New Research Reconstructs Ancient History of Island SE Asia

Article Repost:

New research reconstructs ancient history of Island Southeast Asia

April 9, 2010 <!–


( — An article in this month’s Current Anthropology challenges the controversial idea that Island Southeast Asia was settled 5,000 years ago by a migration of farmers from Taiwan.

The article, by Mark Donohue of the Australian National University and Tim Denham of Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), also questions the broader idea that farming technology and spread together in many parts of the world as a “cultural package.”

Scholars have debated for years about the history of Island Southeast Asia—the present-day countries of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The most prominent theory about the region’s history is the “out of Taiwan” model. According to the model, people from Taiwan migrated south into the region about 5,000 years ago. Advanced farming technology enabled the migrants to displace indigenous hunter-gatherers, and establish their culture and language as the dominant one in the region. Linguistic evidence seems to support that version of events. All of the languages spoken in the region—called the Austronesian languages—can be traced back to a Taiwanese origin.

Influential scholars, including Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond, believe that the “out of Taiwan” model is a prime example of how prehistoric farming cultures tended to expand their territories, bringing their language and other cultural traditions with them. Advocates of the model believe similar scenarios explain language patterns in areas of Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

But Donohue and Denham present a very different history of Island Southeast Asia.

“Genes, languages and material culture—including agriculture—did not all spread together through migration,” Donohue said. Instead, the region was “home to a mosaic of maritime networks of prior to the spread of the Austronesian languages.”

The latest genetic studies show no evidence of a large-scale Taiwanese migration, the Donohue and Denham contend. “Although some of the genetic variation among human populations in [the region] can be attributed to Taiwanese influence, the proportion does not by any means represent the wholesale replacement or absorption of preexisting populations,” they write.

In terms of agriculture, Donohue and Denham show that many of the domesticated plants and animals common in the region appear to have arrived before any Taiwanese influence—and from multiple sources. Chickens and pigs most likely came from mainland Southeast Asia, and bananas and sugarcane from New Guinea. Such evidence challenges the notion that the region owes its agricultural history solely to Taiwanese migrants.

A detailed look at the linguistics of the region also casts doubt on the explanatory power of the “out of Taiwan” model, according to Donohue and Denham. Languages change over time and as populations move around. If the Austronesian languages came to the region through a southward Taiwanese migration of peoples, one would expect that the languages spoken in the northern part of the region would be more similar to the original source language than the ones spoken in the southern part, which matches the dispersal of some archaeological markers. But that is not the linguistic pattern in Island Southeast Asia. According to Donohue and Denham, there is no linguistic evidence for an orderly north-to-south dispersal.

Irregular patterns in the vocabulary and grammar and other linguistic anomalies throughout the region call into question the idea that the language came to the through mass migration. Rather, Donohue and Denham suggest that the profile of the Austronesian languages in Island Southeast Asia is “consistent with the mechanisms of language shift and abnormal transmission.”

Taken as a whole, the evidence from genetics, archaeology and linguistics calls into the question the idea that agriculture and language spread together, Donohue and Denham conclude.

“The demonstration that farming and language did not reach Island Southeast Asia together has implications for other places where that idea has been applied, including Europe and sub-Saharan Africa,” Denham said.

More information: Mark Donohue and Tim Denham, “Farming and Language in Island Southeast Asia: Reframing Austronesian History.” Current Anthropology 51:2 (April 2010).

Flood Stories: A Key to Understanding Austronesian Migrations

Flooding during Typhoon Ondoy, Manila, 2009

One of the most controversial topics about Austronesians (besides race, which I will get into some other time) is about origins. Most people are already aware of the standard theory of Austronesian migration–the Out of Taiwan theory. But many are not away of another theory that has slowly gained followers–the Sundaland Theory.

Map of Sundaland and possible migration routes

The Sundaland Theory first gained the attention of Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer when he lived in Southeast Asia. Nearly every indigenous group in South East Asia has has myths involving floods. The same for Samoans, Hawaiians, Tahitians, etc. For Hawaiians, I know of three just off the top of my head.

