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Archaeologists Find Evidence of Origin of Pacific Islanders

  • Heidi Chang

The origin of Pacific Islanders has been a mystery for years. Now archaeologists believe they have the answer. As Heidi Chang reports, they found it in China.

China had a sea-faring civilization as long as 7000 years ago. Archaeologist Tianlong Jiao says, one day, these mariners sailed their canoes into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and stayed. He points out, "Most scientists, archaeologists, historical linguists and human biologists agree that today's southeast China, Taiwan and Northern Philippines, the whole region is the ultimate homeland of the Austronesian people." The Austronesians include today's Polynesian, Micronesian, Melanesian, and the indigenous people in Philippines, in the Southeast Asia archipelago, and in Taiwan.

Jiao, who was born in China, is chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. He says understanding how seafaring technology developed in prehistoric China 3000 to 7000 years ago is critical in understanding the origins of Pacific heritage. "These people did not have a writing system, so they didn't record their own history, they had an oral history, but over many thousand years, the oral history is easily lost."

To prevent this history from being lost, Jiao has been coordinating the first joint research project with archaeologists from China, Taiwan and the United States. They are documenting evidence of the ancient seafaring civilizations that once flourished in southeast China.

Jiao first got interested in these maritime cultures while he was a graduate student at Harvard, and began collaborating on projects in China with his professor, Barry Rolett. Rolett is trying to understand migration patterns in ancient China.

"Earlier researchers argued that the reason people first left China and crossed to Taiwan, is because over-population pushed them off the coastal plain of mainland China," he explains, adding that his research takes a different approach. "We're looking at environmental factors that may have contributed in pushing people [from the coastal plain of mainland China] to look for new land." He believes rising sea levels may have stimulated interest in a maritime way of life, and gathering food from the sea.

Rolett is now a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he teaches classes on Pacific archaeology. "So when I talk about the connection between Pacific Islanders, especially Polynesians, and southeast China, then my Native Hawaiian students are usually surprised, and they say, 'How could it be that Polynesians have roots in China? We don't look like Chinese.' And then I have to explain to them that, 'Yes, they don't look like the people living in southeast China today, but the people living there 6000 years ago, were completely different.'"

Rolett says it's even more important to continue their research now, because China is changing so fast, development is destroying archaeological sites, and modernization is threatening to overwhelm the cultural heritage of the region's ethnic minorities.

"China has been trying to get everybody in the south to switch from speaking their native dialect to Mandarin. So people are starting to lose their native dialects and the cultural diversity is starting to be lost." He compares it to the way that cultural diversity in the United States has been lost. "We've become such a homogenous nation of peoples."

As an American working in modern China, Rolett says he's come to realize that the languages and the cultures of the ethnic minorities are a valuable resource and a great asset. "They're the link," he stresses, "and they're the evidence for this incredible historic relationship, which links China to the Pacific Islands."

Many of the artifacts that have been excavated in southeast China over the past few decades have been displayed outside of China only at Hawaii's Bishop Museum. Tianlong Jiao recalls how one Hawaii resident responded to seeing the exhibit of ancient pottery, tools, jade and maritime artifacts. "She said, 'Until I saw the exhibit, I didn't realize that we share, we share one ocean, we are one people…' And for me that's very touching."

While many aren't aware of China's ancient maritime history and its global significance, Jiao believes it is an important story to tell. He's edited a book about the groundbreaking research called, Lost Maritime Cultures: China and the Pacific. And he's back in China this spring conducting more research on these early seafarers and their journeys throughout the Pacific.

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