The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives

The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives – Review

Paul Alexander

Peter Bellwood, James Fox and Daryl Tryon (eds). Canberra: Australian National University Press. 1995. vii, 359pp., illust., maps, tables, index. $35, ISBN 0-7315-2132-3.

Paul Alexander Anthropology, University of Sydney

These two volumes are major products from the Comparative Austronesian project at the Australian National University. This multi-disciplinary research program was intended to bring together the often localised research on the 270 million Austronesian speakers, and to produce state-of-the-art statements on issues of comparative importance. Both of these collections of essays admirably meet the goals of the project: each volume is focused on a particular set of substantive issues and marshals material from a wide range of Austronesian populations in support of its findings. Even a Social Anthropologist who is unconvinced of the utility of an Ethnological Field of Study can recognise that both volumes are comprehensive summaries of completed research and essential starting points for new investigations.

Most of the chapters in the first volume are concerned with the origins and dispersal of the Austronesian ‘phylogenetic unit’ and taken together are an excellent summary of current research on these issues. Three papers by linguists and three by archaeologists, each an acknowledged authority on their topic, produce a definitive account of the origins of the Austronesians, their distribution through Southeast Asia after 4000 BC and their movement out into the Pacific after 1600 BC. The picture is fleshed out with six essays on particular subjects which are relevant to the main theme: Austronesian physical anthropology, domestic mammals, sailing techniques, foraging, localised language change, and shared elements in contemporary Austronesian social structures. To this point, the volume is tightly focused on an explicit theme and has a clear, if implicit, theoretical orientation. The last four essays, which deal with such questions as the role of Islam and Christianity in the ‘transformations’ of Oceanic societies are, in my view, out of place in the volume. One reason for this view is that their location in the volume suggests that linguistic, biological and cultural change are essentially the same process; another reason is that (irrespective of their quality) the topics of these papers are not amenable to brief summaries.

The regional focus of social and cultural anthropology has often given a strong local flavour to theories which were conceptualised as universal. Indeed, conventional analyses of Austronesian social structures based on theoretical concepts developed elsewhere sometimes read like an extended apology for absences: Austronesian societies lack proper descent groups, sufficiently complicated kinship terminologies, marked sexual divisions of labour, or even unambiguous structures of rank. The second volume examines efforts by Jim Fox, his colleagues and students, to arrive at an appropriate theoretical structure for the analysis of Austronesian social structures. Drawing on Dutch structuralism and modern linguistic theory, their major suggestion is that metaphors of social structure in Eastern Indonesian societies (themselves the locus of a regional theoretical tradition) are grounded in a discourse of origins and precedence rather than, for example, descent or hierarchy. This in turn directs attention away from strongly corporate descent and kinship groups towards less corporate social categories associated with marriage and rituals. the utility of this approach is demonstrated by fourteen papers on a wide range of Austronesian societies. All of the papers are interesting, but Sather’s radical reconsideration of Iban ‘egalitarianism’ is a particularly important revision of a classical anthropological account.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group