SOAS University of London

Centre of Taiwan Studies

Thinking with Birds: Ornithomancy and Indigeneity in Taiwan

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Prof Scott Simon

Date: 20 June 2018Time: 7:00 PM

Finishes: 20 June 2018Time: 9:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: KLT

Type of Event: Lecture


Ornithomancy, divination by human observation of bird behaviour, is particularly elaborate in South-east Asia and Oceania. Taiwan’s indigenous people, parts of the Austronesian cultural world, used to look carefully at birds to anticipate future events. In the Truku and Seediq tribes, hunters observe the flight path of the sisil bird in order to predict the outcome of a hunt. But, ornithomancy has lost much of its relevance in the colonial and contemporary contexts. The people no longer live in the forest. In addition, because of the prohibition of many hunting activities, the men hunt clandestinely in the night and no longer see the diurnal birds. Nonetheless, people continue to talk about the birds and they have adopted the oracle birds as national symbols of their tribes. Reflecting on Formosan ornithomancy and ethno-ethology opens the door to discussions about bird “agency” as part of an entanglement of lives. In addition, divination is itself a symbol of a living tradition and thus at the heart of the symbolism of political demands. Identifying with the sisil, indigenous activists demand the return of their traditional territories and at least a certain degree of political autonomy.

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Speaker Bio

Scott Simon (Ph.D., Anthropology, McGill University), is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada; and currently Visiting Professor at the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku), Osaka, Japan. He is co-chair of the Research Chair in Taiwan Studies at the University of Ottawa. Simon is author of three books, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters about Taiwan. For the past 15 years, he has specialized in the study of indigeneity, based on years of field research in Truku and Seediq villages. Collaborative research with Truku hunters and trappers on Gaya (customary law) and traditional ecological knowledge has led him to a broader interest in human-animal relations and multi-species ethnography. This includes ethno-ornithology, and a study of the use of birds as oracles. He is now member of the Minpaku-based research project “The Ecological Adaptation of Material Culture in Taiwan and Neighbouring Islands.” He is also PI on a major international and interdisciplinary research program, funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, entitled “Austronesian World: Human-Animal Entanglements in the Pacific Anthropocene.” Because of this research, he is now looking at Taiwan and its indigenous human populations as part of a wider geographical context: the peoples that host birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. His most recent book is Sadyaq Balae: L’autochtone formosane dans tous ses états. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval. In addition to working on his new book manuscript about the Seediq/Truku, he is also doing field research in Japan on human-bird entanglements. 

* All these events are free to attend and open to members of the public without prior registration.

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Organiser: SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies

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Sponsor: Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines