Friday, 23 August 2013

Bits and Bobs on Indonesia/Austronesia

Here are a few miscellaneous bits and bobs that don't go anywhere else, mostly about Indonesia.


- I've been reading through my notes on Michel Jacq-Hergoualc'h's fantastic The Malay Peninsula.  Here are some interesting, somewhat myth-busting, notes from the first 70-odd pages:

  • First, according to Jacq-Hergoualc'h (who doesn't cite a source), the copy of Claudius Ptolemy's Geography that we have today is apparently a mix of Ptolemy's words and the interpretations of an anonymous 10th-11th century CE Byzantine scribe, and so any conclusions (say, about Indo-Malaysia) drawn from the work have to be considered in light of this much later revision.  The map associated with the work is definitely medieval.
  • Second, the Isthmus of Kra and the rivers of peninsular Malaysia were probably never used for international portage - that is to say, ships travelling from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, or vice versa, almost certainly followed the sea south around the peninsula instead of stopping on the coast and taking their wares across the peninsula in smaller vessels.  This is contrary to a strong tradition in (especially Anglophone) scholarship on the peninsula saying the rivers were useful for portage, largely in an attempt to explain the superior development of the east coast of the peninsula when compared to the west.  The claim that the Isthmus was used for trans-shipping or portage is not borne out the archaeological evidence, which shows no evidence of cargoes being transported along Isthmian rivers, and makes little sense of the available written evidence.  It is nevertheless repeated in plenty of otherwise excellent works, including Kenneth Hall's history of southeast Asia and Higham's Early Thailand.
  • Third, gold was apparently never a major export of the peninsula, or even Indo-Malaysia as a whole, despite the names given by Indian societies to southeast Asia (Suvarnabhumi and Suvarnadvipa - the 'land of gold' and 'island of gold'; also, Ptolemy's 'golden Khersonese').  This is important, because one of the main theories as to why Indian influence was so extensive in the archipelago has to do with the presence of gold.
It's a really great book, and one that every historian or anthropologist of this part of the world should read.

- Apparently, new research by archaeologists from the University of Indonesia ('UI') has thrown some doubt on the location of the original capital of Srivijaya, the Old Malay thalassocracy based on the east coast of Sumatera from the mid-to-late first millennium CE.  The Indonesian archaeologists claim that Srivijaya's original capital was at Muara Jambi, in Jambi province, Sumatera, instead of at Palembang, South Sumatera.  In fact, Srivijaya's later capital seems to have been at Jambi anyway, as the capital was apparently moved after the 1025 raid by the Cholas, but the UI archaeologists apparently believe that Jambi was the original capital after all (in fact, there's some debate in the academy about whether Srivijaya even had a single permanent capital).  The only source for this claim appears to be a single article in Koran Jakarta, an Indonesian newspaper, and it is entirely possible (likely?) that the writer misinterpreted the excavations, believing them to be about the original capital when the UI archaeologists were only trying to conduct research on later Srivijaya.  I'll keep on the case, so watch this space.

- I'm thinking about putting together a book on Austronesian poetry, myth, religion, and other features (obviously, this is a long-term project, and it's not something you can just throw together, but I may as well start serious research now).  As I gather the evidence, mostly from published ethnographies, I'll post a little about the results.

For instance, I'm trying to compile as much information as I can on the concept of vital force or power in Austronesian belief, most famous as mana, the word used in Polynesia for power, especially supernatural or ancestral power.  There is a great deal of dispute about the origins of this word (and its meaning, actually).  As I noted before, the Oceanic languages (of which Polynesian languages are parts) are a sub-family of Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, and given that mana can be reconstructed to proto-Oceanic (as *manaq, where /q/ represents a glottal stop), it isn't unreasonable to expect that there should be cognates a) in other Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages and b) perhaps in other Malayo-Polynesian languages generally.  Malay semangat, not to mention Meto smanaf and Savunese hemanga, appear related to proto-Oceanic *manaq, given that they refer to the same basic principle and seem to have the right sound changes.  Or, rather, most of the right sound changes.  Linguists have been unable to completely resolve the confusion, although Juliette Blevins of CUNY (formerly of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) has provided good evidence for believing that semangat and mana are related.  If you have JSTOR access, you could check out the article here for more.

Still, the concepts involved are basically similar and a comparison isn't out of the question even if the words aren't related (as, in fact, I believe they are).  The great thing is, this kind of comparative approach is possible in lots of spheres of Austronesian ethnology, whether beliefs about supernatural forces, ancestors, houses, plants, heads (and headhunting), eyes, taboo, warfare, cosmology, gods, and so much else.  It's possible to do exactly what scholars have done for generations in Indo-European studies, and that sounds like a great opportunity to me.  I'm actually a little surprised that we don't have a volume on Austronesian poetry and myth comparable to Martin West's book on Indo-European Poetry and Myth.  Strangely, most of the major works on Austronesian ethnology are collections, not single-author books, and so there's a disjointed and not-particularly-comprehensive air to a lot of them.  And the single-author books we've got, like Roxana Waterson's The Living House, cover a more or less arbitrary segment of Austronesia instead of all or most of it.  So I think it would be a good idea to start compiling all of this stuff and crafting a book out of it.

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