A propos des conditions de formation des assemblages osseux archéologique dans les sociétés pré-littéraires disparues européennes Une analyse ethnoarchéologique dans deux sociétés vivantes de l’Asie du Sud-Est.

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Christian Jeunesse


Studies on the meaning of animal bone assemblages in non-state societies from European recent Prehistory (Neolithic and Metal Ages) are based on a series of presuppositions: breeding serves to meet the nutritional needs of the population; it is rationally organized in relation to this imperative; according to the degree of analyse, bone assemblages reflect the breeding and consumption practices of the household or of the village community; households are economically self-sufficient; they produce very few surplus food and exchanges concern mainly prestige or rare, unevenly spatially distributed, goods; meat consumption is adjusted to account for the natural growth of the cattle and distributed as evenly as possible all over the year, following rhythms that are being repeated from one year to the next. However, studies on feasting economy, initiated by B. Hayden and M. Dietler in particular, have showed that there are non-state societies, notably in South-eastern Asia, in which breeding does not meet any of these presuppositions. The main domestic cattle (buffalo and pig) are regarded as ritual goods, in the same way as precious fabric, gongs, and silver or gold ornaments, and play absolutely no part in food economy. They are consumed on the occasion of festive contexts, following irregular annual schedules that vary from one year to the next, and circulate intensively according to modalities similar to manufactured prestige goods. Data available for European Prehistory suggest that there is no reason why, in our study of faunal remains, we should reject a priori such an operating mode.

In an ethno-archaeological perspective, our aim is to evaluate the consequences of this operating mode on the formation, composition and meaning of bone assemblages and to develop a model that could serve as a guide for the analyse of the European prehistoric bone assemblages. We provide here the first results of a study on two societies from the Indonesian Archipelago, settled respectively on the island of Sumba and in the south-eastern part of the island of Sulawesi, in Toraja land. In these two areas, buffalo and pig are exchanged and consumed during ceremonies, the two most significant being, from our study point of view, funerals and the rebuilding of the ancestral house. The circulation of living animals and of meat is conditioned mostly by religious and social factors. It is organized according to the kinship lines and produces bone assemblages that in no way reflect the breeding practices and ordinary consumption habits, either on the scale of the household or of the settlement.

Even though it does not enable to take into account all the mechanisms at work, the most relevant degree of analyse seems to be that of the descent group (patrilineal clan in Sumba and cognatic descent group in Toraja land).The last section of the article analyses how this model, which is shared by most of the south-east Asian “hill tribes” societies, influences our understanding of European prehistoric faunal bone assemblages. Taking into account the model of ritual economy seems today crucial to make our interpretations of animal bone assemblages from European recent prehistoric contexts more plausible. Hopefully, identifying configurations (composition, variability and spatial distribution of assemblages) that would fit this model will, on the basis of osteological analyses taking into consideration the spatial dimension on a scale necessarily exceeding that of the settlement, help to understand the forms of social organization in European Recent Prehistory.