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Austronesian Worlds:

Human-Animal Entanglements in
the Pacific Anthropocene

SSHRC Funded Research Project (Insight Grant) 2017-2022

With Scott Simon (PI), Frédéric Laugrand, David Jaclin, Atsushi Nobayashi, Yi-tze Lee, Kurtis Pei, Michael Bevacqua, Austin Shelton, Nestor Castro & Maria Celia Malay
  • How do the Austronesian peoples of the Western Pacific inhabit lifeworlds of movement through mountains and oceans, with animals of sea, sky and land, amidst clouds, typhoons, and sunshine?

  • What wisdom have they acquired and shared through multi-species entanglements in often precarious conditions?


  • What can they teach others about living together well in the "Anthropocene" – our present era of climate change and species extinction?



Project Update   Scott Simon, December 2018

If extreme weather is any indication, 2017-2018 may be a sign of the many challenges humans and other living creatures will have to deal with in the very near future. Just last week, Super Typhoon Yutu hit the Northern Mariana Islands with winds of up to 165 mph, making it the strongest typhoon to hit the islands since 1962. I spent the year 2017-2018 working with Professor Atsushi Nobayashi as a Visiting Researcher at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan, where I weathered typhoons, a major earthquake, and heat wave. As a result of the typhoon, earthquake, and torrential rain, Western Japan experienced a record number of landslides, surpassing the annual average in just the month of July alone. 

For non-human animals, human society has long presented challenges, as I learned over the past year as I explored human-bird nexuses in Japan. Some of the relations I studied are long-standing Japanese traditions, such as using cormorants to catch fish. Whereas urban animal rights activists deplore the practice, I watched as a cormorant-master worked with his birds. Although the doors were wide open, none of them took flight. And, as they worked, the expressions on their faces made them seem as happy as hunting dogs chasing rabbits. Maybe this is because they know they will be well rewarded with fish at the end of every (30-minute) working day. Cormorants enter into a wide range of relations with humans in Japan, as I wrote in this blog: https://maptia.com/scottsimon/stories/the-lines-of-human-bird-entanglements

Not all human-bird entanglements end well for the birds. While participating in the weekly birding expeditions of the Wild Bird Society of Japan, I took photos that revealed how birds — especially in coastal areas — struggle to live among the debris of human society. The shores of the uninhabited Kanmuri-shima, where I joined scientists to study the Streaked Shearwater (http://www.cips-cepi.ca/2018/06/08/sentinels-of-the-pacific-what-seabirds-tell-us-about-the-oil-industry/) where covered with the debris of plastic bottles from as far away as Russia; and one of the birds was apparently covered with oil. I also learned that bird strikes — birds colliding with airplanes — are a serious problem at the Itami and Kansai Airports, just as at other airports around the world. Yet, I also saw reason for hope. The Oriental White Stork, for example, went extinct in Japan due to overhunting, use of agricultural chemicals, and habitat destruction. One man I spoke with reported seeing them falling dead from the sky when he was young, a time which he called Japan’s “silent spring.” With the help of conservation experts, however, the storks are now making a come-back! 

I plan to begin writing my ethnographic monograph on humans and birds in Japan as soon as possible in 2019. I am nearing completion of my manuscript on the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. 



Research Diffusion in 2017-2018

Some members of our research team met at the National Museum of Ethnology on July 19-20, 2018, for the International Symposium “Ecological and Cultural Approaches to Taiwan and Neighbouring Islands.” 

Speakers from our research team were: 

  • Laugrand, Frédéric and Antoine Laugrand. “Ecology as a Trope: Birds among the Alangan Mangyans and the Blaans of Mindanao (Philippines)”

  • Lee, Yi-tze. “Ritual Landscape, Human-Species Networks, and Environmental Shift: Contemporary Amis Ritual Practices as Cultural Heritage”

  • Nobayashi, Atsushi. “Beads for Islanders: Austronesian Perspectives”

  • Pei, Jai-Chyi. “The Indigenous Hunting Practices and their Application in Modern Wildlife Management and Conservation in Taiwan”

  • Simon, Scott. “Flying the Pacific, Culturing Oceania: Human-Bird Entanglements and Austronesian Worlds”


David Jaclin was unable to attend the symposium, but contributed an article to the publication that will soon be published: 


“The 3 ecologies of Mama Kawaki (and the multiplicities engaged in the rescue of some Pacific Hawksbill turtles)”


All of the members of our team have been active at publishing.


For the moment, I will just point out that Frédéric Laugrand and Lionel Simon edited a special volume in 2018 in Québec’s flagship anthropology journal Anthropologie et sociétés with the theme of Deviner, prévoir et faire advenir.


Related to our project are:

  • Laugrand, Frédéric B., Antoine Laugrand et Guy Tremblay. “Lorsque les oiseaux donnent le rythme: Chants et présages chez les Blancs de Mindanao (Philippines).”

