Accepted Papers:

Imagining the force(s) of life and the cosmos in the Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak  


Monica Janowski (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper counterpoises the ways in which the Kelabit of Borneo see the operation of the forces of life and the cosmos in the landscape of the Kelabit Highlands with those used by researchers investigating past and present relationships between humans and the landscape, suggesting that there are profound differences but also resonances between the two ontologies.

Paper long abstract:

For the Kelabit, the landscape is hypothesized to be full of nodes of life, which are related to each other through a flow of life or power (lalud) through a landscape the whole of which can be said to be alive. Lalud is seen as unitary and has its source in the Creator Deity. For the Kelabit, then, spiritual forces and natural forces are one and have the same origin. What might be described as nodes of lalud include animals and plants, but they also include stones, crystals and mountains. Humans can intervene in the flow of lalud, diverting and channelling it.

Researchers – anthropologists, archaeologists and environmental scientists – working in the Kelabit Highlands on the Cultured Rainforest project aim to chart the human relationship with the natural environment over time. To do this archaeologists and environmental scientists utilize analytical skills founded in scientific hypotheses about the operation of the forces of the cosmos to understand the ‘natural’ processes which are occurring in the highlands and which form a backdrop to what humans do; and they and the anthropologists working on the project use this data as well as participant observation and interview data to hypothesize about and attempt to explain human behaviour.

Not only for the Kelabit, but also for modern science, the forces of the cosmos are ultimately one, since they have their source in the basic physical laws of the universe, which are seen as closely related to one another. Both researchers and the Kelabit consider that humans can intervene to divert and utilize the forces of the cosmos. However, the nature of those forces is conceived of somewhat differently, with implications for the ways in which they are seen to operate and the ways in which humans can intervene in them. One of the most important differences between the two ontologies is in the distinction which modern science makes between life and forces which are seen as purely ‘material’, a distinction which the Kelabit do not make. This has important implications for the ways in which the forces of the cosmos are imagined to operate; and also for the ways in which humans are imagined to be able to intervene in those forces.

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Imagining past and present landscapes