceeds that for older Nage. For the sun, results are virtually equal (24% for the older group and 23.5% for the younger). The only category for which older people gave a considerably higher proportion of positive responses was fire: 50% interpreted fire as something living whereas 31% of the younger group did so. What might account for this single exception is unclear. Nevertheless, the figure of 31 for younger people is still substantial, being the second highest result for all 10 categories (the first was for water, judged by 35.5% of younger people as being alive).

Comparable differences appear between the sexes. Combining the figures for younger and older members of each gender reveals that, for all categories except soil (which two men but just one woman thought was alive), women were more inclined than men to interpret inorganic entities as living, and the gender difference was more substantial than the contrast of age groups. For example, 47% of women versus 16% of men thought water was alive, while the comparable figures for the sun, moon, stars, and thunder were 35.5 and 16%, 35.5 and 12%, 31.5 and 8%, and 35.5 and 14.5%, respectively. Comparing age groups among women is problematic owing to the low number in the samples. Older women judged fire, the sun, and wind to be alive more often than did younger women. But the figure of 20% for younger women who considered fire to be living, for example, refers to one individual among just five, while the 62.5% of older women of the same view refers to five individuals of a total of just eight.

The results can be analysed in another way, by looking at the number of Nage who thought none of the 10 kinds of inorganic objects was alive. Of the total 43, as many as 26 (60.5%) fell into this category. Of these 26, moreover, 13, or exactly half, were men aged 55 or older, and these composed over three-quarters (76.5%) of all older men. The figure for younger men was also relatively high: 66.5% of this group interpreted no inanimate category as living. In contrast, the comparable figure for older women was 44.5%, and for younger women 37.5%.

Finally, it is worth applying this measure to the very oldest informants. Seven informants were 70 years or older. Of these, just two were women, and both judged none of the 10 inanimate objects to be alive, whereas four of the five men (80%) did so. The combined total was therefore six out of seven, or 85.5%. The figures decline when one looks at people who were 65 years or older, of which there were 17 (11 men and 6 women) and of whom 10 (59%) thought none of the objects was alive. For this category, however, the gender difference revealed by the initial measures becomes apparent, for while 8 of 11 men (or 72.5%) answered this way, just half of the 6 women did so.

Once again, therefore, a conception of inorganic things as living is less pronounced the older the group considered and (except for the two very oldest women) is more pronounced among women than among men. Although older people of both sexes had less formal education than their juniors, women in both groups are, on the whole, less educated than the men. Accordingly, the least educated of the four age-gender groupings is older women. Yet younger women tend to be more educated than both older women and older men, so the extent to which schooling is positively correlated with an attribution of life to things inanimate is quite remarkable. Some explanation for this may be found in the greater fluency of younger and accordingly more educated people in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language that serves as the language of instruction in schools and is further used in modern government administration, Christian teaching, and Church services. Especially relevant is the fact that national language terms for 'living, alive' (hidup) and 'dead, to die' (mati) apply to fire that is ignited and goes out; water that emerges from the ground and dries up; wind that gets up and 'dies' down; the rising and setting sun; machines that start up or 'work' and break down; and even organizations that come into operation and later close. (4) The application of the Indonesian terms to fire and water would seem especially relevant to Nage attributing life to these two things more often than other inorganic entities, as well as the fact that proportionally more younger people (35.5%) than older people (24%) thought water was something living.

Still, familiarity with the national language may not explain all differences, including those between the genders, and quite possibly other factors were involved. During 30 years of fieldwork, I have become far better known to older men (people now in my own age group), becoming familiar with both women and younger Nage only in the last 10 or so years, and then mostly in the context of more directive questioning such as that involved in the present study, where I needed to stress my wish to learn people's individual views. This may have encouraged women and younger people to offer their own interpretations, rather than drawing on what may be called a general cultural view--a view which also would be less familiar to younger people and which these and women generally (by contrast to older men) would feel less confident in expressing or would be less likely to defer to (on the factor of 'deference' in informant responses, see Astuti and Bloch 2013). Indeed, many women did appear more unsure than did men about what was living and what was not, and were also more inclined to say they did not know. To what extent this in itself may account for the variation is unclear. What is certain, however--and what any lack of certainty further attests to--is that a definite view of (or 'belief in) inanimate objects being alive represents anything but a general principle of Nage culture. In any case, the view most strongly expressed by older men--that inanimate objects are not alive (muzi)--is largely replicated among both younger people and women, so it evidently reflects a dominant way of thinking among Nage.


