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Pioneering Studies on Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asia
(W. Schmidt, R. Heine-Geldern, P. Schebesta)
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Helmut Lukas
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Commission for Social Anthropology
Schwindgasse 14/6
A-1040 Vienna
Tel.: (+43 – 1) 515 81 – 6675
Fax: (+43 – 1) 503 68 73 – 6680
e-mail: [email protected]
Saturday, November 4, 2006, 10:30 – 11:10 am
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Maria Theresien-Platz, 1010 Wien
Media Hall, 1nd floor
Maria Theresien-Platz, 1010 Wien
1. P. W. Schmidt S.V.D. and the Vienna School of Ethnology
1.1. The linguistic theories of Schmidt
1.2. The Vienna School of Ethnology and the beginning of hunter-gatherer research work
Paul Schebesta and the Semang studies
1. P. W. Schmidt and the Vienna School of Ethnology
The German-Austrian Pater (Father) Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), a man of forceful
personality as well as of great learning, was a famous linguist and anthropologist, but also a
theologian and priest of the Society of the Divine Word / Societas verbi divini (slide 1). Schmidt
was born in Germany. His “Austrianship” is due to the fact, that he had his career as linguist and
anthropologist in Austria (Vienna) and established here his famous “Vienna School of
Anthropology”. This school has disintegrated since his death
1.1. The linguistic theories of Schmidt
In his early academic career Schmidt worked predominantly as linguist. In 1899, on the eve of
the 20th century Schmidt coined the term “Austronesian” („Austronesisch“). According to
Schmidt whose special field of interest at this time was comparative linguistics and
reconstruction of cultural history based on linguistic research the „Austronesian“ language
family embrace four groups, that is, (1) the Indonesian languages, (2) the Polynesian languages,
(3) the Melanesian languages and (4) the Micronesian languages (overhead foil. 1). On the
westernmost point of the Austronesian area lies Madagascar, the easternmost point of which is
the Easter Island, its northernmost point are the Islands of Hawaii, is southernmost point is New
Zealand (Maori) (Schmidt 1899a, 1899b; cf. Schmidt 1926).
In 1838 the German philosopher and philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt for the first time
furnished scientific evidence for the relations between Javanese, Malay and Malagasy on the one
hand, and the Polynesian languages, on the other hand. It was him who grouped all these
languages under the generic term „Malayo-Polynesian“. 51 years later Schmidt replaced the
term „Malayo-Polynesian“ by the designation „Austronesian”. This term and the classification
connected with it was, by and large, accepted by the international community, which is the
reason why the scientific term is used by linguists to this day. In Schmidt’s view, the designation
„Malayo-Polynesian“ was misleading, since „Polynesian“ as a group of languages can, by no
means, be equated with „Malay“ which is an individual (single) language, though. A similarly
inconsistent terminology would be „Indo-Bavarian“ instead of „Indo-European“. Due to the fact
that most non-German speaking linguists were not able to read the original articles of Schmidt
published in 1899 in Vienna, the new classifications (cf. Blust 1980) re-introduced this
demonstrably obsolete term „Malayo-Polynesian” for the subdivisions of the Austronesian
language family (overhead foil 2). Apparently English-speaking linguists adopted the term
„Austronesian” from Schmidt without consulting his articles!
The question, however, arises why Schmidt selected the term „Austronesian“ for this family of
languages? What is then the meaning of this word? „Austronesian“ is a composite (compositum),
which is combining the Latin word „Auster“ meaning „South“ and the Ancient Greek word
„nesos“ meaning „island“. By this designation Schmidt, for one thing, tried to indicate that the
large proportion of these languages are used by islanders (therefore the ending „-nesian”) and,
for the other, demonstrated that the bulk of these languages concerned is found in the south
(Auster > Austro-) or - to be geographically more accurate – in the southeast of the Asian
In his book „Die Mon-Khmer-Völker. Ein Bindeglied zwischen Völkern Zentralasiens und
Austronesiens“ („The Mon-Khmer-Peoples. A Connecting Link Between The Peoples of Central
Asia and Austronesia“) (Braunschweig 1906) Schmidt relates to the Austroasiatic family of
languages – an equal term coined by Schmidt! - which is composed of the Mon-Khmer
languages of Continental Southeast Asia and the Munda languages of the eastern part of India
and asserts the existence of an „Austric phylum“, which comprises both the Austronesian and
the Austro-Asiatic languages (overhead foil 3). It was his most gifted student, Heine-Geldern
(1920), who refuted the existence of an „Austro-Asiatic race“.
