The Out of Taiwan Theory, Explained
Author’s Note: You can watch the video here:
This video got a lot of responses from people, mostly from countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. And most of those comments seemed rather mixed on the ideas in here. A majority just straight up said, “No this is not true at all” without offering any reasoning or evidence. I find those comments least constructive.
I am not a geneticist and I made it pretty clear in the video that the data on that front remains controversial. I also cannot make it clear enough that the theory does not say that the Taiwan aborigines are the sole genetic ancestors of the Austronesians. It simply says that they managed to get there, presumably intermixing with whoever else arrived there as well.
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From Taiwan to Southeast Asia
In 1984, Robert Blust of University of Hawaii published a landmark paper proposing a radical idea:
That the Taiwanese indigenous people spread out from Taiwan to colonize the lands of Southeast Asia.
This is a vast swath of land that spans from Madagascar to the Philippines to Malaysia to the islands of Polynesia including Easter Island to even the aborigines of New Zealand. Confusingly though, the aborigines of Australia are not included in this group.
This theory, called the "Out of Taiwan hypothesis", was radical at the time and remains thoroughly debated. There is substantial support for its validity in the linguistics and archaeology, but other areas not so much.
If you want to learn more about the recorded history of the Taiwanese aborigines, check out my earlier video.
The Proto-Austronesian Homeland
In the 19th century, linguists examined overlaps in the vocabularies of different languages - especially those about the natural environment - to draw inferences about their shared heritage.
This allowed them to reconstruct a theorized common ancestor of all the languages in the Indo-European language family (which some 46% of the world's population speaks): The Proto-Indo-European language.
The discovery of Proto-Indo-European sparked great romanticism across the intellectual world. Imagine it! Languages spoken by the peoples of Europe, the middle East, all stretching into India - all tracing back to One.
After Proto-Indo-European, scientists looked to see if the same techniques can be applied to the Austronesian language family. This language family covers languages spoken on the Malay peninsula, Madagascar, Java and the Philippines. It is one of the two most diverse language families in the world with some 20% of all the world's languages.
The first major theory on this was made by the Dutch linguist Hendrik Kern in 1889. He looked at the Austronesian languages and proposed three different things about the ancestor language of Austronesian - which he called “Proto-Austronesian”.
The first started with how he noticed that the languages had many different words for ‘sugarcane’. Examples include Malay ‘tebu’ and Fijian ‘dovu’.
Same with other foods like ‘coconut’, ‘banana’, ‘bamboo’ and ‘taro’. This led him to believe that the linguistic homeland was located between or near the tropics.
The second thing was the distribution of cognate terms for ‘rice’. This led him to believe the homeland would be on or near the Asia mainland.
The third thing had to do with the cognates of marine wildlife. This led him to his third hypotheses: The Proto-Austronesian homeland is near the sea.
With these three hypotheses in mind, Kern looked for languages in those locations that could conceivably be related to that ancestor language. He saw some shared loanwords in Vietnam and Cambodia and proposed that the homeland was probably there or near there.
For the larger part of a century, this stood as the main theory.
Blust's critical advancement was in grouping the 1,200 languages of this family into 10 subgroups.
Nine of these subgroups are spoken only by the Taiwanese indigenous peoples. The tenth subgroup gathered together all the other Austronesian languages in the family.
It implies descent from those Formosan languages, differentiating over time as one group of Taiwanese aborigines emigrated to other islands.
Additionally, since Kern advanced his theory of the Austronesian homeland being in modern day Vietnam or Cambodia, observations and language records have improved. Blust reviewed the new data and realized two critical new things.
First, he saw that all the modern Formosan language subgroups and a few others in the Philippines had words meaning "cold weather" or "north wind", in tropical areas where cold weather did not actually exist.
It implies that the language spoken by the Austronesian homelanders understood cold weather, implying distinct seasonal temperatures. Vietnam is hot all year round, being tropical. Taiwan, on the other hand, has rough summers (believe me, I know) and cold winters (yes - I get mighty cold in December).
Second, languages in Southern Taiwan, the Philippines, some parts of Borneo, and the Marianas had words meaning "typhoon". Vietnam and Cambodia (not to mention Indonesia and its neighbors) are not in the Pacific typhoon belt. Taiwan is.