  • Simon, Scott. “Penser avec des oiseaux: L’ornithomancie et l’autochtonie à Taïwan.” https://www.anthropologie-societes.ant.ulaval.ca/penser-avec-des-oiseaux-lornithomancie-et-lautochtonie-taiwan 

  • Atsushi Nobayashi "Cross-cultural perspective of the technology and technique for hunting and gathering from the ethnographic data’Panel' in "Comparative studies of hunter-gatherers in Asia:from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles for long-term periods” with Yujie Peng, CHAGS12, Universiti Sains Malaysia,Penang, 23-27 July,2018

  • Atsushi Nobayashi ‘Evoking the memory and creating a new lineage in the museum:handicraft of Taiwan indigenous peoples’ in “Memory and the Museum”The Twenty-Third“Sciences in Japan”Forum , Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian,Washington,DC,June 15,2018

  • Jai-Chyi (Kurtis) Pei

  • Kim, M., L. M. Baskin, K. J.-C. Pei, R. Taber, A. Müller and K. Kaji. 2018. Wildlife policy and laws in East Asia. Page 445-480. In “North American Wildlife Policy and Law” (Eds. Leopold, B.D., W. B. Kessler and J. L. Cummins), Boone and Crockett Club, 624p, Missoula. (KCJ Pei is the first author for the Taiwan section “The Indigenous Hunting System of Taiwan”)


Graduate Student Research

Of course, one of the main goals of a SSHRC research grant is to fund student research. As we enter the 2nd year of the grant, M.A. and Ph.D. students are getting to the point where they are finalizing their project proposals and making plans for field research. At the M.A. level, we have Zhen Qin (U Ottawa, Anthropology), who will soon be doing work on human-seagull relations in Kunming. Gabriella Santini plans to do work on the human-fish relationship on Orchid Island (Taiwan). At the Ph.D. level, Alexis Calvé-Genest plans to do work in Guam on Chamorro knowledge of mangroves. Julien Laporte (Laval, Anthropology) is now doing Mandarin courses in Taipei, and also plans to do work on Orchid Island. These more specific research projects and more will make “Austronesian Worlds” take shape over the next four years. 

Research Project Description

In the current era of the "Anthropocene," there is growing awareness of the impact of humans on the environment. This is often described in the media and in academia as an ecological crisis, with important challenges such as climate change, species extinction, destruction of coral reefs, and pollution. Although "Anthropocene" and "anthropology" are based on the same prefix meaning "human," it remains a challenge to address ecological challenges such as climate chage at a global scale through ethnographic methods employed at a local scale. We propose to do so in a project of ecological anthropology in the Austronesian areas of the Western Pacific, a part of the world that has been important to ethnography, and which is also on the forefront of ecological change. This part of the world is faced with depleting fish stocks, extinction of birds and marine life, an increase in the number and intensity of typhoons due to global warming, and even the threat of entire inhabited areas becoming submerged due to the melting  of polar ice caps. We will explore these issues with local people by studying the entangled relationships they have with very specific populations of birds, fish and other marine animals, and other non-humans.


The Western Pacific, from the majestic peaks of Taiwan and Luzon to the low-laying islands of Micronesia, is an area of great nature-cultural diversity. These islands are linked in human history by migrations of Austronesian peoples. Beginning from Taiwan, still home to over 500,000 Austronesian people, they transported animals and plants as they colonized other islands over the past four millennia. They encountered diverse forms of avian, marine, and plant life in ways that have led to both extinction and new forms of entanglement. This required strong navigational skills, but also experimentation and learning to build social institutions for sustainable use of islands and waters. This region is now on the frontline of global ecological change. Signs are increased frequency and strength of typhoons, collapse of fish stocks, bird and other animal extinctions, and rising seas.


Austronesians have ways of reading such phenomena, long documented as ways of interpreting signs and behaviour of birds, fish, and plants to understand approaching typhoons, the location of land while navigating, or the presence of prey. Relevant information is scattered through early ethnographies; and even “disaster anthropology”, but the challenges of climate change urge us to update the research in the contemporary context and with new ethnographic methods.


Our goal is to look holistically at entanglements between living creatures and the rest of the physical world, including diverse constellations of birds, fish, plants, and humans in the Western Pacific. Some new concepts are emerging as anthropologists dialogue with biology, one being Tim Ingold’s “entanglement,” which looks at the enmeshment of lives rather than at organisms as bounded entities separate from the “environment”. At a time when many anthropologists question the dichotomy nature/culture, we wish to build upon, yet push beyond, studies of “traditional ecological knowledge” and “resource management.” In the words of Bruno Latour, studies of “multinaturalism” done by “diplomats” who can learn from different ways of living in the world are more urgently needed than more aid by external experts. We thus propose to focus on how humans and others co-create entangled lifeworlds in one of the most weather-worn and biologically rich, places on the planet.