More significantly, Schmidt was firmly convinced of a close interrelationship between language,
culture and race. For that reason he made ample use of linguistic evidence for the benefit of
cultural-historical reconstruction. Consequently, he regarded enclaves of Non-Austronesian
languages among Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Vietnamese speaking communities as relics of
older cultures, as ethnic groups pushed aside by succeeding and more progressive cultures and
peoples. Similarly, Heine-Geldern viewed the Mon-Khmer speaking peoples of Continental
Southeast Asia as remnants of an older tribal population which, in former times, was
disseminated all over the whole area. By the invasion of subsequently arriving, mostly stateforming highly civilized peoples (like the Burmese, Shan, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese) who by far
outnumbered their predecessors, the Mon-Khmer speaking tribes were reduced to small insulated
enclaves. Only in the eastern part of Continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia and Vietnam)
remained a comparatively compact bloc of Mon-Khmer speakers. Yet both Schmidt and HeineGeldern, fail to take into consideration the possibility of loss and replacement of the original
language by a new one. In my opinion, this process of linguistic erosion and change has a
comparatively high incidence among hunter-gatherer societies (This is in sharp contrast to the
striking persistence of nomadic forager communities in the field of technology, social structure
and labour division).
1.2. The Vienna School of Ethnology and the beginning of Hunter-gatherer research work
The fact that the hunter-gatherer studies are at present dominated by the Anglo-American
anthropologists caused to fall into oblivion that a systematic research into hunter-gatherer
cultures was founded by the cultural-historically oriented „Vienna School of ethnology“,
notably by P. W. Schmidt (1910b) already around 92 years ago! Up to now the Austrian
Schebesta and the Briton Evans are considered to be „the two foremost authorities on the
Semang“ (Keyes 1995: 34). The Semang-studies published between 1924 and 1960 by the
Austrian ethnologist, linguist and theologist Paul Schebesta (1887-1967) have made available
an invaluable ethnographic source material. While Evans (1937), however, made do with shortterm excursions, and solely drew on Malay language for the communication with the forest
dwellers, Schebesta lived close to the Semang – notably the Jahay - during his field-research stay
(1924/25 and 1939) which took two years or so. In addition, he managed to pick up the language
of the Jahay-Semang mainly due to his linguistic training. All field researchers that were
seriously concerned with the Semang in more recent years (Endicott 1988, Rambo 1985:31 Fn)
had no choice but to take issue with the Schebesta’s work in the first place despite the fact that
its essential part is only given in German.
Much influenced by Fritz Graebner, a German historian, Schmidt, the most prominent exponent
of the culture circle (Kulturkreis) school, developed his own theory, the so-called „Vienna
School of Ethnology”. Following Graebner, he postulated various criteria (largely revolving
around the types and quantity of similar artefacts and cultural patterns; see below) indicating a
historical juncture between societies, which may have separated since, even to the far reaches of
the earth. By this way he tried to reach back over the epochs of written history, far back into
those distant millennia of mankind'
s past history, and with their help to construct the „objective”
succession of events and thereby the actual genesis of culture among the different peoples.
Schmidt isolated a group of what he considered to be the „ethnologically most ancient peoples“
(„ethnologisch älteste Völker“). Of special interest to Schmidt were these primitive peoples, for
they represented the "survivals" of the primeval inhabitants of the earth („Urkulturvölker”),
and as such, can give the ethnologist insights into the way how mankind's first representatives
lived and thought: Schmidt insisted on the equation between primitive (today's simplest
cultures) and primeval (the chronologically oldest). In his opinion a small group size, a simple
economic structure, a lack of technological advances, and a lack of specialization of tasks were
hallmarks of a primitive society, which typically subsists as nomadic hunter-gatherer bandsocieties. As a result of their isolation in marginal areas of the world (deep jungles, deserts etc.),
they had broken away from the world’s oldest culture without having fundamentally changed
their ancient culture since. Due to their social and cultural features as well as to their isolation
these hunter-gatherers were considered exceptionally static societies. Such an uncritical equation
of „primitive“ and „primeval“ no longer occurs today. Even if the cultural historians qualify by
saying that today’s primitive peoples are not exact facsimiles of their ancestors, they interpret the
cultural transformation in time as a decline, which is ascribed to subsequent accretions from
neighbouring tribes. The question whether that comparison, within limits, is a valid one or not, is
still a point at issue1. According to the Vienna School of Ethnology a society can persist for
untold generations at the same level of material sophistication („Konstanzkriterium”). As
Nowadays this debate comes up again as controversy between historical „particularists” and „generalists”. The
argumentation of the historical particularists in the so-called „revisionism debate“ runs as follows: Due to the fact
that nowadays exist virtually no primary hunter-gatherers the results from researches on recent hunter-gatherers