And finally, Taiwan has all of the following things that the Proto-Austronesian language is theorized to have words for: dogs, deer, wild pigs, scaly anteaters, 1 type of monkey and a large ruminant that was NOT a deer.
Blust's theory, first published in 2000, superseded Kern's and was accepted as the general theory for the origin of the Austronesian languages.
What routes did they take and how fast?
The Taiwanese indigenous people spread out from Taiwan by hopping from island to island. It appears that they would settle an island, grow there for a while and then send new populations in search of the next island.
The maritime technology to travel the 140km from Southeast China to Taiwan island pales in comparison to braving the open Pacific ocean. But once they figured out how to spread out from Taiwan to the Philippines, the spread happened very fast.
As the theory goes, Taiwan was first settled from China in the time spanning 3,500 to 3,000 BC - likely from South China Daic tribes (a major minority ethnicity today living in the South China, Thailand, Vietnam area).
They took a thousand years to refine and hone their seafaring technology - and then began island hopping to the Philippines by 2,000 BC. They spent the next thousand years spreading across the Philippine island chain.
From there it was just 400 years to reach the islands of West Indonesia and East Timor. West Polynesia and Samoa, another 400 years.
Over the next thousand years, these new societies would colonize the various islands of Polynesia, Hawaii (900), Easter Island (1000) and reaching New Zealand by year 1200 (but again, not Australia - the Australian aborigines are of a distinct different group). There is some early evidence that they reached South America afterwards but at this point we are way off the reservation.
The Unclear Genetic Evidence
The problem with all of this fancy linguistic technique is that though it is based on widely accepted procedures - it is all still theory. As tests became more widespread, scientists began to look at genetic evidence.
It is here at this point that I want to step back and emphasize this bit: The Out of Taiwan theory does not say that the Taiwanese are the direct genetic ancestors of all Austronesians. Many eastern Indonesians and Melanesians for example are clearly not. So it would be a glib and inaccurate distillation of the theory to make that claim.
The foremost challenge to the Out of Taiwan theory was a 2008 paper that looked at paternal genetic lineages and argued that the Taiwan aborigines were not the ancestors of Austronesians. Instead, it claims that they both descend from the aforementioned South China Daic people and evolved independently of each other. Cousins. Not ancestors.
Linguists and other genetic scientists argued back that this cannot be definitively concluded as the data came from limited samples of contemporary populations. Linguists further brought up a back migration theory, where Formosans returned to the mainland and resettled there.
Another paper in 2014 took genetic samples from a 8,000 year old skeleton from Matsu. Their conclusion argued against the South Chinese Daic population theory and proposed that the aborigines entered Taiwan from the north (where cereals like millet and rice were domesticated). And then they traveled their way south through the island, and then exited to the Philippines.
We should wait a few more years for the academic back and forth to settle. I will let you know.
So the genetic tests show some form of ancestry but are on the whole, uncertain - there must have been great amounts of intermixing over the generations between the Taiwanese populations and other settlers.
So we got to look at other evidence to resolve the deadlock - like the archaeology. And the archaeologists seems back up the linguists.
Excavations shows matching pottery styles and artifacts between the societies of southern Taiwan and the islands of the Philippines (which are generally accepted as the Taiwanese aborigines' first colony after Taiwan itself).
While digging up the Tainan Science Park, scientists found red painted pottery and examples of pig/dog domestication as well as millet cultivation about 5,500 years old.
They also found some stone called Taiwan nephrite or jade.
The Batanes islands are a chain of Philippines about 150km south from Taiwan and 200 km north of the Philippines. Four sites at those islands discovered the same red painted pottery and critically that Taiwan Fengtian jade.
The jade would be identified in sites across the Batanes islands and beyond (like Luzon) - giving strong evidence of the native Taiwanese's abilities to jump from island to island. Another strong vote in favor of the Out of Taiwan theory.
Like with so many other theories about the origin of certain peoples, this one can get fraught with politics and the like. But the reality is that we all got to come from somewhere and if you want to really go back then you can say that we are all natives of outer space because the atoms in our bones come from the stars.
I got some comments on my video about the Taiwanese aborigines, asking me why I was "ignoring" the "fact" that the Taiwanese aborigines are the ancestors of all Austronesians. But the actual fact is that it isn’t a fact at all. It is a theory and a fiercely debated one as we speak.
In the end, it is all a matter of which theory's evidence you choose to believe.
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