However one looks at them, results of questioning Nage provide no support for the minority view--that inorganic things are alive--reflecting an older, vanishing philosophy radically different from what is found in modern Western societies. In fact, everything would indicate the opposite: namely, an indigenous ontology aligning more closely with what Descola (2013) and Viveiros de Castro (1998) have distinguished as 'naturalist'. Besides muzi, there is no other Nage term that translates as 'living' or 'alive', and although the word further expresses the separate idea of newness, muzi has no application other than to a feature distinctive of biota. Nevertheless, certain usages do suggest that Nage might sometimes regard some inanimate objects as living.

As shown, virtually all people questioned described stone as something not living. Yet Nage also speak of unusually large stones or boulders as being inhabited by nitu, the same category of spirits identified with springs and other bodies of waters and with certain large forest trees. Indeed, Nage identify nitu spirits with the earth or land in general, although more specifically land on which humans have yet to settle, and they also describe these spirits as the original or ultimate 'owners of the land' (moi tana). Citing comparable cosmological ideas from western Flores, Allerton (2013:97-126) has interpreted land not only as spiritual but as something animate. For the Nage, however, this interpretation is questionable. For one thing, earth or forest spirits, as nitu may be called, are specifically identified with locations marked by large stones, trees, and the like which they inhabit in the same way as humans inhabit houses. To be sure, just as a human soul (mae) becoming permanently separated from the body (weki) results in a person's death, so Nage sometimes speak of nitu leaving a tree or a spring as resulting in the tree dying or the spring drying up. Yet one also hears the opposite, namely, that if a large tree dies or water run dries, resident nitu will remove to another spot. Moreover, it cannot be overstressed that Nage do not designate the spirit inhabitants of large stones or bodies of water as the mae (souls) of these objects, but only as nitu--or alternatively, as the ga'e, 'masters' or 'owners' of the thing in question (Forth 1998). Thus, to infer that nitu are the souls of associated objects, and that these objects are therefore alive (muzi), would not only go beyond the evidence but also would contradict distinctions maintained by Nage themselves. It should be noted as well that whereas every living human possesses a mae (soul), Nage do not consider all stones or bodies of water, nor all large trees, as being inhabited by nitu. And whereas humans each possess a single mae, large stones and water bodies are frequently spoken of as the homes of groups, or whole villages, of nitu. For Nage, then, the relationship between humans and their souls is very different from that between inanimate objects and resident spirits. And it is worth adding that, in the common Nage view, animals too neither possess individual souls nor do they embody nitu. Also, while certain non-mammals are a form that nitu can temporarily assume and while wild mammals are thought to compose these spirits' livestock--thus instancing a representation common in Southeast Asia--there is nothing to show that the spirits are identified as the 'souls' (mae) of non-mammalian animals, nor that wild mammals have any spiritual identity other than serving the nitu as livestock.

Much like Anglophones, Nage speak of water as 'swallowing' (kelo) drowning humans or animals, lightning as 'striking' (paka), and fire as 'consuming' or 'eating' (ka) things, but in no case does this attest to a conception of these entities as living beings. In a way reminiscent of the Anglo-American folk practice of 'whistling up (or for) the wind' (Radford and Radford 1961:361-62), when Nage burn dry vegetation--during a hunt or when clearing fields in preparation for planting--they whistle in order to 'summon' (enga) the wind, in the hope it will grow stronger and cause the fire to spread. However, Nage denied this practice implied the wind was alive like dogs, say, which they also summon by whistling, and when I asked why they spoke identically of summoning the wind, some explained this as 'merely a way of speaking' (bholo 'ana). This recalls supernatural stones mentioned earlier, which although reputedly capable of movement, Nage also deny are alive (muzi). In a similar vein, Nage speak of trophy horns of water buffalo and golden heirlooms, other things not deemed muzi, as occasionally emitting sounds, and in response periodically 'wash' the objects in the blood of sacrificial fowls. However, Nage ultimately represent such sounds as deriving not from the objects themselves but from powerful spirits associated with the objects (Forth 1998:83, 161-62).

