Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Origins of the Austronesian Language Speaking Peoples and the Political Implications Thereof

The issue of who were the first inhabitants of Taiwan, and whether those people are the ancestors of the peoples of Polynesia is not only an academic question. This question has political implications both internally to Taiwan and for cross-Strait relations. Only in the last few weeks, idle speculation by the Taiwan’s Vice President about Taiwan’s first inhabitants sparked outrage among Aborigines. Vice President Lu said: “a now-extinct race of "black pygmies" or "dwarves" were the first to live here 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.” An Aborigine lawmaker called this “linguistic fascism” but academics pointed out that the question is more complex. “We have not found any bone remains of the dwarves. Nor is there proof that any of the (prehistoric) relics unearthed belonged to the ancestors of today's aborigines." (Sina Online)

For China, the question of the origins of the aborigines is part of the fabric of evidence that they use to contend that Taiwan is and always has been a part of China. While the claim that Aborigines came from China is not integral to the argument that Taiwan is irrevocably part of China, the “Aborigine argument” is nonetheless part of the fabric that makes up the totality of the Chinese contention.

However, just because China may support the idea that the ancestors of Taiwan’s aboriginal people immigrated from what is now the Chinese mainland is no reason to reject the notion. As we shall see later in the paper, it is likely that Taiwan’s aboriginals did in fact migrate from the Mainland.
This paper will look at the three threats of evidence that suggest the path of migration of Taiwan’s aboriginal origins, and their subsequent movement into the Pacific. Finally, I will examine the implications of putting too much importance on the location of the origin of people, in this case, Taiwanese Aborigines and the far-flung peoples of Oceania. Further, I will argue that while the genetic origins of people is interesting as an abstract academic pursuit, the use of such criteria for political purposes is an idea which time has passed.

The current aboriginal people in Taiwan migrated to the island in two large waves. The first wave, in the indistinct past, was a foot migration over the land bridge that existed between Taiwan and what is now mainland China during the ice age. Taiwan was part of mainland land mass 30,000-20,000 years ago, when the primitive people of Taiwan, mainland Zuozhen Man, were already living there. When the sea level rose during the Ice Age 15,000 years ago, the land link between Taiwan and the mainland was submerged. (China Daily) These original people who were nomads followed the animals down into the plains and then up to the highlands of present day Formosa.

Once the ice sheets receded and the sea rose to cover the land bridge, these Stone Age people were isolated on their island for thousands of years and formed communities. These former nomads gave up their wandering for a life of farming and domestication. “Of course, a permanent site is the basis of an agricultural community, and involves at least a partial abandonment of the chase, because only nomads can follow the game in its seasonal migrations, and hunted animals soon leave the neighborhood of settlements.” (New Stone Age)

The second wave of Taiwanese were pre-Austronesian language speakers who had migrated from somewhere, probably the highlands of present day India, to the present day southeastern coast of China. The ancestors of the Han Chinese who migrated into the same area drove the pre-Austronesian language speakers off their hunting grounds. These proto-Hans had more skills and better technology and soon triumphed in the competition for land. To avoid being killed off completely, the pre-Austronesian language speakers got into boats and crossed the strait to Formosa.
Many linguists now conjecture that the pre-Austronesian language speakers and possibly the nomads who preceded them to Taiwan spoke what is called the Austic language. Austric is the name given for a proposed language family that includes Austro-Asiatic and Austronesian. Some have suggested that the Japanese language might also be Austric. The government sponsored Indian Gazeteer states that the Austrics are the "bedrock" of the Indian population. So, Austric also refers to a cultural and "racial" group. (Asian Pacific Universe) Austric peoples, who are also known by some as a “superfamily” such as the Caucasoids, Northern Mongoloids, and Amerinds, come in all varieties of sizes and shapes which would speak to their higher antiquity. (Cavalli-Sforza) However, of more interest than their physical stature or their epicanthic folds is the notion that their language spread from present day India to Taiwan and transformed into proto-Austronesian.

There, the pre-Austronesian language speakers met the Stone Age people who preceded them. Though the pre-Austronesian language speakers were technologically disadvantaged when compared to the Han, the pre-Austronesian language speakers were advanced when compared to the Stone Age people inhabiting Taiwan. The newcomers, the pre-Austronesian speaking people quickly killed off, subsumed or marginalized the Stone Age people. The evidence of marginalization can be found in the disparity that has been noted between the means that the different tribes comport themselves. Some have postulated, in general terms, that the mountain tribes are more “wild,” perhaps having descended from the earlier inhabitants of Taiwan who were forced into the mountain by the more technologically advanced later arrivals. The lowland tribes, more concerned with agriculture and fishing, by this hypothesis, were descended from the later arrivals.

