Strategy Blurring: Flexible Approaches to Subsistence in East Timor

Sandra Pannell, Susan O'Connor

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Anthropological accounts commonly characterize East Timorese societies as swidden agriculturalists. Subsistence is primarily based upon the cultivation of corn, dry rice, root crops and vegetables, and small-scale animal husbandry of buffalo, goats and pigs. These accounts invariably point to the precarious nature of the agricultural cycle across most of Timor, governed as it is by the harsh physical environment of the island and dependent upon the often unreliable rains of the northwest monsoon. As several anthropologists point out, in East Timorese society, indigenous rituals are accorded a pivotal role in local efforts to overcome these adverse ecological conditions. While agricultural rites represent an important social measure to influence the outcome of cultivation practices, little if anything is said in the anthropological literature pertaining to Timor about local hunting and gathering as a risk-minimisation subsistence strategy utilized by swidden agriculturalists. In contrast to the anthropology, the archaeology highlights the problems underlying the characterization of the island's late Holocene subsistence economy as agricultural. Archaeological findings from all sites excavated to date reflect a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle up until the historical period. Despite the orthodox view that agriculture was the catalyst propelling the dispersal of Austronesian-speakers through ISEA and out into the Pacific in the mid to late Holocene (Bellwood 1997:70, 202-3), the archaeological record holds little other than pottery to attest to economic or socio-cultural change (O'Connor 2006). Most of the agricultural crops grown today are of limited antiquity being predominantly South American introductions, post dating Portuguese contact. Focusing upon local strategy switching and blurring, in this paper we explore how an ethno-archaeological approach to subsistence addresses the anthropological invisibility of hunter-gatherer lifestyles and also provides a more complex view of the archaeological record in East Timor.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationArchaeological invisibility and forgotten knowledge: Conference Proceedings, Lodz, Poland, 5th-7th September 2007
    Editors Karen Hardy
    Place of PublicationOxford
    ISBN (Print)9781407307336
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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