A seemingly more serious challenge to a conception of life as a quality exclusive to biota are myths where things Nage ordinarily describe as inanimate are portrayed in ways which suggest they are or might be living things. Perhaps not coincidentally, such representations are relatively uncommon. Nevertheless, in one narrative, which recounts why the sun but not the moon is hot, the two heavenly bodies are depicted as brother and sister who, at the male moon's insistence, marry; a subsequent incident then results in their permanent separation, and the moon becoming cool, like the moon people know today. In another myth, the Pleiades and Antares are identically portrayed as an incestuous sibling pair, whose final separation as it were explains the fact that the constellation and the star are never present together in the night sky (Forth 1998:223, 224). And in yet another narrative, two local volcanoes--named 'Grandfather Lobo' and 'Mother Rie'--are cast as a man and wife who come to blows, thus notionally accounting for scarring on the male peak. In these three stories, heavenly bodies and mountains are thus depicted as living human beings; however, the first two texts especially make it equally clear that they are radical transformations of humans and so are not any longer either human nor any sort of living thing. Similarly anthropomorphic representations are found in the figure of 'Mother Gena' (Ine Gena), a vaguely conceived personification of the sky whom Nage identify with rain and associate with a male figure named 'Thunder' (Tegu), depicted as the father of a mythical woman who was sacrificed and from whose dismembered body rice and other crops originated (Forth 1998:226, 237). Another instance of such personification may be discerned in the Nage naming of the seas on Flores's south and north coasts as respectively the 'male (or husband) sea' (mesi haki) and the 'female (or wife) sea' (mesi fai)--designations which, as Nage explain, allude to the rougher, more dangerous character of the southern sea (Forth 1998:228). And although they do not speak of these either as being alive or as possessing any agency beyond what would ordinarily be expected of such things, in a few special instances Nage give individual names to manufactured objects such as weapons belonging to high-ranking men.

One question raised by these usages is how far they may have induced some Nage to interpret inorganic objects as living things. This seems unlikely. As shown, an interpretation of inorganic things being alive was more prevalent among women and among younger Nage of both genders. Assuming they were inclined to imaginatively search for ways in which inanimate things could be represented as alive, people in these categories could conceivably have drawn on widely known metaphors (such as the male and female seas) to support their responses. However, it is older men who are far more knowledgeable about myth and more familiar with magical practices like 'summoning the wind', and it was precisely this group who consistently represented inanimate objects as not living.

A rather larger question posed by representations of inanimate objects as living beings, and moreover as things capable of personhood and subjectivity, is of course how these can be reconciled with evidence that most Nage hold the contrary view. A large part of the answer can be found in depictions of inanimate objects as living, personified beings occurring specifically in myth and magic. To this should be added the common observation that myth and other symbolic forms typically depict things in ways that diverge radically from their ordinary representation, so that one cannot directly make inferences about everyday thought in a community from particular elements of their mythology or notions implicit specifically in ritual behaviour. Highlighting a contrast found in all human societies, this difference between mythical representations and ordinary representations of the world should sufficiently resolve the apparent contradiction between stating, for example, that the sun is not a living thing and yet relating a story depicting the sun as a living person, or denying the wind is alive and yet summoning it like a dog. Nevertheless, some anthropologists might want to argue that, in this contrast, one is actually dealing with two distinct conceptions of 'life': an ordinary conception whereby 'living' (muzi) pertains only to biota, and a 'non-biological' conception, a position apparently favoured by some neo-animist theorists (see e.g., Arhem 2016:22; Pitrou 2015:88; Praet 2013). Something like non-biological life may be involved in the 'immanence of life' discerned by Fox (1987:524, 526) as a general principle of most Southeast Asian traditional religions, which Arhem (2016) has recently interpreted as symptomatic of a widespread Southeast Asian 'animism'. But leaving aside possible meanings of the problematic notion of 'non-biological life', other than muzi I have never found any Nage word that refers to 'life' (or 'living, alive') in any sense, and of course the evidence indicates that, for the majority of Nage at least, muzi straightforwardly applies exclusively to biota.