For approximately 1000 years, the population on the island grew and fragmented geographically. This conclusion is supported by genetic evidence that argues for a common Asian ancestor for all aborigines with relatively recent genetic differentiation. “The mtDNA sequence variation that we observed does not support a hypothesis that Taiwanese subpopulations had separate deep origins owing to different, clearly defined source populations. Although they cluster with respect to the 9-bp deletion, sequences from all four tribes were otherwise thoroughly interleaved in a phylogenetic tree, and the AMOVAs for the sequences and the SSO types from these sequences showed no heterogeneity among tribes.” (Melton) The populations came to Taiwan and spread throughout the island. Once the tribes began to differentiate, they hardened their tribal affinities with very little cross-culturalization. “A Chinese geography written in the third century A.D. reported that the Taiwanese had separate social or breeding groups, indicating that some, if not all, prehistoric tribal identities were mostly in place nearly 1,700 years ago.” (Chai through Melton) For some reason, probably because of war between a couple of groups, a population of (by then) Austronesian Language Speaking People set out south from Formosa to one of the near islands. From there, these Austronesian Language Speaking People’s and their descendants hop scotched across the Pacific, into Malaysia and all the way to Madagascar.

This basic account is buttressed by archaeological evidence, linguistic patters and in the genes of those who would be considered “Pacific Islanders.” Consider each in turn. This three-pronged approach to studying the origins of people is standard in the field. “The identity of a people depends on three evolutionary systems. These are: [1] demic -- their physical appearance, [2] cultural – their beliefs and behaviors, and [3] linguistic - the languages they speak. These three systems are traditionally studied by [1] geneticists and physical anthropologists, [2] ethnologists and cultural anthropologists, and [3] linguists, respectively. These three systems do not always go together. Often, there is hybridization between peoples in all three systems. (Academic Sinica)

Archaeological sites around the Pacific reveal settlements that are younger and younger, the farther in distance they are from Taiwan. “Beginning around 2,000 B.C., a major expansion or diaspora of people speaking languages belonging to the Austronesian language family commenced. Their immediate homeland has generally been regarded as comprising the island of Taiwan (and perhaps adjacent areas of mainland China).” (Kirch)

This is a key indicator. The oldest sites in a particular civilization indicate the origin of that civilization. Archaeological evidence for the initial Austronesian dispersal into the Pacific comes from both western Micronesia (the Marianas and Palau archipelagoes), and from the Bismarck Archipelago. In western Micronesia, early sites contain red-slipped pottery, some of which is decorated with lime-filled, impressed designs. These sites, along with radiocarbon-dated sediment cores exhibiting signals of human presence (e.g., high influxes of microscopic charcoal resulting from anthropogenic burning) suggest that humans settled Marianas and Palau no later than 1500 B.C., and possibly as early as 2000 B.C. (Kirch) Later, these people moved to more remote areas of Oceania: Vanuatu, the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Finally, in the last 1000 years, the diaspora reached Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand. And for the Austronesian Language Speaking People, the place they all came from is Taiwan. “Archaeological evidence shows that cultures obviously derived from it spread farther and farther from Taiwan to fill up the modern Austronesian realm. The evidence includes ground stone tools, pottery, bones of domestic pigs, and crop remains. For example, the Tap’en-k’eng pottery on Taiwan gave way to undecorated plain or red poetry” that is now found around the Pacific. This pottery has been found since about 4000BC in Taiwan, 3000BC in the Philippine, 2500BC scattered about Indonesia, 2000BC on Java and 1600BC in New Guinea. The map illustrates the spread of people across the Pacific. (Diamond 340)

Genetic studies tend to be a mixed bag. Genetic studies indicate that the people of the Pacific and the aboriginal people of Taiwan are genetically similar on the Y chromosome but genetically different when mitochondrial DNA are compared. “Recent genetic data from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)have been interpreted to support this hypothesis and a Taiwanese origin of Polynesians. Data from human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes also suggest Polynesian affinities with Asians.” (Kayser,

Stephen Oppenheimer and Martin Richards attempt to discredit this entire “express train out of Taiwan to Polynesia theory” by pointing out compelling evidence that the genetic anomalies that mark the Polynesian people, also known as the “Polynesia motif” originated in the Indonesian archipelago. It is certainly true that Oppenheimer and Richards have established that genetically, the people of Polynesia probably had ancestors who had lived for a long period in current day eastern Indonesia. The two authors fail in their attempt to discredit the “express train out of Taiwan to Polynesia theory” in two ways: Contrary to their claim in the introduction to their paper that: for the “express train theory” “it is becoming clear that there is, in fact, little supporting evidence in favour of this view,” their conclusion takes a more honest tact: “It seems their (Polynesians) ancestry does not directly help to solve the question of the ‘Austronesian homeland’ at all. Its location may thus become once again just a linguistic conundrum, rather than a vital piece of evidence in the Holocene demographic prehistory of Southeast Asia.” (Oppenheimer and Richards)

