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12 The Embattled Chronologer The Politics of the Calendar
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The Problems in Primitive Calendars

Ra Holo was not alone in his confusion. The study of variation in notions of time and time reckoning has long been vexed with such problems, and it is increasingly difficult in the modern world to find groups whose original, preliterate temporalities have not been clouded or even permanently distorted by comparison with the now ubiquitous Western calendar.

In the earliest description of Sumbanese notions of time, Samuel Roos, the first Dutch official to travel on the island, reported that "there are no names for the days or the weeks. The Sumbanese live, in what concerns the reckoning of time, as in all else, in a continuing state of ignorance." He did record fourteen different names for periods of time within the year, which corresponded roughly to the Malay category of "moons," but noted a high amount of inconsistency in informants' statements: "Among fifty Sumbanese, only one will be encountered who is able to give the names of the periods in the proper order or who can say which is the present month" (Roos 1872, 70).

Inconsistency is not, however, the same thing as ignorance. Many students of non-Western time systems have found people hard to pin down on which lunation it is, and they have often interpreted discrepancies as signs of laziness or lack of care. More recent and sophisticated analyses, however, have revealed that a certain flexibility may be necessary to keep annual cycles adjusted to seasonal variations in variable ecological regions (Aveni 1989; Turton and Ruggles 1978). Temporal knowledge is an attribute of individuals as participants in organized societies, and it varies with the social needs of the group.

Two of the most famous peoples in the ethnographic literature, the Nuer and the Trobrianders, have lunar calendars that are complexly calibrated to conjoin natural and social needs. Evans-Pritchard (1940, 100) tells us that the Nuer conceptualize the named moons in relation to the activities that they perform, and are much less concerned with the lunar cycle than the round of subsistence activities in which it is inscribed: "Nuer do not to any great extent use the names of the months to indicate the time of an event, but generally instead to some outstanding activity in process at the time of its occurrence." Similarly, in Kodi many events are situated in time as before or after the harvest, before or after planting,


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and to a certain extent people may try to figure out what name to give a month on the basis of these activities. However, the degree to which Kodi month names are fixed varies throughout the annual cycle.

Malinowski (1927, 211) believed that the Trobrianders did not have a calendar in any full sense because he could locate only ten common names for the months of the year (he thought, on the model of the Roman calendar, that there should have been twelve). He noted, however, a fair amount of regional variation in which month was given which name, and this was related to the timing of the milarnala harvest festival, which—as in Kodi was supposed to coincide with the swarming of sea worms (also called milamala in the Trobriand language). Edmund Leach (1950, 245), relating Malinowski's data to other Pacific societies, provides clues to unravel these differences; he also suggests an underlying pattern that is found, in a different form, in the Kodi calendar as well.

The purpose of any calendar, lunar or otherwise, is to measure the progress of the seasons and make possible the accurate prediction of their arrival. But the concept of the year as a fixed number of days (365.24 for the solar year) is an artificial temporal development associated with an advanced state of astronomical knowledge. Therefore, it is the periodicity of the seasonal cycle that is appreciated first, by all early chronologers, and not the duration between successive periods.

If, as in most primitive calendars, the year is first divided into periods by naming the moons, some mechanism must exist for intercalating the lunar and solar years. Because the lunar month consists, astronomically, of 29.53 days, a lunar year of twelve months would be only 354.36 days long. Each year, as the months were named and passed in succession, there would be a gap of 10.87 days, and after three years the months would have fallen behind by one in relation to the solar cycle. If an extra month is inserted in the lunar year once every three years, the two calendar years will be closely synchronized but not completely congruent. Once every twenty-nine years or so, a further intercalary month would be required. The problem that faces every user of a lunar calendar, therefore, is how to keep the "counting of the moons" in pace with the passage of the seasons—the part of Kodi chronology referred to as the "measuring of the year" (ghipo a ndoyo ), so that the wet and dry seasons do not slip away from the months named for the activities of planting and harvesting.

Evidence from the Wogeo, Yami, and Trobriand calendars surveyed by Leach (1950) suggests that this is done by adding—in certain years—an additional lunar month. Obviously, some ritual authority is needed to decide when the addition must be made, and some external check is needed to keep the two calendars in synchrony. Materials from many parts of the Pacific suggest that the annual swarming of sea worms is often what


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provides this external check, with the sequence of ceremonial activities coordinated around this event.

If, as in the Trobriands, the festival of the sea worms is staggered from one district to another, the total number of month names may not add up to thirteen or even twelve, because a group of month names may be counted but not named, or counted only after the occurrence of the festival itself. Malinowski had argued that the use of month names by the Trobrianders was not calendrical but simply a haphazard correlation of gardening activities with the sequence of the moons; "gardening seasons" he said, "constitute the real measure of time" (Malinowski 1927, 211). Gregory Forth's meticulous examination of temporal classification in Eastern Sumba likewise does not address the issue of intercalation. He says Rindi wula are periods "of varying and indeterminate lengths . . . and do not coincide with the lunar months" (G. Forth 1983, 59), so they cannot be used for intercalation.

Yet even if we grant that the occurrence and naming of a particular moon is reckoned according to natural phenomena and social activities, this does not mean that there is not also a rudimentary calendrical function. The Rato Nale's role in "counting the months and measuring the year" after all, permits measured numerical prediction of coming events and is thus an independent scheme of time reckoning that goes beyond haphazard empiricism. As Leach (1950, 249) says, "if some event in the seasonal cycle is required to occur at some point in a lunar sequence, then a true calendar must exist, and this implies the existence of a correlation." The correlation is perhaps less evident in East Sumba, where the annual appearance of the sea worms is not ritually celebrated, but it is nevertheless indicated in the names of the months.

In addition, inconsistencies in the names reported for moons in Kodi and other districts of Sumba suggest that (1) there is a definite period of "forgetting the moon name" which is where the flexibility and possible intercalation must be found; and (2) the festivities held in Kodi require the prediction of the worm's swarming and thus work a bit differently from the Trobriand example. Thus, I argue that a Kodi lunar calendar does exist and that its functioning was once of great political significance. Reconstructing how it works today involves a delicate and complicated examination of a tradition under fire and a continuing struggle to keep an indigenous temporality alive in the face of new incursions.


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