A different solution may be found in Descola's claims regarding the articulation of 'animism' with the other three global ontologies he discerns among culturally various understandings of relations between human and non-human animals. Although for Descola a particular ontology will be 'dominant' in a given society, it will nevertheless 'encompass' the others, thereby allowing other ways of treating non-humans to 'infiltrate' cultural thought and practice--as when modern 'naturalists' treat 'their cats as if it [sic] has a soul' (2013:233-34). Presumably, Westerners giving personal names to artefacts like ships, cars, and musical instruments (e.g., 'Lucille', the name of B.B. King's guitar) would equally instance such ontological 'infiltration'. However, in the end, Descola devalues such evident exceptions by arguing that a society's 'institutions' and long-established patterns of 'automatic behaviour' will prevent 'such episodic slippages into other schemas' from effecting complete ontological transformation (2013:233-34). To apply Descola's thesis to the Nage evidence would presumably require interpreting mythological depictions or minority interpretations of inanimate objects as living things as 'animistic' slippages or infiltrations in a generally 'naturalist' ontological schema. However, if not the minority interpretations, then surely the myths are standard narratives and thus arguably a part of Nage 'institutions'. And even less plausible would be to argue that drawing the line between things living (muzi) and non-living in what in Descola's typology would have to be called a 'naturalist' way, represents a similar infiltration into a dominant Nage 'animist' ontology mostly reflected in a relatively small number of myths.

Not just their general conception of biota alone as living, but also the distinction Nage draw between humans and animals diverges from Descola's model of animism. Apart from both being alive, Nage in fact describe non-human animals as differing from humans both in substance and essence (Forth 2016:52-61, 63). Thus, only humans have individual souls (mae), and outside of myths (where animal characters are depicted as talking, employing human technology, and so on) there is little indication that Nage conceive of animals, even situationally, as persons. To be sure, a small number of myths portray groups of animals living like humans--for example, in underwater villages, where they appear as fish and eels. But the narratives invariably identify these animals as spirits in zoomorphic guise, and although anyone can encounter animals, specifically snakes and other non-mammals, which--especially when affliction follows the encounter--are later interpreted as having been temporary manifestations of nitu, by no means do Nage identify all members of these species as spirits. My argument, however, is not that Nage display a unitary ontology opposed to 'animism', or more simply that they are 'less animistic' than similar small-scale societies; nor indeed that they exemplify any kind of culturally particular ontology. For contextual or other variation in Nage representations of things as living or not is problematic only if one assumes that thought in any single society must reflect a single cognitive schema--or even a merely 'dominant' ontology which occasionally allows inconsequential exceptions--or if one assumes, following Ingold's recent formulation (Ingold 2016:303), that while people at birth may embrace all ontologies, which one 'comes to prevail in adulthood' depends on 'which is nurtured' and 'which are left to wither'--and presumably die.

A perspective very different from the foregoing is provided by a cognitivist approach, developed by a minority of anthropologists who have advanced a largely ignored or unanswered critique of the mainstream position which interprets all thought and practice in single societies as conforming to a single, monistic albeit culturally particular system (see e.g., Atran 1990:214; Boyer 1996; Sperber 1996:70, 77-85; Bloch 2012:1-13). For cognitivists, no cognitive schema, no psychological means of representing objects of experience, is allowed to wither and die. Rather, different cognitive processes remain operative in all humans, regardless of their culture, and so can be contextually deployed to produce different representations of the same phenomena. Following Sperber (1996, 2000) forms of cognition are minimally distinguished as 'empirical' and 'symbolic' or 'metarepresentational', the latter involving 'statements about statements' (as in 'the ancestors told us that X'), or ideas about ideas--including culturally inherited statements of the sort conveyed in myths--which are ordinarily left unanalyzed and not matched against empirical knowledge of things. In this way, counterintuitive propositions, extraordinary representations that contradict empirical knowledge derived from and regularly confirmed by the senses, are kept mentally separate from ordinary intuitions. But in order to be culturally sustained they must be sufficiently arresting or attention-grabbing (like heavenly bodies or volcanoes marrying one another or the wind responding to people whistling), and according to Boyer (1996, 2001), become especially durable insofar as they can combine with ordinary intuitions.