The second weakness in their argument is the unspoken assumption that genetics and the spread of culture are linked. There is no way to determine by a person’s genes what language that person speaks or what culture she claims as her own. The fact that the ancestors of current day Pacific islanders originated in eastern Indonesia is interesting to consider in a vacuum but only develops some relevance when that fact is considered in the light of the linguistic migration which obviously occurred from out of Taiwan. Although the inhabitants of the Pacific islands carry the genes of those who had lived in Indonesia, they also carry the culture and language of those who came from Taiwan. This fact is far more important to us as humans than where our genes came from. By means of analogy, an American might be directly descended from Bantu tribesman in Africa but because he and his family have lived in America for three generations, he is an American, culturally indistinguishable from a Mayflower descendent. There is nothing in the Oppenheimer and Richards studies that would deny the hypothesis that culturally and linguistically superior people swept down from Taiwan and interbred with relatively backward people with unique genetic markers living in the Indonesian archipelago. Curiously, these genetically unique “Indonesians” were also descended thousands of years prior from the same stock who spawned the later migratory “Taiwanese.” Once the “Taiwanese” encountered the “Indonesians” and mixed their genes, their descendents, all of whom were now Austronesian language speakers with their unique genetic markers, pushed into the Pacific.

Further, these studies still indicate that Pacific Islanders have relatively similar genetic anomalies whereas there are comparatively more genetic anomalies among the aboriginal people of Taiwan. Logically, it then follows that the population with more anomalies that has been in one place longer and predating another, related population, then the older population gave rise to the newer. The older population has had more opportunity for the genetic stock to diverge. Younger genetic lines will have had less time to evidence genetic anomalies. Therefore, the archaeological evidence, the genetic evidence and a compelling theory mutually reinforce the conclusion that Pacific Islanders spread out from the Aborigines of Taiwan.

New genetic evidence from rats also tends to reinforce this general idea. The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) serves as a proxy for human migration across the Pacific. Pacific rats do not swim hence cannot self-disperse. They also don't crossbreed with the European rat (Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus), so there are no problems with reticulate branching. The upshot of the research is that rats went with people into the Pacific and served as a reproducing food sourse on the migrations. (Matisoo-Smith)

The final piece of this puzzle is the linguistic evidence. The spread and diffusion of language is like the genetic code. Related languages, if in a particular geographic area, but nonetheless, isolated from one another, will begin to display anomalies in pronunciation, usage, new coinages, and changes in entropy. It then follows that if one of these new lines for some reason spreads to new geographic locations, it will evidence fewer changes than the mother language.
Taiwanese Aborigines and their cultural descendents speak languages that can be broadly grouped into what is called the Austronesian Family of languages. The Austronesian languages are a family of languages widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia, the Pacific, with a few members spoken on continental Asia. Malagasy is a geographic outlier, which is spoken on Madagascar. Austronesian is one of the largest language families in the world, both in terms of number of languages, 1244 according to some sourses, and in terms of the geographical extent of the homelands of its languages. This language family stretches from Madagascar off the coast of easter Africa to Easter Island off the coast of western South America.

Taiwanese Aborigines’ nine branches of Austronesian are called the Formosan languages, the rest of the Pacific, one, the Malayo-Polynesian languages. It logically follows that the Taiwanese population gave birth, literally and linguistically to the Pacific population. Jared Diamond observes: “The concentration of three out of the four Austronesian subfamilies on Taiwan suggests that within the present Austronesian realm Taiwan is the homeland where Austronesian have been spoken for the most millennia and have consequently had the longest time in which to diverge. All other Austronesian languages, from those on Madagascar to those on Easter Island, would stem from a population explosion out of Taiwan.” (Diamond 339)

The Austronesian languages tend to use repetition of all or part of a word also known as reduplication to express the plural. Austronesian languages have low entropy. The languages feature a small number of sounds to represent all thoughts that can be expressed by the language. The majority of languages also lack consonant clusters such as “ght” or “tch” in English. All Austronesian languages also have a small set of vowels. A comparison of a representative example of various Austronesian languages shows the similarities:

