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Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Austronesia

Guest editors:

Kun-Hui Ku and Thomas Gibson


Kun-Hui Ku & Thomas Gibson

National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan & University of Rochester, Rochester, USA

Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Austronesia

pages 205-215

The current collection of articles includes a discussion of Austronesian peoples living in modern nations situated in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and Melanesia. It thus crosses many long-established boundaries in area studies which tend to develop their own theoretical dialects. While there are many valid reasons for these theoretical discussions, a shift in focus from geographically defined areas to what might be called ‘Greater Austronesia’ brings to light new sets of theoretical problems. Our central concern is the extent to which Austronesian societies value social hierarchy over egalitarianism, and the extent to which political leadership is determined through a rule of succession or other form of status ascription, through the competitive achievements of individuals, or actively resisted in the first place through various mechanisms such as the mandatory sharing of wealth, the denigration of ambition, or the dispersal of populations.



Kun-Hui Ku

National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan

Reconsidering Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Austronesian Taiwan

pages 216-233

This paper reviews previous attempts to characterise the nature of social differences among the Austronesian speakers of Taiwan and the theoretical roots of these efforts, including the contrast Marshall Sahlins’s drew between Melanesian Big-Men (achieved status) and Polynesian Chiefs (ascribed status). This contrast was later applied to the diverse social organisations found among the Austronesian speakers of Taiwan. However, linguistic research over the past three decades has suggested that Proto-Austronesians may have already developed chiefdoms and social hierarchies and that Taiwan was one of the key sites for the origin of Austronesian speakers. Some scholars thus concluded that the ‘egalitarian’ type of societies among the Austronesian Taiwan must have been the result of Japanese colonial policies. This paper intends to re-think this dichotomy with ethnographic material from Austronesian Taiwan, especially the Paiwan; to distinguish the ideological and practical dimensions of this historical reconstruction; and to examine the viability of the analytical tools which have been widely adopted in the anthropological literature on other Austronesian societies.


Thomas Gibson

University of Rochester, Rochester, USA

From Tribal Hut to Royal Palace: The Dialectic of Equality and Hierarchy in Austronesian Southeast Asia

pages 234-248

In this paper, I will compare and contrast the Austronesian symbolic elements of the two social formations within which I have conducted extensive ethnographic and archival research, that of the highly egalitarian Buid of Mindoro, Philippines and that of the equally hierarchical Makassar of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. I will demonstrate both that their cosmological structures are built out of common symbolic elements and that these structures could be used to legitimate vastly different political systems. The common symbolic elements included a gendered cosmos inhabited by a series of parallel societies composed of animal, human and spirit subjects; the conceptualisation of human sociality as generated by shared experience within a nested series of bounded spaces; and the ability of certain agents to move between these spaces by way of specialised training, vehicles and portals.



Denis Regnier

Université de la Polynésie Française, Faa'a, French Poluynesia

Forever Slaves? Inequality, Uncleanliness and Vigilance about Origins in the Southern Highlands of Madagascar

pages 249-266

In the southern highlands of Madagascar, Betsileo free descendants strictly avoid marrying descendants of slaves, whom they regard as ‘unclean people’. A close examination of the history of a slave descent group shows that the most serious difficulty faced by former slaves after abolition was not access to land but ritual uncleanliness, which prevented intermarriage with free people and led to the essentialisation of the now pervasive hierarchical distinction between clean and unclean people. Today, free descendants actively maintain a social memory of ‘origins’ and remain extremely vigilant about not marrying the slave descendants, who are ‘locked’ into an unequal and unclean status that they cannot easily escape.



Hao-Li Lin & Richard Scaglion

National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan & University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, USA

Austronesian Speakers and Hereditary Leadership in the Pacific

pages 267-283

This article explores the notion that peoples speaking Austronesian languages brought the ideology of social hierarchy based on hereditary leadership into the Pacific Islands. This social model contrasts with the strongly egalitarian leadership that likely characterised peoples already residing in New Guinea and nearby islands. While complex interactions between these two groups did occur, particularly in coastal areas, the latter populations rarely adopted hierarchical models of leadership. In contrast, the institution of hereditary leadership burgeoned into elaborate chiefdoms as Austronesian speakers expanded into Remote Oceania. Using linguistic and archaeological evidence, we argue that hereditary leadership, or the institutions to support it, may already have been in place in early Austronesian societies in Taiwan. We further evaluate this correlation by reviewing ethnographic reports of chiefs and reanalysing scholarly appraisals of big-man societies and chiefdoms. We conclude that the ‘Melanesian big-man vs. Polynesian chief’ contrast corresponds largely to the Austronesian and Non-Austronesian language divide; attention to which can clarify the development of hereditary leadership in the Pacific and illuminate historical relations among cultures in Near Oceania.


John Barker

University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Mixed Grammars and Tangled Hierarchies: An Austronesian-Papuan Contact Zone in Papua New Guinea

pages 284-301

The article is divided into two parts. In the first, I explore what is known about the precontact history of Collingwood Bay based on archaeological, linguistic, and oral evidence. While much must be left to speculation, the evidence strongly suggests that the Bay has long been a meeting point between Austronesian and Papuan peoples. The second and longer part of the paper attends to the political system found in most Collingwood Bay communities. I focus here primarily on the Maisin-speaking people residing in the southern part of the Bay with whom I’ve worked since 1981. More specifically, I describe how this system incorporates both hierarchical and egalitarian aspects and has proven remarkably adaptable to social changes from the time of European first contact in the 1890s.

Keir Martin

University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

Hierarchy and Stratification in East New Britain

pages 302-318

Hierarchy is often discussed in anthropology in terms of models that are specific to, and to an extent determinant of particular cultures. For example, the contrast between Big Man and Chief drawn by Sahlins not only appears as an emanation of distinction between two cultural orders in his account, but also as being a fundamental determinant of that cultural distinction. Likewise, the Dumontian conception of hierarchy that has been applied to a number of recent analyses of Oceanic societies is also one that emanates from and is foundational to the establishment of a distinction between Western and Indian societies. In this paper, I explore an alternative conception of emerging hierarchies in the South Pacific, that do not fit so easily into such schema. Based on fieldwork in East New Britain, I argue whilst such issues are sometimes locally glossed in terms of an ideal-type opposition between Western and local cultures, that often an understanding of these different hierarchies is not so easily contained within such a perspective.


Knut Rio

University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

The Transformation of Hierarchy Following Christian Conversion in Vanuatu

pages 319-334

In this paper, I use pig-killings as an entry for understanding the transformation that has taken place with respect to hierarchy and egalitarianism in Vanuatu. In the early twentieth century accounts by John Layard there is a thorough description of the cosmological and spiritual meaning of pig-killings in the manly hierarchy of these islands. The entire society was consumed in a sacrificial cycle that each lasted for six years and involved the killing of many hundreds of pigs, the most valuable acting as substitutes for human beings. At the peak of the ritual, the greatest of men stood up on a stone platform and announced their increased status and thereby joined the ranks of the society of ancestors. Comparing this with the situation today, there is absolutely no build-up of super-human status in ceremonies. On the contrary, I argue that today, pigs are being killed, cows are being butchered and cooked, yams and taro are displayed and distributed in great quantities, and huge sums of money figure in bride price and ceremonial payments, but not for the purpose of gaining spiritual power. They instead express bilateral connections, and form a redistributive system of production. In a development linked to the introduction of Christianity, monetary value and colonial labour regimes, ceremonial life has made an almost unnoticeable turn against the former hierarchical order.


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