Accepted Paper:

Animists take wing: living-with-birds in Austronesian Formosa and beyond  


Scott Simon (Université d'Ottawa)

Paper short abstract:

The Austronesian peoples of Taiwan and Oceania have rich traditions about human-bird relations. This synthesis of fieldwork and historical ethnography examines these relations within a broad context of animism and inter-species communication. Can animism offer insights on human-bird relations today?

Paper long abstract:

The Austronesian peoples of Formosa (Taiwan) have rich traditions relating to human-bird relationships. With legends of humans transforming into birds and practices of divination based on observing bird behaviour, not least in regard to the hunt, they conserve strong elements of animism in spite of mass conversion to Christianity. They also hunt some birds, and use bird parts such as feathers in adornment. Although there is great diversity in these relationships depending on the accumulated knowledge of specific human groups and the type of bird, there is a pattern in which humans access unseen knowledge through the mediation of birds. This may consist of environmental information, such as the location of prey in the mountains or the direction of land when at sea, or messages about birth and death of humans.

Thinking through these ways of living-with-birds as Austronesian variants of animism, I explore human-bird relations through field observations with the Seejiq (Truku) people of the mountainous regions. I contrast that with observations made by Japanese and German ethnographers throughout Taiwan and beyond in Oceania during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There seems to be a connection between ancestor worship and animist practices such as divination using birds, which, as in the work of Bateson or Kohn, point toward an ecology of mind. What can be learned from Austronesian animisms about human-bird relationships? Are there patterns in what humans try to learn from birds? Does animism provide new insights on the place of humans in semiotic ecologies?

Panel P071
Legacies and futures of animism in the anthropocene