We know that the Biblical account of the flood story is not technically Jewish or Christian. We have almost the same myth in the Sumerian Eridu Genesis and Babylonian The Epic of Gilgamish written thousands of years before the Book of Genesis and may have been the original inspiration. We also know that the Sumerian myths influenced the myths of the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. Sumerians also claim that they heard of an ancient civilization in the Far East, which may have been the origins for the Great Flood. Flood legends, however, largely do not figure in Japanese, Chinese, or Egyptian mythology. Its only within speakers of Austronesian languages that we have volumes of flood legends. Oppenheimer hints that an Austronesian flood myth may have been the original source for the Sumerians.

For example here is a portion of the “Solo Ole Va”, the Samoan Creation Myth:

Rollers flooding, rollers dashing,
Rollers fighting, rollers clashing; –
The sweep of waters and the extension of waves,
Surging high, but breaking not; –
Waves reclining; waves dispersing;
Waves agreeable; waves that cross not;
Waves frightsome; waves leaping over;
Waves breaking; waves warring;
Waves roaring; waves upheaving;
The peopled waves; waves from east to west.
Whose companion is the wandering current.
Rollers flooding, rollers dashing,
Rollers fighting, rollers clashing; –
The sweep of waters and the extension of waves,
Surging high, but breaking not; –
Waves reclining; waves dispersing;
Waves agreeable; waves that cross not;
Waves frightsome; waves leaping over;
Waves breaking; waves warring;
Waves roaring; waves upheaving;
The peopled waves; waves from east to west.
Whose companion is the wandering current.

‘O Tagaloa, who sittest at the helm (of affairs),
Tagaloa’s (bird, the Tuli) desires to rest;
Tuli from the ocean must rest in the heavens;
These waves below affright my breast.
Where is the land which first upsprang?
Great Manu’a first uprose.
Beats on (Manu’a) rock his well-loved waves;

Here is a portion from a Tagalog creation myth (according to Dr. Emmanuel Pimmantuan):

The world had only the sea and the sky, and between the sea and the sky, flew a beautiful kite. Unfortunately, this lovely bird had no home, and in frustration, began to stir up the sea. The sea angrily crashed against the sky, and the sky threw pieces of land to quell the sea’s anger. Then, the sky ordered the kite to live on an island.
During this exact time, the sea breeze and land breeze were married. Together they had a child, named bamboo. One day, Bamboo was gently floating against the sea, and accidentally struck the feet of the kite. The bird, furious at the Bamboo, pecked the innocent stick into two pieces: one piece became a man, the other piece, a woman.

The stirring up the sea may allude to a flood. But notice how the world is covered in water.
In Northern Philippines, the Igorots (who live no where near the ocean) also recounts flood stories. According to Philippine Folklore Stories by Mabel Cook Cole and published in 1916:

Once upon a time, when the world was flat and there were no mountains, there lived two brothers, sons of Lumawig, the Great Spirit. The brothers were fond of hunting, and since no mountains had formed there was no good place to catch wild pig and deer, and the older brother said:

“Let us cause water to flow over all the world and cover it, and then mountains will rise up.”

Cole also records a Bila’an–another people who generally are not seafaring–myth from Mindanao, southern Philippines:

In the very beginning there lived a being so large that he can not be compared with any known thing. His name was Melu, and when he sat on the clouds, which were his home, he occupied all the space above. His teeth were pure gold, and because he was very cleanly and continually rubbed himself with his hands, his skin became pure white. The dead skin which he rubbed off his body was placed on one side in a pile, and by and by this pile became so large that he was annoyed and set himself to consider what he could do with it.

Finally Melu decided to make the earth; so he worked very hard in putting the dead skin into shape, and when it was finished he was so pleased with it that he determined to make two beings like himself, though smaller, to live on it.

Taking the remnants of the material left after making the earth he fashioned two men but just as they were all finished except their noses, Tau Tana from below the earth appeared and wanted to help him.

Melu did not wish any assistance, and a great argument ensued. Tau Tana finally won his point and made the noses which he placed on the people upside down. When all was finished, Melu and Tau Tana whipped the forms until they moved. Then Melu went to his home above the clouds, and Tau Tana returned to his place below the earth.