should not be used for the interpretation of prehistoric foraging societies. Without taking the extreme position of
historic particularism every anthropologist and ethno-archaeologist has to ask the following question: To what
extent a general (empirically testable) model of hunter-gatherer society could be developed on the basis of
researches on recent hunters and gatherers? The answer to this question determines the relation of archaeology to
anthropology (Orme 1973; Foley 1988). The so-called „generalists“ (especially Richard Lee) assume that it is at
least in principle possible to develop a general model of hunting and gathering society which could be applied to
recent as well as to prehistoric hunters and gatherers. The ethno-archaeologist Lewis Binford, for instance, used his
observations among the living Nunamiut Eskimo, a recent hunter-gatherer group of Alaska, to aid archaeological
interpretation: „The Nunamiut might not provide an exact «ethnographic parallel» for [prehistoric] Mousterian
societies, but Binford recognized that there are certain actions or functions likely to be common to all huntergatherers because ...“ (Renfrew/Bahn 1996:178). The „historical particularists“ (e. g. Headland/Reid 1989)
maintain that due to long contacts with sedentary agriculturists the dynamic of recent hunters-gatherers has changed
fundamentally, so that they could not at all equated and compared with prehistoric hunters and gatherers. Since
today there are practically no pristine hunters and gatherers it is no longer possible to reconstruct the past. Moreover,
recent foragers cannot be regarded as typical of hunter-gatherers of the remote past, when no agriculturalists or
pastoralists existed anywhere, and when every kind of habitat, dry or wet, cold or hot, bountiful or sparse, was
available for occupation by hunter-gatherer peoples (cf. Burch 1994:6f, 446-452; Harris 1995:46-47).
examples of such well-preserved („uncorrupted“) primeval societies they stated: the Indians in
Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America (Halakwulups, Selknam, Yamana; studied
by Martin Gusinde), the Pygmies of Africa (BaMbuti etc.) as well as the „Asian Negritos”
(Andaman Islanders, Semang, Aëta/Agta; both, Pygmies and Asian Negritos, studied by Paul
Schebesta). Schmidt worked on the assumption that the ethnographic account of the simple
hunter-gatherers would support his thesis of the identification of the primitive and the
primeval. By studying the common characteristics of these cultures, Schmidt suggested that we
might be able to reconstruct the oldest culture of the world. For that reason Schmidt sent out
some of his scholars to study these „ancient cultures“. In this way, Paul Schebesta paved the way
for the systematic ethnographic investigation of the Semang of British Malaya and Siam
(Thailand) during the twenties and thirties and became one of the main ethnographers of the
Semang (Schmidt 1910b; Schmidt/Koppers 1924; Schmidt 1930:244-47; Schmidt 1964:53ff;
Schebesta 1927; 1952:55; 1954:92; 1957; 1963:210f; cf. Hirschberg 1986:34ff; Kleihauer
1991:46f; Bornemann 1982:77f, 180).
For this reason the hunters and gatherers classified as „the lower hunters“ in the Viennese
cultural-historic school developed by Graebner, Schmidt and Koppers played a decisive role
since they were viewed as direct representatives of the „primeval culture“ („Urkultur“). On this
(at present no longer recognized) basis, „for the first time a systematic, theoretical as well as
practical research into hunter and gatherer cultures occurred with the aim of formulating
universally applicable statements on the historically most ancient state of mankind” (Kleihauer
1991:46f; translation from German as well as emphasis by H.L.):
According to the Viennese School there are worldwide cultural circles in existence. The
representatives of the Vienna School of Ethnology made an attempt to put these culture circles
into a relative chronological order (evolved by means of the criterion of form and quantity) by
investigating their dissemination and internal stratification, their hybrid and overlapping forms.
According to Schmidt there is the so-called „primeval culture“ („Urkultur“) at the beginning,
which is believed to have been common to all peoples in pre-historic times. This „primeval
culture“ should be localized in the future, but so far is not yet verifiable. From this „primeval
culture“, supposedly located somewhere in Asia, the first three „primeval culture circles“ of
„lower hunters“ are assumed to have developed. Accordingly, Schmidt worked on the
assumption of both a monophyletic origin of mankind and culture. The specialized “primary
cultures” developed by strength of the transformation of few „primeval cultures“ (matriarchal
crop-farmers, patriarchal pastoralists and patriarchal-totemic higher hunters). All of the further
culture circles (secondary cultures, tertiary cultures) are said to have emerged by virtue of their
merging (Schmidt/Koppers 1924). According to Schmidt (1930:244-747) the distinguishing
original feature of a culture is determined by characteristics as follows: (1) most remote
peripheral and isolated areas (places of refuge/retreat); (2) foraging (in German: "aneignende
Wirtschaftsform") that is, „lower hunters (that is to say, all primary „lower hunters” are
interpreted as original cultures.); (3) general level of development of a culture: the simplest of all
verifiable forms of development („primitiveness”). With this in mind Schmidt constructed three
chronologically successive culture circles:
5. Central primeval culture: Pygmies and Pygmyoids (ethnologically most ancient culture) of
Africa and Asia.
