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Origins, Ancestry and Alliance: Explorations in Austronesian Ethnography.

This volume is the third in a series exploring important aspects of the cultural heritage held in common by Austronesian peoples. The papers included herein were first presented in January 1990, at a conference on 'Hierarchy, Ancestry and Alliance' in Canberra. In his introduction James Fox remarks how the contributors came to recognise a need to counteract a trend toward the 'localisation of interests and proliferation of different modes of analysis' by generating comparative discussion among area specialists. Drawing upon the testimony of archaeological and linguistic research on the historical expansion and cultural diversification of the Austronesian world, Fox argues that such comparisons can be expected to identify variations upon a number of common cultural themes.

One theme recurrent in the ethnography of this region is a fundamental concern among its peoples with the tracing of origins, in terms of ancestry, past migrations and sequences of alliance. This concern may not be unique to this region. Its particular Austronesian flavour emerges as the preoccupation with origins is articulated within discourses founded upon a number of specific idioms. In different Austronesian societies these idioms often employ terms that are cognates in their respective languages, but sometimes they may be related only in their semantic content. in a typical botanic idiom, for example, a common point of origin is signified by the stem or root of a plant as opposed to its many tips or leaves, and the status of a group will be indexed metaphorically in terms of proximity to the 'root' or 'tip' of a social whole thought of as a living and growing organism.

In this mode of representation the heterogeneity of contemporary society is depicted as the product of a historical process of social differentiation, and yet, the different groups are also parts of a whole held together by their common orientation towards the origin and beginning of that process. One could thus say that to speak of origin in these societies is to posit a value, but according to Fox and his colleagues, this does not lead to hierachization in the way anticipated by Luis Dumont. Origin in the Austronesian world is an ideology founded upon reverence for the ancestral founders of a community, the identification of groups with these founders, and the ranking of positions of other groups in relation to such founders, by which rights to material and symbolic resources are derived. One's position in relation to others within such an 'order of precedence' is indicative not of an absolute status but of a relative rank. In addition, the authors demonstrate that a discourse of origin may be defined and an order of precedence established according to a variety of criteria, each of which in turn may allow for competitive interpretation and contestation.

Peter Bellwood's paper offers reflections on how a hereditary position of precedence attributed to founders and their succeeding elder sons may have played a role in the dynamics of geographical expansion among Austronesian peoples. In a process he describes as 'founder rank enhancement', younger or less privileged members of a community would be propelled to emigrate and establish themselves as founders elsewhere in order to boost their material as well as symbolic resources. In the course of such multiple foundations, 'relevant history' may be variously defined by different founders in their identification of an appropriate point of origin.

Jukka Siikala elaborates on the multiple conception of origin in his ethnography of the southern Cook islands. Discourses on relations among the islands and claims to the succession of chiefly lines combine a temporal idiom of elder-younger distinctions with others based on gender and marriage. Idioms of genealogy and place merge into the idea of an ancestral journey, a path of origin traced through recursive links across space and time.

Ken-ichi Sudo's paper concerns discourses of origin among the matriclans of Satawal in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. Chiefly status is accorded to clans of first settlers, and commoner status to those who arrived later. One of the founding clans, however, surrendered their chiefly status to a clan of newcomers, again a frequent Austronesian theme familiar perhaps from Sahlin's comments on stranger kings in Polynesia. Sudo also reveals the construction of local status to be multiply conceived and subject to contestation.

Clifford Sathers and Aram Yengoyan both examine how a concern with origins may be articulated even in egalitarian societies, like the Iban of Sarawak and the Mandaya of Southeast Mindanao. Iban society, argues Sathers, is structured by principles of both equality and hierarchy, the one pertaining to internal relations and the other to relations with outsiders. Yengoyan similarly contrasts egalitarian values within a domestic context, with representations of the past as a precedence order among territorial groups, established by the journeys and deeds of heroic ancestors.

The four subsequent papers are focused on Eastern Indonesia. In a comparative study of alliance, Fox introduces the terms 'progenitor/progeny' for affinal relationships in societies on Timor and Flores. His terms approximate local kinship categories and botanic idioms which reflect a concern with tracing the origin of life rather than the exchange of spouses per se, as the conventional terms wife-giver/-taker would suggest. Douglas Lewis describes the internal order of precedence evident in the progenitrix lines of origin among the maternal groups of the Ata Tana'Ai of Flores. Comparing this society with the neighbouring rajadom of Sikka, he illustrates how sacred authority and secular power are delegated within fluid temporal orders of precedence based on histories of origin, immigration and alliance. Michael Vischer's paper focuses on three domains on the island Palu'e, to the north of Flores. Though depicted as three hearthstones (of equal height) supporting a cooking vessel, ritual precedence among these domains is a matter subject to fierce contestation. In a performance-oriented analysis of an important buffalo sacrifice he demonstrates how contestations of the established order are articulated in terms of a flexible logic of recursive complementarity, categorical asymmetry and categorical inversion. Finally, Barbara Grimes examines notions of precedence in relationships within and among 'houses' of agnatic kin in Buru, based on relative age and a temporal order of establishment respectively.

The contributors emphasise how access to knowledge about the past, in the form of narratives of origin, is crucial for the lodgment of a claim to precedence in the present. Sandra Pannell's case from the island of Darner shows that this present may be one where local origin narratives become interwoven with the narratives of a modern Indonesian nation state in a process of mutual appropriation. Arletta Biersack continues in a similarly historical mode of analysis with her portrayal of succession schemes in the Tongan title system. In a study of marriage politics, David Bulbeck shows that alternative forms of succession also encouraged competitive claims to title in the Makassarese kingdom of Gowa. That Austronesian origin structures are anything but a timeless social hierarchy is made evident in the final paper by Charles Frakes, citing examples from Sulu and the Zamboanda Peninsular in Mindanao.

Frakes poses some interesting challenges for the comparative study of Austronesian societies. If it can be assumed that social, political, ecological and other historical factors require greater adaptations from the organisational structures of these societies than from their languages. then how, he asks, can we claim that similarities among societies with as diverse a historical experience as those of Polynesia and Southeast Asia can be more than 'convergences of form arising from utterly dissimilar causes'. This would suggest that cultural similarities in the Austronesian world may not always be systematic and attributable to a relatedness of languages and a common historical origin that lies some 4000 years in the past. An extension of the comparative discussion to other societies in the Asia-Pacific region may help to explore further the limits of a link between language, history and culture on which the present comparative project has been premised.

Essential reading for anyone seriously engaged with the ethnographic study of an Austronesian-speaking society, concerned with the comparative ethnology of the Asia-Pacific region, or interested in a theoretical debate on social stratification, status, rank and hierarchy.

Thomas Reuter University of Heidelberg
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Author:Reuter, Thomas
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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