Living in the Stone AgeReflections on the Origins of a Colonial Fantasy

Living in the Stone AgeReflections on the Origins of a Colonial Fantasy

Danilyn Rutherford

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9780226570105

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Living in the Stone Age scrutinizes a stubborn colonial fantasy: one that has trapped the people of the troubled Indonesian territory of West Papua in the past. The book focuses on the experiences of a handful of Dutch officials tasked with establishing a post in the Wissel Lakes region of the highlands when the territory was still part of the Netherlands Indies. Two of these officials played a key role in the campaign to retain western New Guinea as a separate Dutch colony after the Indies gained independence; they saw the Stone Age Papuans as too primitive to rule themselves. The book explores how these officials relied on the hospitality and expertise of local people and how they used sympathy as a means of colonial state building. It examines the dreams of mastery and vulnerability that their dependence on technology inspired. In doing so, it advances a surprising argument: to account for the historical production of this fantasy, and the historical work it has done, we have to tell the story of colonialism as a tale that begins with weakness, not strength. The book ends with a reflection on the ethical and epistemological implications of cultural anthropologists’ own deployment of sympathy as a method. Living in the Stone Age uses a minor episode in colonial history to ask some big questions: on the origins of colonial ideology, the impassioned nature of colonial practices, and what it takes for cultural anthropologists to make claims about such things.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Sympathy and Its Discontents: A Colonial Encounter

Part 2 Vulnerability and Fantasies of Mastery

Part 3 Lessons for a New Anthropology

End Matter