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Children of the Batek

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

I started "studying" the Batek in 1993, so this is my 30th year with them. For the past few years I've been working on a visual ethnography of the Batek. I'll let slip a little bit at a time as my book takes shape.
Today's blog is about children. As Kirk and Karen Endicott, Alice Rudge, I, and innumerable other anthropologists have observed, children's games are often miniature versions of adult activity.
Making the body of a catapult, which will be fitted with elastics that I had given them, 1996
Making the body of a catapult, which will be fitted with elastics that I had given them, 1996
Shooting with a catapult, 2017
Shooting with a catapult, 2017
I wrote in 2021:
"The precursor to blowpipe-hunting is catapult-shooting. . .All the hunters I’ve ever asked mentioned that they first learnt their skills playing with catapults as boys. Even today, the sight of boys and girls with catapults is pervasive everywhere. Their targets (often successful) are birds and, as they grow and begin practicing with blowpipes, squirrels. Catapults are an apt practice for the real thing: they learn to study the treetops, learn about the behavior of (avi)fauna, and practice eye-hand coordination, stealth, and how to stalk successfully" (Lye 2021:353).

Fishing: while one is old enough to hold the rod in the water, the other one is too young and is quietly making what seems to be a palm-leaf shelter, 2014
Fishing: while one is old enough to hold the rod in the water, the other one is too young and is quietly making what seems to be a palm-leaf shelter, 2014
Fishing is a favourite Batek activity, about which I haven't written much. There are many kinds of fishing: with different types of nets, with tuba (plant-based poison, which stuns fish), manually (with hands), and with rods. Frequently women dominate rod-fishing, but men and boys do it too. I'm always asked to bring fish hooks and fishing line to the field. My friend ʔeyMantɔr keeps egging me to do it and promises to go fishing, but he rarely manages to (he's too busy hunting, which is his preferred activity).
Babies and toddlers follow their mothers on fishing trips. As they grow, many will delight in taking up their first rods.
It's not always easy. I remember a catfish slapping me in the face when I pulled it out of the water, on a steep slope of a river.
The children of Kuala Koh, Kelantan, 2016. Though they live in a much-changed environment, the games are familiar.
The children of Kuala Koh, Kelantan, 2016. Though they live in a much-changed environment, the games are familiar.
In the distance are some of the low-cost houses provided by government agencies after the devastating floods of 2015. The traditional way of coping with floods (successfully) is to move inland, to higher ground for the duration of the floods. It could be argued that by locking the Batek to fixed dwellings, housing agencies are making them more vulnerable.
On the whole, I'm skeptical about the effects of government attention and schooling on children and the transmission of skills. But I'll keep an open mind. After all, if there is anything that all observers of the Batek agree on, it's their resilience, and ability to deal with changes in their lives.

 
Lye Tuck-Po. 2021. Tracking with Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia. In Reading prehistoric human tracks: methods and materials, ed. by Andreas Pastoors and Tilman Lenssen-Erz, pp. 345-362. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-60406-6

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