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Department of Social Anthropology



Tom Powell-Davies (University of Cambridge)

Ritual feasting and the ‘three hearths’ of custom, church and government: The reorganisation of the space and time of social life in Asmat, Indonesian Papua 

Asmat villagers say that their broader collective life is centred around the ‘three hearths’ of custom, Catholic church, and the nation state, which they describe as central foci around which otherwise dispersed people gather. The quintessential challenge of the contemporary moment, according to senior leaders, is how to arrange the three hearths so that they are ‘mutually supporting’, rather than cross-cutting, and so their respective activities ‘run continually,’ rather than undermine each other. I unpack this problematic and Asmat responses to it in order to investigate how the time and space of social life is organised. In particular, I analyse how villagers are extending customary feast-making practices to encompass and manage competing modes of social formation that arise from Asmat's incorporation within broader structural orders. I then consider how this novel approach to ordering social life reshapes the time and space of social gathering, as ritual feasting embraces, while  becoming contingent on, new types of forces outside of the community’s own labour that are difficult to control.


Zoia Tarasova (University of Cambridge)

Human anxieties, bovine solutions: political subtexts of native cattle conservation in north-eastern Siberia

This project is about Sakha (Yakut) people of north-eastern Siberia. Although Sakha are both cattle- and horse-breeders, cattle have hardly featured in their public life. It was horse that was the centrepiece of their collective culture and with whom Sakha identified themselves before anything else. But things are changing now. For about a decade, Sakha intellectual elites have promoted a big-budget programme aimed at reviving a native Sakha breed. These animals were made nearly totally extinct under Soviet technocratic agricultural reforms. Today, however, they count several thousands and are raised in special conservation farms in isolation from ‘Russian’ or ‘foreign’ cattle. But more intriguingly, their proponents say that the cows of the Sakha breed are more demure than the supposedly promiscuous Russian cows and that their bulls are more virile than foreign bulls and can easily outfight the latter. Why cattle? Why now? Drawing on a 15-month fieldwork among Sakha intellectuals, government officials and rural herders, I suggest that this elaborate discourse and project is not just about animals, but entails a gigantic displacement of anxieties about the endangerment of Sakha humans onto endangered Sakha cattle.

Friday, 23 October, 2020 - 16:15 to 18:00
Event location: 
Online - by email invitation