Tag Archives: linguistics

Feature: Taiwan’s seafaring history

Bamboo raft
Modern bamboo raft on the coast of Fujian, China.

An interest in the origins of Polynesia impelled University of Hawai‘i at Manoa archaeologist Barry Rolett to dig deep into the Earth’s core at one of China’s famous hot springs: Fuzhou Basin.  What was the quest of the Department of Anthropology professor so far from home?  To prove the theory that colonization of Polynesian and all Austronesian cultures can be traced to Taiwan.  Rolett and his team found convincing evidence that not only strengthens this belief, but also showed that seafaring played a huge role in shaping both Taiwan and the nearby coast of China.

Their research, reported in the April 2011 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews, indicates that rapid sea level rise in Fuzhou Basin on the southeast coast of the Fujian Province in China 9,000 years ago made it impossible for villagers to make a living from growing rice, the primary agricultural crop harvested by farmers in most other regions.  Since the lack of land needed for rice paddies in Fuzhou Basin prevented this type of food production, villagers took to open-sea voyaging—a type of seafaring associated with Austronesian origins.  They eventually made contact with Taiwan, located about 80 miles across the coast from the Fuzhou Basin.

This presumption contests the popular view by scientists that villagers in northern China spread the popularity of rice farming southward to the Fuzhou Basin. Sediment cores collected by Rolett and his team near the Tanshishan archaeological site, the center of a Neolithic culture that inhabited the Fuzhou Basin between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago, showed that sea-level change has dramatically transformed the landscape since then. The sites are located today on hills that are 50 miles from the coast, which once were little islands in the upper estuary.

Large amounts of shellfish remains indicate that the Tanshishan people relied heavily on maritime resources for their livelihood.  “They may have been the greatest navigators of their day,” said Rolett. Artifacts that were found, such as pottery and stone tools, were also discovered in Taiwan, suggesting that people from the Fuzhou Basin may have crossed the Taiwan Strait and ultimately established farming villages in Taiwan.

In combination with other genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence found throughout the years, Rolett’s research also boosts the belief by experts that seafaring originating in the Taiwan Strait may be linked with the earliest Austronesians, whose populations include the people of Polynesia, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Robert Blust, a UH Mānoa professor of linguistics who also studies the origins of Austronesians, agrees that Taiwan was likely first settled by speakers of Austronesian languages.  “The archaeology of Neolithic settlement in insular Southeast Asia has supported this scenario completely, since pottery, animal domestication and agriculture make their appearance in Taiwan about a millennium earlier than they do in areas further to the south where Austronesian languages are spoken today,” said Blust.

Rolett’s research team members included Zhuo Zheng of the Department of Earth Sciences at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, and Yuanfu Yue of the Institut de Sciences de l’Evolution at the Université Montpellier in France.  “This research helps us learn more about China’s rich history and culture, and also to understand how sea level change can transform our coastline,” said Rolett. “As our team had discovered, this can have a dramatic impact on the way we live in the future.”

For more information, contact Barry Rolett at (808) 956-7546 or rolett@hawaii.edu.

Top photo: A drilling rig was used to collect sediment cores documenting 10,000 years in the evolution of the Fuzhou Basin in Fujian, China. UH Mānoa Anthropology Professor Barry Rolett, at right, prepares to hand off one of the drill bits.

The modern city of Fuzhou, capital of Fujian Province in east China, is built on recently formed land. 6000 years ago, during the Neolithic era, this area was submerged as part of a large estuary that fostered the development of early seafaring in the Taiwan Strait.
UH Mānoa archaeologist Barry Rolett, at right, with Sun Yat-Sen University Geologist Zheng Zhuo and St. Andrew’s University student Landon Clay.
UH Mānoa archaeologist Barry Rolett does coring field work in the Fuzhou Basin of China.