Language one two three four five six seven eight nine ten
Samoan tasi lua tolu fa lima ono fitu valu iva sefulu
Rarotongan tai rua toru a rima ono itu varu iva tai'ngauru
Hawaiian kahi lua kolu ha lima ono hiku walu iwa 'umi
Tuvalu tasi iua tolu fa lima ono fitu valu iva sefulu
Rapanui tahi rua toru ha rima ono hita vau iva angahuru
Rotuman ta rua folu hake lima ono hifu valu siva saghula
Maori tahi rua toru wha rima ono whitu waru iwa tekau
Tongan taha ua tolu fa nima ono fitu valu hiva hongofulu
Fijian dua rua tolu va lima ono vitu walu civa sagavalu
Ceuano usa duha tulo upat lima unum pito walo siyam napulo
Aklanon isaea daywa tatlo ap-at lima an-um pito waeo siyam napueo
Tagalog isa dalawa tatlo apat lima anim pito walo siyam sampu
Bahasa satu dua tiga empat lima enam tujuh lapan sembila sepuluh
Sawu ahi due tallu apa lami anna pitu aru heo henguru
Bahasa satu dua tiga empat lima enam tujuh delapa sembila sepuluh
Javanese siji loro telu papat lima nem pitu wolu sanga sepuluh
Balinese besik dua telu papat lima nem, pepitu aktus, sia, as dasa
Madurese settong, dua tello empa lema enem petto bellu sanga sapolo
Toraja misa dua tallu a'pa' lima annan pitu karura kasera sang pulo
Sundanese hiji duwe tilu opat lima genep tujuh dalapa salapan sapuluh
Nauruan ion aro aiju aeoq ajimo ano aeiu aoju ado ata
Tarawan te ua teni a nima ono iti uanu, ua, uai tanaun
Gilbertese touhana houa tenoua ahoua nimahoua onohoua itoua onoua louacho tepouina
Chamoro hatsa hugua tulo fatfat lima gunum fito gualuo sigua fulu
Kiribati teuana uoua tenua aua nimaua ono itiua wanua ruaiwa tebwina
Marshallese juon ruo jilu emen lalim jiljino jiljilimjuon rualit ruatimj jonoul
Malagasy isa roa telo efatra dimy enina fito valo sivy folo

All this being said, the movement of people from one place to another across time, taken in a vacuum, is a mildly interesting topic of consideration. However, for the Mainland Chinese government, the idea has political currency. Chinese scholars push the idea that Aborigines are Chinese and point to the fact that the two groups have approximately 80% of the same genetic markers. This claimed genetic linkage of Taiwan Aborigines to the mainland is yet another albeit minor justification that Chinese scholars have constructed to claim that Taiwan is a part of China. And, ergo, this genetic proof means that the home of the Aborigines, Taiwan, is and has always been Chinese.

Even if you put aside the noxious notion that political affiliations should be based on genetic similarities, the idea that Aborigines are genetically Chinese and therefore their homeland belongs to the Chinese government is problematic. Virtually everyone who is Asian is genetically indistinguishable from each other. In fact, you need go back only 1000 years to find that 16 million men in Asia and approximately .05% of everyone else worldwide have the same male ancestor, Genghis Kahn. Does the Chinese argument follow that since GK was Mongolian, then all these people are Mongolian?

On the flip side of this argument is the claim by some in the Taiwan that because that some citizens are racially linked with the citizens of other Pacific counties, Taiwan should pursue some sort of international framework. Supporters of this idea site both cultural and racial justifications for such an organization. “Specifically, the research hinted at a relationship with the Maori of New Zealand, the aborigines of Australia, the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea, and the Inuit and Tlingit of Canada. Despite its northern home, the latter community has demonstrably similar art forms to some Pacific groups and a genesis myth that suggests an origin from the western ocean.” President Chen even got into the spirit of the Pan-Austronesian Commonwealth when he expressed his desire to open the lines of communication with other Asia-Pacific countries, adding that the "go south" investment policy that the government is currently touting would further expand Taiwan's cooperation with other countries that share a common Austronesian ancestry. (TECO News)

In the current worldwide political climate, it should be apparent that modern, civilized, legitimate political organizations have certain things in common regardless of political ideologies. Political organizations should have democratically elected leaders and should be organized without regard to race or ethnicity. An example of this is the current struggle worldwide with including ethnic minorities into the fabric of society. Western democracies have recognized the problem of integrating minorities into society for approximately 200 years and have been struggling with this problem since then. The United States has tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to provide economic opportunities and political representation for racial minorities. France is attempting to assimilate large numbers of devoutly religious and fecund Muslims into a secular society with otherwise declining birthrates. This problem of people with racial differences being incorporated into a political entity is certainly not an easy one.
Now, Taiwan is faced with a similar problem. China, no bastion of liberal democracy, has unsurprisingly opted to accentuate ethnic and racial identity to solidify the hold of the Communist party on the power of government. To counter the formidable power of the Communists, there is a temptation on the part of some in Taiwan to grasp at anything that might counter the diplomatic isolation the ROC faces. However, it would be particularly misguided to emulate China and attempt to use race and ethnicity to solidify Taiwan’s place in the world. A more courageous path, but one more in keeping with the general worldwide political trends is to establish criteria for citizenship and membership in political organizations that is divorced from ethnicity. With the passing of the Nazis, it should be considered anathema to organize politically on racial lines. Let us study the Aborigines and their migration into the Pacific for what it is, an interesting period of conflict and human courage.

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