Rice, work and community among the Kelabit of Sarawak, East Malaysia.
This thesis is about the Kelabit, a tribal group living in
the interior of the Fourth Division of Sarawak, East
Malaysia. They are agriculturalists, growing rice as their
symbolically focal crop, and also rely on hunting and
For the Kelabit, the strength of human life is
indicated through success in the production of rice and in
the reproduction of human beings. Both of these can only
be achieved through being 'big people', full adults, in the
basic social unit, the hearth-group. The strength of one's
life is indicated through on~s performance as 'big person'
within the hearth group. This involves maintaining this
group as a viable unit through the production of rice and
the reproduction of children; the two are brought together
through the successful performance of the rice meal within
the hearth-group. The holding of such rice meals creates
and confirms the prestige of the 'big people' who provide
them. The hearth-group may be said to exist at levels
above the basic one; at irau, feasts, the rice meal which
is held, Which constructs the highest level of the hearthgroup
by providing for the entire Kelabit population,
generates differential prestige between the 'big people' of
different base-level hearth-groups.
The nature of the 'life' which is expressed through
the performance of the rice meal is made explicit at it.
The rice meal, although described as such, includes other
foods besides rice; it cannot be a rice meal, in fact,
without them. These foods are paradigmatically wild.
There is a complementary opposition between rice, produced
by human labour, and other foods, Which reproduce without
human help. Both sides of the opposition are essential,
although it is the rice which is explicitly valued and
which stands for the entire complementary opposition. The
couple, whose achievements are celebrated at . all rice
meals but particularly at feasts, stands for rice itself,
the key symbol of humanity, but also, through the
association at one level of men with the wild, for the
combination of rice with the wild which is essential to the
construction of human society.
In order to discuss the above thesis, I focus on
Kelabit notions of food production and consumption. I look
at rice-growing, at how it is marked as 'special' compared
to other agricultural activities, and at how it is
contrasted to hunting and gathering. I examine the
attributes of the couple, the 'big people' of the hearthgroup
who are responsible for food production and
consumption at the rice meal, and at how these attributes
are the basis of prestige generation in Kelabit society.
I look at the structure of the rice meal and in particular
at feasts, irau, super-rice meals, at which the
complementary opposition between rice and wild foods and
the nature of human life, which is associated with the
nature of the couple, is most clearly stated.