6. Southern primeval culture: Southeast Australians, Tasmanians, bushmen, Firelanders.
7. Arctic primeval culture: Samoyeds, Koryacs, Ainu, North and Central Californians,
Algonkins (Schmidt 1910b:280-84; Schmidt 1964:53ff)
Schmidt attached special attention to the „pygmies”, that is to say, the very small people of
Africa and Asia, who he regarded as a „primary primeval race” despite the sometimes immense
spatial separation. He classified the „pygmies“ not only as a racial but also as a cultural unity
(„pygmy-like primeval culture“) (cf. Hirschberg 1986:34-35). Schmidt wrote a book of more
than 300 pages in 1910 titled „The position of Pygmyc peoples in the history of man“. In this
seminal piece he claimed that the physical features of the „pygmies“ (short body, dark colour of
the skin etc.) indicate that this „race“ is representing the most ancient developmental stage of
mankind. As a whole those curly-haired, dark-skinned and very short bodied ethnic groups
(referred to as BaMbuti; Bushmen in the South of Africa, Andaman Islanders, Semang of the
Malay peninsula; Aëta/Agta of the Philippines) are classified as “infant peoples of mankind”,
who are said to be not far away from the monophyletic origin of mankind. Their technology and
tools were known for a highest possible degree of primitiveness; in social, ethical and religious
respect, however, they are, according to Schmidt, superior to all other people:
• nuclear family with monogamy
• gender equality
• marital fidelity
• absence of infanticide
• pronounced altruism
• absence of war, cannibalism and slavery
• ethical monotheism2
The ethnologically old age of the „pygmy”-culture is in keeping with the following features:
• the foraging economy (hunting and gathering)
• the roaming way of life
• the primitiveness of their housing
• the small number of tools
• the most primitive form of the bow
• rubbing against stone as the most rudimentary fashion of making fire
• implements such as wood, shells, bones (rarely stone)
• the absence of musical instruments devised on their own
• the most explicit simplicity of numerals (pair-system)
• In socio-political terms, the fact that the formation of at least small family organisations
occur and there is no such a thing as hereditary tribal chief’s however
• the absence of mutilations (such as incision, circumcision, mutilation like knocking out of
teeth etc.)
According to Schmidt it is therefore an established fact that the „pygmies” „represent the most
ancient ethnographical developmental stage of mankind available to us”. Certain cultural
elements (nautical techniques and pottery of the Andaman Islanders, use of bow and arrow, as
well as three-strands’ weaving technique met with all “pygmies”, combs with the Semang and
Aëta), „which refer to later times” is interpreted by Schmidt as „recent” influences on the part of
the neighbours of taller growth.
The Vienna School of Ethnology might be characterised by the following Triassic („3 M“): Monogenesis (origin of
man derived from the first parental couple i.e. Adam and Eve) - Monotheism (primeval revelation) - Monogamy
Despite their homogeneity the „pygmy”-peoples, according to Schmidt, can be further
subdivided but the pygmies in central Africa (BaMbuti) represent the historically oldest group.
The Asian “pygmies” come closest to them (among of whom the Semang belong to) and then the
Bushmen approach next. Among those hunters and gatherer cultures Schmidt postulates, for
instance, the polyandric relationships as non-existent. Likewise cases of adultery are reported to
be very rare and this was made a serious punishable offence even on penalty of death for both
parties concerned (Schmidt 1910b:4-15, 269-303; Schmidt/Koppers 1924:162f).
Since Schmidt viewed the pygmic peoples „as the ethnologically most ancient indigenous
peoples“ and along with that the last representatives of an „primeval culture“. Hence he assumed
that the belief in the superior being, the primitial offering („Primitialopfer”) as the most ancient
of all sacrifices3, the recognition of the absolute right of ownership as well as certain sociological
peculiarities (for instance, monogamy) must have survived in its purest form. At the end of his
book there is „an emphatic appeal to the research into pygmies“. The „pygmy peoples” „as the
oldest evidences for the physical and mental development of the human race available to us” are
required to pay considerably more attention, as has been the case so far. Prehistoric findings are
considered to be only „poor fragments“ and to be never as convincing as the research into
existing, up to now surviving primeval cultures:
• Firstly, these cultures represent the oldest stage preceding the stone Age (wood- and shell
• Secondly, these cultures - accessible as a whole and not only in sparse fragments - lend
themselves in unfolding the spiritual dimensions of the primeval culture.
