Heads under bridges or in mud: Reflections on a Southeast Asian ‘diving rumour’


  • Gregory Forth

    1. Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. He has conducted ethnographic research on the Indonesian island of Flores since 1984. Recent titles include Images of the wildman in Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2008), Guardians of the land in Kelimado (KITLV Press, 2004), Nage birds (Routledge, 2004), and Dualism and hierarchy (Oxford University Press, 2001). His email is gforth@ualberta.ca.
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In 2006 drilling by an Indonesian oil company precipitated an eruption of volcanic mud which has rendered a large area in East Java uninhabitable. Failed attempts to stop the eruption gave rise to a rumour that Javanese were scouring other islands in search of numerous human heads in order to quell the mud flow. While the circumstances are novel, the article demonstrates how the ‘Lapindo rumour’ is a variant of a much older and more persistent Southeast Asian representation, according to which heads are required to lend durability to iron bridges or other modern structures.