Most of us inhabit this earth as far removed in our daily lives as possible from the roots of our civilization, and Taiwan is no different. Like most modernized countries, it has industrialized its terrain from forest into farmland, then from farmland into cities teeming with concrete structures.
Over a thousand ancient sites have been discovered in Taiwan over the past century, with many constantly being unearthed and excavated to this day — by only a handful of archaeologists. Yet few are aware that Taiwan’s history may hold the key to understanding human development and migration in the Asia-Pacific region.
Evidence of human settlement in Taiwan — so far — dates back at least 30,000 years. Where these people originated from is unclear and something for which linguists, geneticists and archaeologists are trying to build a model. There was a “transmission of people” as well as the Austronesian language and culture, into Oceania from Southeast Asia, coming “from Taiwan or nearby areas” according to the author of “The First Human,” Ann Gibbons; and Southeast China.
During the last Ice Age (Plato cited 9,600 years ago), the sea level fell as much as 150 meters and a land bridge existed between what is now China and Taiwan. Migration occurred, based on archaeological evidence such as similar types of pottery and animals that existed in both places, such as mammoths, stegodons, rhinos and Przwalski’s horse.
Besides the glaciers of Hsueshan Mountain and fog forests and “God Trees” that existed in Alishan until the early 1900s, Taiwan was no deserted island. Peoples migrated there from other places, some staying, some moving on to other regions such as the Batanes in the Philippines, where linguistic similarities to this day make the local language easily intelligible to members of Taiwan’s Bunun, or Yami tribe of Orchid island – known for their boat-making skills.
Yet DNA evidence shows Taiwanese aboriginals are related to Malaysians and Polynesians — not Southeast China. How could this be?
Archaeology professor Peter Bellwood of Australian National
University chronicled how Austronesian-speaking populations began colonizing Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia) circa 1500 BC. Bellwood concluded the lineage of mitochondrial DNA spread with Austronesian ancestors from China through Taiwan into Southeast Asia.
“Obviously, all these early peoples intermarried with each other, including with much more ancient native peoples in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, so the genetic traces of ancestry are not always very clear. There were never pure populations who never mixed,” Bellwood wrote by email.
“The land connection between Taiwan and Fujian would have existed until early in the Holocene period, perhaps 8000 years ago,” he continued. “This is long before the Austronesians, who migrated to Taiwan about 6,000 years ago, using boats. Earlier people were hunters and gatherers — they left stone tools in the Changbin caves on the east coast, for example.”
“Austronesians in Taiwan were related to people in southern China 5,000 years ago,” Bellwood wrote. “But they are not now because all of the people in Fujian and Guangdong are Chinese, part of a huge spread of Sinitic populations southwards after the Qin and Han conquests 2,000 years ago. Nothing is ever static!”
‘Tsochen Man’ & Co.
In 1971, an amateur fossil collector found rhino fossils alongside human cranial bones and teeth along the Tsailiao River in Tsochen, Tainan — “Tsochen Man,” determined to be between 20,000 and 30,000 years old — Homo sapiens sapiens, or anatomically modern humans — considered proof that humans early on existed in Taiwan.
Pahsientung Cave has been excavated five times by NTU archaeologists since 1968, and is said to represent a similar period as Tsochen Man – the Changpin culture. Named after the east coast township where the caves are located, it is the oldest Paleolithic site found so far in Taiwan. The bone needles, chisels, harpoons and other bone tools found at the site show the earliest occupants of Taiwan lived in small groups in caves along the seashore, in rock shelters and lowland protected by wind, exploiting the environment through hunting and gathering. They made no pottery, only simple choppers and pebble tools.
Similar sites have been found all over Taiwan, from Oluanpi and Lungkeng, southern Kenting National Park to Hsiaoma Cave near Taitung. “Shellmounds,” or prehistoric garbage heaps, located in farmland on northern outlying Kinmen island, for instance, are believed to be 6,000 years old — evidence of age-old, intensive fishing practices.