• As a further important reason for the systematic research into the „pygmies“ he gives the
rapid extinction of these numerically very small peoples.
Although the book proved to be a success, the appeal to the empirical research into the
„pygmies“ he concluded his book went unheard. None of the institutes arranged research trips to
these endangered „pygmies“. After 13 years had passed Schmidt himself took the initiative. He
managed, to bring Pope Pius XI. have Father Schebesta’s first trip to the Semang and Senoi
financed (Bornemann 1982:77f, 180). Likewise other priests conducted field research work
among the “primeval culture” representatives to which the hunters and gatherers belong, but
s study on the Yamana and Yahgan on Fireland (Tierra del Fuego) particularly gained
great importance.
2. Paul Schebesta and the Semang studies
The Austrian anthropologist, linguist and theologian Paul Joachim Schebesta (1887-1969) (slide
2) was the first scientist to conduct a long-lasting field research (20 months!!) among the
Semang of British Malaya and of Siam as well as to learn a Semang language, namely Jahay
(Schebesta 1926-28). Unfortunately, the interethnic contacts and relationships (with Malay, Thai,
Senoi) did not become an objective of the research. On the contrary, groups of Semang
frequently in contact with neighbouring peoples and exposed to greater physical as well as
external cultural influences were systematically excluded from the research (Schebesta 1927:40,
Primitial offering means that the „first fruits” (incl. the first piece cut out from the dead body of a chased animal)
has to be set aside and to be offered before eating
45-48, 159). Accordingly, Schebesta explicitly refused to deal with the neighbouring ethnic
groups of the Semang such as the Malays and the Thais (Schebesta 1952:55).
The theoretical conception of the Vienna School of Ethnology made itself felt in the empirical
research into the hunters and gatherers (notably the Semang) as follows (slide 3):
The research focused its attention on the most isolated groups in order to collect the „original“
and „typical“ of the „pygmic“ cultures (well-preserved “uncorrupted”/ “uncontaminated”
representatives of primeval cultures).
The research into the short-bodied peoples worked on the assumption that the groups
investigated might have sustained their original character for thousands of years and under
unchanging environmental conditions – ruling out any endogenous cultural change. Virtually
genuine representatives of the primeval culture were (allegedly) discovered among the Ituripygmies. Right behind in the ranking list are Semang. Hence the Semang are described by
Schebesta as a fossilized, pre-stone-age “remnants from very ancient times, the bamboo age”,
who retreated from the subsequently intruding tribes into the safe all-preserving primeval
forest to which they ideally adapted (Schebesta 1927:150-52).
The assessment of the undeniable contacts occurred within the framework of the culturalhistorical theory: the „lesser“ developed hunters and gatherers are said to be inferior to the
culturally „more highly developed“ agriculturists in material terms. Owing to his culturalhistorical position Schebesta described the foragers of small growth in contact with the
neighbouring peoples of taller build as rather passive objects, who, in material terms, adopted
from the cultures “superior” to them innumerable elements. Consequently, those concerned
become absorbed by the agriculturists in the course of time: inevitable consequences arising
from the contact are both the adoption of cultural elements and in the long run the decline of
culture (Schmidt/Koppers 1924:398). Features diverging from the ideal type postulated are
due to the influence of neighbouring agriculturists of tall growth, which are eliminated from
the analysis (Schebesta 1963:210f; cf. Rambo 1985:44). In contrast to the approaches of neofunctionalism and human ecology, the contacts of the hunters and gatherers with
agriculturists are not interpreted as symbiotic relationships but as exploitative dependence
(Schebesta 1927:161f; 1954:92).
Schebesta is convinced that the Semang are primary hunters and gatherers. In other words: In the
past the Semang were never settled land-cultivators. In all probability the Semang belong to
the very small minority of foragers in Southeast Asia who never settled down for cultivating
plants. Nevertheless it is safe to say that the small plantations of today’s Semang are no
recent innovations (Rambo 1985:43, 54). By contrast Schebesta (1954:90-93) takes the view
that the plantations are modern adoptions (from the „more developed“ Senoi), interpreting
them as a response to the increasing imbalance of interethnic relationships and the involving
deterioration of the food situation.
The interethnic contacts and relationships (including intermarriages) themselves, however, are
not the subject matter of research! On the contrary: The fact of frequent contacts with
neighbouring peoples and physical as well as cultural foreign influences made Schebesta
exclude these Semang groups concerned from the research (Schebesta 1927:40, 45-48, 159).
Logically enough, Schebesta explicitly refused to deal with the Malays encapsulating the
Semang (Schebesta 1952:55).
