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Bernard Sellato, Innermost Borneo: Studies in Dayak Cultures.

Bernard Sellato, Innermost Borneo: Studies in Dayak Cultures. Singapore and Paris: Singapore University Press and Seven Orients, 2002. 221 pp. + 16 pages of B&W plates.

Bernard Sellato, the author of this book, is Director of the Institute for Research on Southeast Asia (IRSEA), University of Provence; a member of CNRS, the French National Science Research Center, and editor of the Southeast Asian studies journal Moussons. As he tells us in his introduction to Innermost Borneo, he first came to the island in 1973. At the time, working as a uranium geologist, he came to know well the Aoheng and neighboring tribal peoples of the remote Muller Range, where he was then engaged in geological mapping. Eventually, after living for two years with the Aoheng, a community of forest farmers inhabiting the headwaters of the Mahakam and Kapuas Rivers, he abandoned geology for anthropology, receiving his doctorate from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in 1987. Today, he is the undisputed authority on the smaller Dayak groups of the central Borneo interior, including not only farming communities like the Aoheng, but also a variety of rainforest hunter-gatherers.

Innermost Borneo comprises 13 chapters, most of them previously published as articles or book chapters, but also including five previously unpublished essays. Additionally, many of the published papers originally appeared in French and are translated here for the first time into English by the author himself, including two major essays, "Social Organization in Borneo: A General Overview" and "How Tribes Come into Being." The latter, which was originally published in 1992 as Rituel, politique, organisation sociale et ethnogenese. les Aoheng de Bornbo, deftly combines a microsociological analysis of ritual, politics, and society with insights from history and comparative linguistics in one of the finest examples of anthropological writing in the Borneo literature. The publishers are to be commended for bringing together this significant, but scattered, body of scholarly work in one readily accessible volume.

Despite being written over a period of twenty years and treating a variety of topics, the collection hangs together remarkably well. First, the focus is clearly interior Borneo and, in the author's words, the "small tribal minorities living in [this] most remote nook of the Borneo hinterlands" (p. 13). Its object, as set out in the introduction, is "to provide the reader with a few keys to a better understanding of traditional life in one of our planet's last isolated spots" (p. 14). At the same time, Sellato relates, one of the things he learned in living with the Aoheng is that they "were just regular people, in no way different from the average French person," and so a further object of the book is "to make the Aoheng and their neighbors appear less foreign, less 'exotic,' and more familiar" to its readers. Also contributing to the book's coherence is a brief, but engaging introduction. Here, Sellato draws out some threads that he sees as connecting the essays and the logic behind their arrangement. He also reflects, although in a much more cursory way, on the changes that are now transforming interior Borneo and how, in some cases, his own thinking has moved beyond the ideas expressed in some of the earlier essays that are republished here.

The book begins with an account of the earliest European explorations of central Borneo, particularly those of Anton Nieuwenhuis at the turn of the twentieth century. This account originally appeared as the author's introduction to an abridged Indonesian translation of Nieuwenhuis's classic In Central Borneo and is here appropriately re-titled "The First Written Sources." This is followed by two introductory chapters, the first describing the upper Kapuas region, the second the upper Mahakam. While providing necessary background, both chapters warrant an update in view of the massive destruction of the rainforest, road building, and population displacements that have occurred since they were first written. In fairness, Sellato addresses some of these changes head on in the next chapter, "Forest Economics: The Dayak and their Natural Resources." Here he examines the experiences of two interior communities, the Aoheng and Punan Tabang, in their encounter with government agents of change intent on imposing governmental control, settling them down, and appropriating their resources. In a postscript, Sellato acknowledges his own increasing doubts about his earlier assumption that traditional cultures are necessarily good custodians of the natural environment. Here, it must be added, however, that customary conservation practices are now under pressures unimaginable even twenty years ago.

The next two chapters deal with social organization and are substantial contributions. The first, "Social Organization in Borneo," explores the applicability of Levi-Strauss's concept of "societies of the house," proposing, instead, a four-fold typology of Bornean societies. The second is similarly comparative in scope, but addresses a much narrower topic, looking at kinship terminology among nomadic groups in Borneo and correlating a nomadic way of life with utrolocal residence and a complex pattern of sibling-in-law terrmnologies. The chapter that follows, Chapter Seven, "Reconstructing Borneo's Culture History," examines a variety of hypotheses that have been advanced to account for the origin of hunter-gatherers in Borneo, taking issue in particular with revisionist, and especially devolutionary, explanations. Sellato argues, instead, for the ancient colonization of the interior of Borneo by Austronesian-speaking foragers and horticulturalists, before the use of metal made possible the opening of the rainforest to extensive swidden rice cultivation. Chapter Eight, "History and Myth among Borneo People," examines a legend recorded in writing by a Bukat leader to demonstrate the way in which identities are constructed from oral historical traditions and how these traditions may be manipulated to create a group image that a community wishes to project to the outside world.

Chapter Nine, already alluded to, is an exemplary work of ethnohistorical analysis, exploring the interconnections of ritual, politics, and ethnogenesis among the Aoheng, a group that came into being only during the last two hundred years through a coalescence of hunter-gathering and farming groups. The last four chapters, all but one of them previously unpublished, comprise a group which Sellato himself describes in his introduction as "sketchy." As such, they form a nice balance to the much longer, more densely argued papers that immediately precede them and deal briefly with questions of gender, sacrifice, genres of Aoheng oral tradition, and, finally, Aoheng geological taxonomies and notions relating to stones, their uses and cultural significance.

Innermost Borneo is an important volume, bringing together twenty years of writing by a distinguished anthropologist, and deserves to be viewed as essential reading for all Borneo specialists and others concerned with upland minority peoples in Southeast Asia. Although, regrettably, lacking an index, the book is otherwise enhanced by a wealth of maps, figures, and by 41 black-and-white photos. In his introduction, Sellato tells us that he began his fieldwork among the Aoheng by being interested in everything. "I worked," he writes, "on language, ritual, history, social organization, oral literature, and more" (p. 14). That he did so, taking the time to inquire deeply and at length into so many diverse facets of Aoheng life has since served him well and is richly apparent in this collection in the close attention he gives to ethnographic detail and cultural interconnections. "Later on," he continues,
 I focused on the modalities of interaction between society and the
 environment, and the customary institutions controlling the access
 to and management of land ... Through time, I became increasingly
 involved in investigations in ethnohistory and comparative
 linguistics, in an attempt to reconstruct Borneo's culture history.


In the same way, these interests, too, are amply on display here. (Clifford Sather, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki, Finland. This review originally appeared in Asian Folklore Studies (2003) and is reprinted here with the permission of the editor)
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Author:Sather, Clifford
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1289
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