Monday, 16 June 2014

What I'm writing these days

I haven't posted anything in a while, primarily because I've been busy. I've been planning and researching a book on ancient Indonesia, writing out detailed chapter plans and filling half a dozen of those mega-useful Ryman's project books with notes on Indonesian metal age rock art and agriculture in pre-Austronesian New Guinea. I don't know if it'll be published any time soon, but there's a gap in the market for an up-to-date, hopefully well-written popular book on Indonesia. The idea is that it'll look a bit like Michael Coe's Mexico or The Maya - a useful introductory work for undergraduates and the interested public - and there's a definite gap in the market for such a thing.

You can't write about ancient Indonesia on its own - it would be such an arbitrary decision to limit discussion to the political geography of the present day. Ancient life in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei has to be included. I also want to throw in lots of information on eastern Indonesia (mostly from archaeology, linguistics, and comparative ethnography), which no popular book on Indo-Malaysia currently does, and that means that I have to include New Guinea as well, and Timor Leste. You'd find it impossible to write about pre-Austronesian Indonesia without including something from New Guinea - Phalanger orientalis, a kind of cuscus, was introduced to Timor about 9,000 years ago from New Guinea, as was the cassowary into Seram, as were bananas, sugarcane, taro, and other crops into Island Southeast Asia as a whole (and later the world). I'm not including the Philippines, for no other reason than that there has to be some limit.
Phalanger orientalis, the cuscus found on Timor from c.9000 BP in the east of the island, introduced there by humans by unknown methods and for unknown reasons (probably hunting?). h/t Wiki.
The area I'm talking about is basically what Wallace called the 'Malay Archipelago', but I don't want to use that in the title of the book as it's based on a set of racial and linguistic assumptions from the colonial period. Before the rise of Melaka in the fourteenth century it's unlikely that the Malay language had quite as wide a distribution as it had in Wallace's time, and 'Malay' is first and foremost a linguistic term. 'Indo-Malaysia' is out, because it doesn't cover everything and it would alienate most of the audience of a popular book, so while it's perfectly useful for Peter Bellwood's opus, it isn't appropriate for what I want to write.

Similarly, I can't use 'Malesia', a biological term for the part of the Paleotropical Kingdom that includes modern Indonesia and parts of the southwestern Pacific, both because it includes the Philippines and because it isn't well-known. I prefer 'Ancient Indonesia', for the same reasons that George Roux preferred to title his book 'Ancient Iraq' despite including large segments on parts of what is now Syria and Iran.

As for time, I want to go from the formation of the archipelago geologically (starting with the break up of Pangaea about 180 million years ago) to 1511 CE, when the Portuguese conquered Melaka, beginning a long process of political subjugation and consolidation that eventually created the modern nations now present in the area. It's important to get a grasp of the geology of Indonesia before trying to make sense of the distribution of flora and fauna and the difficulties of movement through the archipelago, and it's important to get a grasp of that before trying to make sense of the arrival and flourishing of humans in later periods. It's also important to give more than a cursory glance to prehistory and the heritage of Pleistocene settlers and Malayo-Polyesian-speaking societies - something again absent or poorly-surveyed by recent books on ancient Indonesia and Malaysia.

Obviously, this is going to be quite a superficial book. Island Southeast Asia is a complicated and fascinating place, and while there's a lot more work to be done (archaeological excavation only really began in Maluku, for example, in the 1970s), there's also quite a lot that we now know, most of which cannot be included in a book under 300 pages. But since most people know nothing about Indonesia, it seems like a good idea to start with something superficial. Not everybody is interested in tracking down articles on the prehistory of the Kei Islands, especially if they don't even know that the Kei Islands exist. So I think it's a worthwhile project.

Anyway, Indonesia contains crazy stuff like this:
Megalara garuda, an all-black 3.3cm-long wasp from Sulawesi with fangs longer than its legs. h/t Wiki.

...and I don't think there's any disputing the fact that it should really be better known.


  1. So it sounds like you will do both the natural history and the human history of Indo-Malaysia. Excellent idea. The pre-human history part, then, will be a little like Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters or The Eternal Frontier ?

    1. Mostly the human history - the natural history is necessary background. It's necessary background to every part of the world, of course, but in Indonesia you've got the collision of three or four tectonic plates and the mingling of Gondwanan and Laurasian faunas, all of which had a huge impact on human settlement. I won't go too in-depth, and the focus is still human life in the archipelago.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.