The investigation into individual features occurs both isolated from one another and isolated
from its ecological and socio-cultural context for the purpose of grasping the original forms
Lasting achievements on the part of cultural-historical hunter-gatherer research conducted by
Schebesta with regard to the “Asian Negritos” are among other things:
Abandoning the task of searching for a standardized pygmyc language (in Asia and Africa).
The falsification of the hypothesis in the racial and the cultural unity of African and Asian
The realization that the Semang do not live in isolation but in permanent contact with their
sedentary neighbours, accordingly showing adoptions in the linguistic and cultural sector as
well as indications of a “racial interbreed”.
As a result, it is not the matter of representatives of primeval uncorrupted cultures found with
peoples of small growth but only a question of respective ancient recent cultures, which are
considered to be closest to the original culture.
Schebesta’s research among the Semang are based on more extensive and long-lasting field work
by using participant observation - at present it is a matter–of-course, in those days, however,
it used to be an exception (Schebesta 1927:13, 45; 1952:45-48, 39f). Only in this way - and
thanks to his good linguistic training - he succeeded in reconstructing spiritual background of
the Semang culture. As a consequence of this, even today – after about 75 years - there are
hardly more complete and more reliable records of the religion and mythology of the Semang
than those of Schebesta’s (cf. Schebesta 1957). Despite he had to carry a rucksack full of
more or less absurd theories Schebesta eventually succeeded to overcome many speculative
theories of Schmidt and to portray the Semang cultures he studied in an admirably objective
manner. Up to the present day Schebesta'
s accounts of Semang religion are among the best
ethnographic descriptions. Not without good reason the research work „made by such
Austrian ethnologists as Paul Schebesta and ... Bernatzik“ are expressly mentioned in
George F. Keyes classical introduction to the ethnology of the mainland Southeast Asia. In
the same book it is even referred to the works of Schebesta at the presentation of
ethnographic case studies (Keyes 1995:30, 32ff).
The theoretical treatises of Wilhelm Schmidt (1901, 1903) on „Sakai“ (i. e. Senoi) and Semang
languages in the Malay Peninsula and their relations to the Mon-Khmer languages already
presented a pioneering work (see the contribution of Diffloth in the same Session). Paul
Schebesta was the first European not only to explore the language of the Jahay-Semang but
also to be able to speak it. His „Grammatical Sketch of the Jahay Dialect, Spoken by a
Negrito Tribe of Ulu Perak and Ulu Kelantan, Malay Peninsula“ has up to now been an
unsurpassed masterpiece in linguistics on Semang (Schebesta 1926). Unfortunately today
most scientists still study the languages of the Semang without being able to use it for the
benefit of the daily communication though! 44 years ago Paul Bohannan criticized his
colleagues using the native languages both as a tool and as data for linguistic analyses,
evidence of diffusion and the like. The question, however, arises which of them actually
failed to pick up the language„which is (to me at least) tantamount to experiencing a culture
in its own terms“ (Bohannan 1958:162). Nearly 80 years ago Schebesta already succeeded in
combining both approaches – the subjective acquisition of the language by the researcher
(language as tool for communication) as well as the distanced handling of language as a
scientific object. According to Schebesta the Semang abandoned their original language a
long time ago and adopted their recent Mon-Khmer language from the neighbouring Mon
and Senoi (Schebesta 1952:143f; Diffloth takes quite the opposite view): A fairly conclusive
evidence for the early encapsulation (Woodburn 1988) and „the contact of the ancient
aboriginal tribes [Semang] with Mon-Khmer peoples probably lasting for millenniums“ is
according to Heine-Geldern (1920; cf. Higham 1989:3-5, 31-89) equally the extensive
adoption of Mon-Khmer language, whereas only small remains of the Pre-Austronesian
substratum have survived.
One of the most remarkable achievements of Schebesta’s work is the scrupulous revelation of
very old patterns of interethnic interaction between Semang and Malay: Thanks to available
ethno-historical data Schebesta could demonstrate that in the past the Semang held a high
position in the interethnic relations. The oldest reliable source about Semang produced by a
European is an article written by John Smith, a British people, who around the year 1600
worked as advisers of the Queen of Patani, a Malay kingdom in today’s Southern Thailand.
John Smith had an exceptionally good knowledge about the Semang which proved to be very
useful for the Queen of Patani: „He [John Smith] even waged a war with the Perak-Malays
on behalf of the Queen [of Patani] and he enrolled in his army among others also Semangarchers. According to his report, the Semang were so highly respected that they performed
special posts of honour, that is to say, at the enthronement of a new Raja, and, in general,
they were reputed to be the real masters (aborigines) of the country.” (Schebesta 1952:17;
translation from German is mine, H. L.). Obviously, this is a clear evidence for a
fundamental change of the pattern of interethnic relationships. Moreover, in Patani the
dominant influence of Malay culture was more and more replaced by the influence of Thai
culture and language since the 18th century. Since there are at present no further detailed
ethno-historical sources concerning the interethnic relationship between the settled peoples of
this region and the Maniq-Semang for the time between 1600 and the 19th century (Schebesta
1952:17) we are not able to describe how the recent asymmetrical pattern of interethnic
relationship came into being (slides).