Seen in this light, Nage sometimes describing inorganic objects as animate but otherwise treating them as not living (or 'dead things') becomes not just intelligible but even expectable. By the same token it becomes questionable, to say the least, whether anyone could consistently maintain an 'ontology' that is completely or predominantly either 'animist' or 'naturalist'. These observations are especially relevant to mythological (or 'symbolic' or 'metarepresentational') depictions of heavenly bodies and the like as persons. Yet cognitive analysis can also account for variation in Nage responses to questions about what things are alive (muzi) and, more specifically, minority interpretations of inanimate objects as alive. For these too can be explained as manifesting a specifically 'symbolic' cognition (sensu Sperber) whereby, in a way characteristic of symbolism in the more general sense, special features of inanimate things--the fact that they enable plants to grow, or move or display agency--are selectively adduced and represented separately from the way people otherwise think about and behave towards the same objects. These distinctions go some way towards explaining why younger people and women seemed more inclined to judge inorganic objects as living things. But as indicated earlier, differences among informants, and especially younger as opposed to older people, are also accounted for by education and fluency in the Indonesian national language, which--somewhat ironically perhaps--does employ words for 'living, alive' and 'dead' to describe changes of state in inorganic things and artefacts. And as also shown, such differences may further reflect methodological rather than substantial factors.

To the extent that they address it at all, animist theorists treat internal variation quite differently. On first inspection, something comparable to a cognitivist position is discernible in remarks by Ingold concerning Hallowell's writing on the Ojibwa and particularly the older author's statement that these indigenous Canadians 'do not perceive stones, in general, as animate, any more than we do' (201 lb:97, citing Hallowell 1960:25). Drawing further on Hallo-well's ethnography, Ingold then goes on to state that Ojibwa nevertheless sometimes treat some stones, as well as some artefacts, as being alive 'in the context of their close involvement with certain persons and especially powerful persons at that' (Ingold 2011b:97). This too sounds not unlike like what one might find among Nage. However, instead of relating these contextually different ways of treating stones to different forms of cognition available to anyone, Ingold sums all this up by asserting that in the 'animic' ontology of the Ojibwa, 'life is not a property of objects at all, but a condition of being' (Ingold 201 lb:97). And, after declaring Atran's (1990:56) statement that people everywhere divide natural objects into living and non-living kinds to be 'simply not the case', he then proceeds to characterize the Ojibwa way of 'dealing with perception' as 'fundamentally non-taxonomic' (2011b:97), thereby maintaining his portrayal of the Ojibwa as fundamentally animistic.

In a more explicit reference to cognitivism, Descola (2013:102) takes a different approach to seeming ontological inconstancy. Descola apparently concedes that certain 'core assumptions' regarding human psychology, physics, and 'the instrinsic nature of non-human organisms' (or what cognitivists call 'intuitive biology' or 'folkbiology') may be universal. But while not 'underestimating the role played by possible universal schemas in the formation of ontological judgements', he nevertheless declares that the focus for anthropologists, whom he defines as 'those interested in the diversity of customs', must be 'acquired schemas' rather than universal schemas, thus making it quite clear not only that his four 'ontologies' are cultural constructs but also that, occasional 'slippage' aside, they are fundamentally distinct and self-contained systems on which pan-human cognition has little bearing. For Descola as for Ingold, therefore, differences in how humans think and experience the world lie not within humanity as a whole, as in the cognitivist view, but between culturally defined populations.


By now it will be evident that I do not see recent writing on 'animism', in any of its diverse forms (see Arhem 2016:6-12), as providing useful ways of comprehending Nage ethnography. Nor do I see Nage ethnography as contributing to theorizing about a refigured 'animism'--except, of course, as a corrective. How different Nage may be from other small-scale non-western cultivators in their treatment of inanimate things is difficult to say. Proponents of neo-animism have paid relatively little attention to ascriptions of life to things inorganic, in contrast to animal and plants--and unfortunately the same is largely true of ethnobiologists (but see Taylor 1990; Hunn 2008). Interestingly, in his introduction to a recent volume on 'animism' in Southeast Asia, Arhem (in Arhem and Sprenger, eds. 2016:3, 5-6, 10, 11) several times mentions inanimate 'things' or 'objects' among entities animists typically regard as animated, or as possessing intentional agency and personhood. For Southeast Asia at least, the Nage evidence obviously calls this generalization into question. However, it is also significant that contributors to Arhem and Sprenger's volume focus mostly on personified spirits, thus implicitly identifying 'animism' with cosmologies that populate the world with myriad unseen spiritual beings. As seen from my remarks on nitu spirits, if this is a definition of 'animism', then Nage can certainly be called 'animists'--as, arguably, can most of the world's people, including until quite recently, many Europeans. But since in regard to their understanding of what is alive and what is not, Nage appear quite different from other people thus designated, it is difficult to see what purpose would be served by doing so.

