The Dynamics of Wealth and Poverty in the Transegalitarian Societies of Southeast Asia

By Hayden, Brian | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Dynamics of Wealth and Poverty in the Transegalitarian Societies of Southeast Asia


Hayden, Brian, Antiquity


Introduction

The goal of this article is to describe a major sector of the wealth-producing systems of tribal Southeast Asia and to understand the major constraints in wealth production and accumulation. Four domains exist where wealth is generated in traditional, subsistence and agriculture-based economies: agriculture, domestic animals, regional exchange and feasting. Feasting and agriculture are analysed elsewhere (see papers in Dietler & Hayden 2001), while the mechanics and dynamics of regional exchange have been studied since Malinowski (1961). In contrast, there is much less information available on aspects of animal domestication that generate inequalities. Therefore, in this article, I will focus on domestic animals as a source of wealth.

Domestic animals provide an instructive discussion of wealth for several reasons. First, from a Southeast Asian emic viewpoint, domestic animals are strongly identified with wealth. Second, in Southeast Asia they play critical roles in the entire feasting complex upon which considerable socioeconomic and political inequality is based (see Clarke 1998; 2001). Third, the specific and detailed constraints on household animal production in Southeast Asia are very poorly understood by archaeologists. And fourth, traditional animal-raising strategies seem uniform throughout most of tribal Southeast Asia.

Raising and using animals

I have argued previously (Hayden 1990; 1992; 1995) that animals were domesticated primarily to increase fat content and desirability (and availability) for feasting. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the importance of domesticated animals for feasting more evident than in Southeast Asia, although I suspect transegalitarian uses of animals follow a similar pattern almost everywhere (e.g. Keswani 1994). Indeed, in tribal Southeast Asia, often the only traditional use of domestic animals (cattle, buffalo, pigs, ducks, and chickens) is for feasting and sacrifices (water buffalo were also used for traction where paddy fields existed). Otherwise, meat from domestic animals simply does not seem to have been consumed. Keeping pigs in Oceanic societies has even been called a `luxury occupation' or `ostentatious waste' (see Strathern 1971: 131); while in Thailand, all hill-tribe domestic animals were traditionally under-utilized for work functions or secondary products, and they were viewed as a `supplement to subsistence' (Kunstadter 1978: 105). However, acquiring economic, social and political benefits from feasting, and being successful at feasting, was highly dependent on success in raising animals (Strathern 1971: 134-5; Clarke 1998; 2001).

In addition, there appears to be a general consensus that medium and large domestic animals were used as a means of providing insurance against bad crop years or other misfortunes. Surpluses were used to raise pigs or care for cattle which could be exchanged or eaten in times of need (Strathern 1971: 131). Raising live stock was viewed like having a bank account (Falvey 1977: 22-3, 38, 40, 86; Shubert 1986: 81). However, unlike modern banking, there were major risks and possible liabilities in the form of damage compensations entailed in the investments in animals. In this respect and others, a better analogy for raising domestic animals would be like investing in the `stock' market rather than a bank.

During fieldwork in northern Thailand and Vietnam, I was confronted by a number of critical problems in trying to understand why poor families did not seem able to increase their production of domestic animals. The main difficulty in modelling wealth production arose from observations that cattle, water buffalo and pigs (the mainstays of the feasting complex) largely foraged for themselves in forests. They apparently did not require much, if any, fodder or care from their human owners. If this was true, how did they really differ from wild animals? What limited the animal populations within village territories? …

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