Robert von Heine-Geldern (1885-1968)
The Austrian anthropologist and indologist Heine-Geldern combined ethnological, pre-historical
and archaeological concepts. In addition, he investigated the cultural relationships especially
those of the whole of Southeast Asia. Despite his cultural-historical orientation Heine-Geldern
stood up for an empirical and undogmatic orientation and kept his critical distance from of
Viennese School of ethnology (represented by Schmidt, Koppers and Graebner) tending to onesided speculations. This resistance to the authoritarian, ultra-conservative and (even among
anthropologists) racist mainstream and the fact that he was a Jewish baron was the cause of his
eking out a miserable existence as a scientist in Austria for a long time. Eventually, in 1938 he
was forced to emigrate to the United States.
To sum up Heine-Geldern'
s most important achievements:
As early as 1923 he gave in a lengthy contribution of 279 pages titled „Southeast Asia“
(„Südostasien“) in Buschan’s „Illustrierter Völkerkunde“ the first scientific definition of the
cultural area “Southeast Asia”, a fact, which is unfortunately hardly known outside of Austria
(Heine-Geldern 1923).
In particular, he was thoroughly concerned with Burma. Heine-Geldern was the first ethnologist
to take pains to arrange the ethnographic source material systematically and interpret it within
the framework of a complete ethnological theory (Heine-Geldern 1923; cf. Keyes 1995).
Reason for the Southeast Asian studies as well as the foundation of Southeast Asian institutes:
On the basis of his definition of Southeast Asia and his notion of area study (= interdisciplinary
research of a precisely defined cultural area) he had founded or initiated the foundation of the
first institutes for Southeast Asian studies of still world-wide reputation in the USA since 1942
(This model was emulated by western European countries among of those is the Federal
Republic of Germany - but not by Austria!) (see: Heine-Geldern 1946; Dahm 1975).
Theories on the cultural diffusion, the development of “high cultures” as well as their
relationships to the tribal cultures in Southeast Asia among of which theories of the vast areas of
extensive hypotheses (for instance the „Pontic“ migration or the migrations of the Austronesians)
are no longer represented in this form. (z. B. Heine-Geldern 1932, 1951, 1945). The „less
extensive“, that is, work confined to partial regions are still valid or they are re-discovered in
recent years respectively. (e.g. Heine-Geldern 1917, 1930, 1931, 1942, 1959).
Heine-Geldern provided a revolutionary piece on the political anthropology of Southeast Asia
with the first publication of the article about „Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast
Asia“ (Heine-Geldern 1963/1942). A brilliant anticipation of some ideas presented in the abovementioned article can be found in his earlier contribution dealing with „Weltbild und Bauform in
Südostasien“ (“World view and architecture in Southeast Asia”) (Heine-Geldern 1930:28-78).
On the occasion of the symposium held in 1952 „Symposion concernant les tâches urgentes dans
le domaine de l'ethnologie et de la linguistique“ with the aid of several examples in a committed
lecture Heine-Geldern gives evidence that there are still numerous tribal and advanced
civilisation cultures, which have not been explored in linguistic and ethnographic terms. At the
same time, however, these cultures are exposed to dramatic changes brought about by the effects
of war as well as the political and economic developments, which at its very worst, may result in
the disappearance of the cultures and languages – in the ethnocide. Thus Heine-Geldern founded
a commission, which are to promote the urgent anthropological research. with the aim „to save
for the sake of posterity data indispensable for the true understanding of the history of the human
race and of human culture“ (Heine-Geldern 1956).