Writing on the distinction of living and non-living among the Chachi of Equador, Praet (2013:208-09) tendentiously suggests that, before western colonialism, animist ontology was more widespread among non-western peoples than anthropologists have realized. Since older Nage are more likely than younger to identify only biota as living (muzi), this society obviously counters such a claim. However, while it may be tempting to suggest that many groups thus far characterized as animists could, with more detailed study, be shown to be something else, perhaps even 'naturalists', this would be to miss the point. All people, some and probably most of the time, deal with the world by way of an intuitive ontology in which only things biological are alive, and although not identical, this form of understanding appears to overlap considerably with 'naturalism'. But this does not prevent people from sometimes adopting a quite different, counterintuitive view that allows them to treat cats as people and inanimate objects--like stones, heavenly bodies, and even cars and guitars--as being alive.


(1.) Like many authors I cite, in what follows 1 necessarily employ 'inanimate' and 'animate' and 'inorganic' and 'organic' in accordance with the ordinary usage of educated moderns. According to an international scientific view, certain objects Nage regard as inanimate do have organic components, most notably soil (awu, 'soil, earth'). But neither Nage nor most westerners would ordinarily speak of or relate to soil as something that is living or alive.

(2.) Cruikshank (2005:3), for example, describes Tlingit and Athapaskans as regarding glaciers as 'animate' and even as making 'moral judgements' and 'punishing infractions'.

(3.) On the possible effects of Christian conversion on animist cosmology, see Vilaca 2015.

(4.) Malagasy, the western Malayo-Polynesian language spoken on Madagascar, would appear similar to national Indonesian in this respect, since according to Bloch (1998:48), Malagasy velona 'applies to all living kinds, as well as to certain stones (for example quartz), clouds, motor engines, and so forth'. Bloch's wording, particularly the adjectival phrase 'as well as', would suggest that either he or Malagasy-speaking peoples regard stones, clouds and the like as not being 'living kinds'. But, unfortunately, while he says these latter usages do not appear to be metaphorical, he provides no further analysis of velona. From my unpublished heldnotes, I know that the eastern Sumbanese apply luri, their term for 'living, alive', to special, magical stones. However, as I also found, some Sumbanese at least do not regard such stones as being really 'alive'--thus expressing a distinction suggested by Nage who, as noted, do not identify their supematurally powerful stones as muzi (alive).


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Gregory Forth

University of Alberta

DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5187
Table 1 Positive responses to whether inorganic categories are 'alive,
living' (muzi)

             Grand                Males                     Females
             totals               55 and over  Males under  55 and over
             (maximum             (maximum     55 (maximum  (maximum
Category     total: 43)  Percent  total: 17)   total: 9)    total: 9)

Stone         1/43        2.5      0/17         0/9          0/9
                                   0%           0%           0%
Soil, earth   3/34        9.0      1/10         1/8          0/8
                                  10%          12.5%         0%
Water        12/42       28.5      2/16         2/9          4/9
                                  12.5%        22.2%        44.4%
Fire         12/29       41.5      3/8          3/8          5/8
                                  37.5%        37.5%        62.5%
Wind          8/40       20        1/16         2/8          3/9
                                   6.5%        25%          33.5%
Sun          10/42       40        2/16         2/9          4/9
                                  12.5%        22.2%        44.5%
Moon          9/42       21.5      2/16         1/9          3/9
                                  12.5%        11.1%        33.5%
Stars         7/41       17.0      1/16         1/9          2/8
                                   6.5%        11.1%        25%
Thunder       9/37       24.5      1/12         2/9          3/8
                                   8.5%        22.2%        37.5%
Lightning     8/38       21        2/12         2/9          2/9
                                  16.5         22.2%        22%

             55 (maximum
Category     total: 8)

Stone         1/8
Soil, earth   1/8
Water         4/8
Fire          1/5
Wind          2/7
Sun           2/8
Moon          3/8
Stars         3/8
Thunder       3/8
Lightning     2/8
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