Monday, December 27, 2004


China site may be tie to Hawai'i

By Bob Krauss
December 27, 2004

Last May I stood on the spot in China with a group from the Bishop Museum where the ancestors of today's Hawaiians may have first adopted a seagoing culture 7,000 years ago. That adaptation took them and other Polynesians across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean to these islands.

We didn't know then that we may have found the launching pad of a language family that reached Madagascar off Africa in one direction and Easter Island off South America in the other. It all started from a small area on the China coast.

Bishop Museum research archaeologist Tianlong Jiao brought back the news a week ago after visiting a site called Tianluoshan. Archaeologists in China theorize that this may be the birthplace of the Austronesian language family of which Polynesians are a part. The Austronesians became the most widely dispersed people on the globe before modern technology.

Excavation of the dig continued after our Bishop Museum party left last May. Among the artifacts found are three canoe paddles from about 4 feet to 6 feet long. Project director Dr. Sun Guoping, of the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Archaeology, said they may have been left at a canoe launching site.

Other artifacts include the bones of deep ocean fish and whales. Both indicate that the people at Tianluoshan were seafarers.

"I would say that this is the area where the Austronesians first encountered the ocean," said Tianlong. "The discovery has caused a sensation in Chinese scientific circles. The provincial and county governments are going to build an archaeological site museum at Tianluoshan. By next year, the site will be under cover."

Tianlong said he has been invited to participate in the dig. The 7,000-year-old paddles and other artifacts will be part of an exhibit he is assembling for the Bishop Museum.

If the site is indeed the birthplace of Austronesian culture it would be where the ancestors of Polynesians first learned their ocean skills that took them halfway around the world. Here is the proposed sequence of migrations:

A people called Hemudu moved down river from the middle Yangtze River area, birthplace of rice culture. They made pottery and planted rice. By 7,000 years ago they had reached the ocean and some became Austronesians, a mobile, maritime people. They moved to offshore islands and down the coast.

About 5,500 to 6,000 years ago, some of them colonized Taiwan. They reached the Philippines about 4,000 or 4,500 years ago and near Oceania in the Bismark Archipelago 3,500 years ago. Some of them formed a culture called Lapita that sailed to Tonga and Samoa where they became Polynesians by adapting to deep ocean space about 2,500 years ago.

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