Criticism of Heine-Geldern’s high culture-centrism:
As early as 1942 Heine-Geldern underlined the selection and adaptation of Indian cultural
influences in his revolutionary article „Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia“
based on a political-anthropological approach. Besides, in the light of Southeast Asian
“advanced” civilizations (Burma, Ayudhya, Cambodia, Java etc.), he tried to illustrate that
Southeast Asia finally succeeded in developing a comparatively independent civilization by
virtue of syncretistic syntheses despite its more or less intensive orientation towards the Indian
model (Heine-Geldern 1963). His „high culture-centrism” (centeredness of „advanced”
civilization), however, sets limits to his latest research work into the „tribal cultures“, in
particular. According to this preconception „higher cultures” (that is highly „sophisticated
civilizations”) are regarded mainly as the originators, whereas „lower” cultures (that is tribal
cultures) are considered to be primarily imitators: Despite the fact that Heine-Geldern no
longer reduced the tribal communities to entirely passive recipients from outside, they gave him
the impression – in comparison to the “high cultures” (i. e. “advanced” civilizations) – of being
the more inactive and intellectually less capable partner after all. Within this scope the active part
of those tribal communities was mainly confined to the selection of and the adaptation to foreign
cultural elements. This hypothesis was again connected with the frequently underlined intense
constancy (persistence) of tribal communities regarded as ethnographic museums, as it were,
which are subject to change only due to external impulses. Heine-Geldern who never considered
himself to be a direct exponent of the (now already defunct) Vienna School of Historical
Ethnology, however, until his death clung to the extremely high culture-centric perspective
going back to the tradition of the Vienna School of Ethnology. Concerning the adoption of the
god-kingship by Southeast Asian tribal communities, it can be shown that Heine-Geldern
adhered to his original viewpoint, as it was, despite the sophistication of his theories and
methods. As early as 1923 he maintained, that „it is both (about) Singamangaraja of the Batak in
Sumatra and the Kings of Fire and Water [of the Jarai in Vietnam] represent ancient remains of
some sort of high cultures regressed to barbarism (savagery), but as for the Singamangaraja the
derivation might positively be found among the ancient Minangkabau or Aceh empires, as for the
high priests of the Jarai it might be found in Cambodia or in ancient Champa as well.” (HeineGeldern 1923:904; translation, slight orthographic modifications of names, and emphases are my
wording, H. L.; cf. 903, 951). For 36 years Heine-Geldern defended the same concept of
„barbarisation“ with regard to the Batak of Northern Sumatra in his likewise brilliant article
„Le Pays de P’i-k’ien, le Roi au Grand Cou et Le Singa Mangaradja“: „Everything we said
suggests that the Singamangaraja was a divine king of the sort one could frequently come across
in the indianized countries: namely a king who was regarded as an incarnation of Shiva [...]. In
case of the people, however, that adopted the Indian civilization merely in fragments yet they had
failed to appreciate its mentality; consequently this [divine] kingship fell victim to barbarisation
and it ended up being biased by native concepts. What is more, the power of the king, which is
assumed to have been much bigger, diminished in the course of time” (Heine-Geldern 1959:380;
cf. 398; Translation from French, slight orthographic modifications of names as well as
emphases are my wording, H. L.). Heine-Geldern seems to assume a basic inability of the tribal
peoples to adopt the finishing touches of the complex Indian civilization. Accordingly, those
tribal peoples are capable of taking over „only chunks of this civilization” (French: "des bribes
seulement de cette civilization"). In addition to this inadequate reception, there were those
contacts with the Indian civilization which had been either broken off or had been deficient in
such a way that the adopted concepts had become increasingly „batakized”, that is, barbarised in
the course of time (Heine-Geldern 1959:398).
Criticism of Heine-Geldern’s reconstruction of Southeast Asian prehistory (Heine-Geldern
1936); references to the state of art and other historical circumstances are put in parentheses:
The stony artefacts formed the basis of his reconstruction: Those only provided a small and
incomplete part of an existing culture (that is, however, partly caused by the situation before
the Second World War, since there were hardly any pottery findings!)
He only interpreted the findings on the surface. Based on a typological analysis, e. g. division of
stone axes into cylindrical (German: "Walzenbeil"), shoulder (German: "Schulterbeil") and
quadrangular axes (German: "Vierkantbeil") he speculatively constructed from the side-byside findings a temporal sequence (Before World War II there were hardly any stratigraphical
findings available to him. Similarly, the C-14 method had not yet been devised. Hence, in
his reconstruction Heine-Geldern had to rely on the stony artefacts stored in museums. It was
impossible for him to carry out a scientifically secure determination of the relative or even
absolute age of the artefacts under his investigation).
The equation of archaeological cultures with the ancestors of certain recent ethnic groups is
problematical. To connect certain cultures and axe forms with certain ethno-linguistic groups
is questionable. By this way Heine-Geldern equates carriers of cylindrical axes with ProtoMelanesians, the carriers of shoulder axes with Proto-Austro-Asiatic, and the carriers of
quadrangular axes as Proto-Austronesians.
The definitely sweeping interpretation of the dissemination / expansion of cultures as migrations
of (whole) peoples (spatial expansion of cultures = migration of peoples) goes back to the
cultural-historical School of Vienna, but is scientifically untenable.
Finally, until his death he took the widely (until the Second World War) held view that Southeast
Asia is a marginal zone of the historical events, a “subsidiary” of South Asian and East Asian
neighbouring regions. In cultural terms, he describes Southeast Asia as a „recipient“ region,
which in turn is far from being culturally creative („sack with a hole“).
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