In the footsteps of Thor Heyerdahl

Kenneth Sillander investigates how economic and ecological upheavals affect the lives of the Dayak in Borneo.

The Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl was born on 6 October 1914, one hundred years ago today. Known throughout the world for his expedition across the Pacific Ocean on his Kon-Tiki raft and occasionally criticised for his inadequate scientific theories, Heyerdahl’s lasting legacy is his fervent interest in the history of the development and culture of humankind. This autumn, 100 years after Heyerdahl’s birth, three Nordic researchers will launch a new anthropological research project on the Pacific.

Traditional values in a changing world

Published at the beginning of June, the Academy of Finland’s decision to fund research in the field of culture and society brought good tidings to university lecturer and anthropologist Kenneth Sillander and his two colleagues. They received 600,000 euros in funding for a four-year (2014–2018) research project entitled Contested Values in Indonesia: Value Creation and Value Relations in Contemporary Borneo. The research will investigate, among others, the Dayak, the non-Muslim indigenous people of Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The purpose of this research project is to examine how the extensive environmental and social changes ongoing in Borneo affect the moral values of Dayaks.

“Major economic and ecological upheavals have called into question traditional values, such as solidarity and autonomy,” Sillander explains. An increase in government regulation and the intensified utilisation of natural resources (e.g., oil palm plantations, logging and mining) affect not only the values of native peoples, but also their material living conditions.

Modern anthropological research

The research project focuses on the relationship between economic and moral values. Topics of study include the consequences of the monetisation of the economy and the environment, and how this affects the social values of native peoples as well as their relationship to the environment. Interestingly, the native people of Borneo have been involved in trade for a very long time, unlike, for example, the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea. They have been self-sufficient, but also integrated into the market economy. They earn income by growing rubber and rattan, and gathering and selling forest products. For example, a population group Sillander studied previously earned considerable sums from the sale of rattan in the 1980s.

Sillander and the two other project participants, postdoctoral researchers and anthropologists Isabell Herrmans and Anu Lounela, will visit Borneo on several occasions. Sillander, who holds the position of university lecturer at the Swedish School of Social Science, has previously conducted anthropological research among the native peoples of Borneo, which means that the new project will continue his earlier work. The research methods will include participant observation and, to some extent, informal interviews. The goal is to examine values as they are expressed in the people’s daily lives. The project participants have several international partners, the most important of which is the University of Oslo.