In Hawai`i, there are a number of flood legends. But interestingly there are also a number of missing lands. According the Thomas Thrum’s Hawaiian Folklores published in 1907:

Of the primeval home, the original ancestral seat of mankind, Hawaiian traditions speak in highest praise. “It had a number of names of various meanings, though the most generally occurring, and said to be the oldest, was Kalana-i-hau-ola (Kalana with the life-giving dew). It was situated in a large country, or continent, variously called in the legends Kahiki-honua-kele, Kahiki-ku, Kapa-kapa-ua-a-Kane, Molo-lani. Among other names for the primary homestead, or paradise, are Pali-uli (the blue mountain), Aina-i-ka-kaupo-o-Kane (the land in the heart of Kane), Aina-wai-akua-a-Kane (the land of the divine water of Kane). The tradition says of Pali-uli, that it was a sacred, tabooed land; that a man must be righteous to attain it; if faulty or sinful he will not get there; if he looks behind he will not get there; if he prefers his family he will not enter Pali-uli.” “Among other adornments of the Polynesian Paradise, the Kalana-i-hau-ola, there grew the Ulu kapu a Kane, the breadfruit tabooed for Kane, and the ohia hemolele, the sacred apple-tree. The priests of the olden time are said to have held that the tabooed fruits of these trees were in some manner connected with the trouble and death of Kumuhonua and Lalahonua, the first man and the first woman. Hence in the ancient chants he is called Kane-laa-uli, Kumu-uli, Kulu-ipo, the fallen chief, he who fell on account of the tree, or names of similar import.”

What happened to these ancestral lands? Thrum later on explains that:

One legend relates that in the time of Nuu, or Nana-nuu (also pronounced lana, that is, floating), the flood, Kaiakahinalii [my note: actually this literally means tsunami in Hawaiian], came upon the earth, and destroyed all living beings; that Nuu, by command of his god, built a large vessel with a house on top of it, which was called and is referred to in chants as ‘He waa halau Alii o ka Moku,’ the royal vessel, in which he and his family, consisting of his wife, Lilinoe, his three sons and their wives, were saved. When the flood subsided, Kane, Ku, and Lono entered the waa halau of Nuu, and told him to go out. He did so, and found himself on the top of Mauna Kea (the highest mountain on the island of Hawaii). He called a cave there after the name of his wife, and the cave remains there to this day—as the legend says in testimony of the fact. Other versions of the legend say that Nuu landed and dwelt in Kahiki-honua-kele, a large and extensive country.” … “Nuu left the vessel in the evening of the day and took with him a pig, cocoanuts, and awa as an offering to the god Kane. As he looked up he saw the moon in the sky. He thought it was the god, saying to himself, ‘You are Kane, no doubt, though you have transformed yourself to my sight.’ So he worshipped the moon, and offered his offerings.

Thrum’s translations are a bit off since in the Hawaiian language a flood is different from a tsunami but here again we have a picture of old homelands being drowned by a massive wave.

In Rarotonga, Volume 28, No. 110 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, an article called “History and Traditions of Rarotonga” by Te Ariki-tara-are states the following:

In the times of Tamarua-metua of Avaiki all Avaiki was broken up and scattered in small parties; everyone had become possessed of canoes. One canoe was that of Ui-te-rangiora, and it was this one that enabled all Avaiki to scatter to different islands. In that same division (scattering) three of them joined, Tamarua, Te Aia, and Tai-vananga, and this was their (final) separation from (living in) a single land, Avaiki (or Atia-te-varinga), and they spread to every land from there.

Avaiki is identified with the Hawaiki of the Māori. It may be also possible that Avaiki was Sundaland or another distant huge land with varinga which means “ancient”, “the beginning” and also “rice”. Rice, by the way, is not indigenous to that part of the world but it is found in Southeast Asia. S. Percy-Smith adds:

Sixteen generations (or 400 years or 750 years from Tu-te-rangi-marama) after Kura-a-moo, we come to Tamarua-metua of Avaiki. (Java or Sumatra), and the statement is made that in his time “all Avaiki was broken up and scattered in small parties.” This is a most important statement, for it seems to indicate—without stating the cause—the date at which this particular migration (the Tongafiti) became scattered and left Indonesia for the Pacific Islands, or perhaps moved on to some other parts of Indonesia, such as the Celebes, etc., and then commenced the exploration of the Pacific, whether at once, or after a more or less prolonged further stay in Indonesia, we have no means at present of determining.

Could all of these flood legends be a way of explaining to us their origins and a reminder of our delicate natural environment? Before the unification of the Hawaiian Islands, a famous priest named Kaopulupulu from the island of O`ahu expressed to his son Kahulupue to always remember that “This land is the Sea’s–and it can be reclaimed at any time.”