Off the Shelf: Peter Metcalf

September 21, 2009

September 21, 2009 — Peter Metcalf, professor of anthropology, College of Arts & Sciences, "The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity." Cambridge University Press.

For two centuries, travelers were amazed at the massive buildings found along the rivers that flow from the mountainous interior of Borneo. They concentrated hundreds of people under one roof, in the middle of empty rainforests.

However, the apparent permanence of longhouses was an illusion. There was no practical necessity for this arrangement, and it has remained a mystery.

Peter Metcalf provides an answer by showing the historical context, using both oral histories and colonial records, of a pre-modern trading system.

In historical terms, longhouse communities were mobile and changeable, and the patterns of ethnicity they created more closely resemble the contemporary world than any stereotype of "tribal" societies.