NTU archaeologist Sung Wen-hsun posits the Changping — relative newcomers — came to Taiwan from China, based on strong similarities in stone tool designs used by Paleolithic cultures in southern China, notably, Fukien and Kwangtung,
The early Tapenkeng culture in Taiwan (6,000 to 5,000 BP before present), characterized by the advent of agriculture, overlapped the late Changpin culture (40,000 to 5,000 BP). A Tapenkeng site in Kenting recently provided the first evidence of prehistoric rice farming – shen variety of rice, but other traits include cord-marked pottery (hemp impressions), stone axes, adzes, arrowheads and net-sinkers.
It is believed that 4,000 years ago, ancestors of the current Taiwanese aboriginals settled in Taiwan.
This year, a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Tsang Cheng-hwa – a former director of the National Museum of Prehistory now at Academia Sinica — went to Chimei island and the Pescadores (Penghu) to excavate and analyze a stone tool workshop dating 4,000 BP. Basalt stone, which formed the volcanic islands, was used in ancient times to make stone tools. The Taiwanese went to Penghu and traded with the island for these materials, according to Tsang’s recent findings.
This discovery supports the hypothesis that Taiwan was the starting point for migration to the Philippines, Indonesia and other Pacific islands such as the Batanes, where similar excavations are currently under way. According to Tsang, the reason for settlement of the Batanes involved the movement of slate and nephrite from Taiwan, via Ludao and Lanyu islands.
Although there’s no direct evidence of sailing since early boats were likely made of wood or bamboo materials unlikely to survive the archaeological record, a boat-shaped jade found at the Shihsanhang site in northern Taipei county resembles single outrigger canoes of the South Pacific. And documents from the Song (1127-1279 AD) and Yuan dynasties mention prehistoric Taiwanese sailed bamboo rafts to attack Penghu.
The modern site of the Shihsanhang archaeological discovery. Photo credit: TdG
The Shihsanhang site, discovered during construction for a waste treatment site in 1989, revealed that roughly 2,000 years ago in Taiwan’s Iron Age, frequent trade with other cultures existed on the north coast and in the Taipei basin — then saltwater “Lake Taipei” — in the form of china, bronze coins, ornaments of gold and silver, bronze and glass. About a tenth of the Shihsanhang site was excavated and then nine-tenths destroyed. Today, the Shihsanhang museum is located next to the completed sewage treatment plant.
As recently as 2002, underwater archaeologists discovered remnants of four to five man-made walls running along the ocean floor off Penghu, 28m below murky waters of the archipelago’s Hsichi and Tungchi islets, estimated at between 6,000 and 12,000 years old.
Six years before in the same area, evidence of a sunken city was found when amateur divers discovered what may be city walls in the shape of a cross on the ocean floor. Further examination suggested the ruins were made between seven and ten thousand years ago; Japanese researchers estimated between 10,000 and 80,000.
Steve Shieh, head of planning for the Taiwan Underwater Archaeology Institute, said megalithic structures are also located off-shore near Pingtung County, similar to circles used in sacrificial rites off the coast of Japan’s southernmost Yonaguni island. The association plans to explore that location, as well as an apparent man-made path off the coast of Taitung.
Archaeologists are drawing comparisons between these ancient sites and the underwater structures found near Yonaguni island in 1985, east of Taiwan — what is said to be the oldest building in the world. Photographs show “a massive pyramid structure” 75 feet under the sea,” a “rectangular stone ziggurat twice as old as the great pyramids of Egypt.”
These underwater finds are part of a growing body of evidence suggesting the existence of civilizations in the region older than anything previously imagined. Based on this evidence, entire cities ended up underwater after sea levels rose toward the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.
Beinan, once a village of hundreds, was discovered when construction for a train station began, near this location. Photo credit: TdG
THE BEINAN SITE
Taitung County, eastern Taiwan, 1945: Japanese scholars discovered hundreds of crescent-shaped, slate stone pillars (later determined to support houses) and conducted small-scale excavation. But it wasn’t until July 1980, when excavators at the site of the Beinan train station unearthed more than 1,500 slate stone coffins and over 20,000 stone and pottery artifacts. Today, the Beinan site is recognized as the largest and most intact Neolithic village of its kind in the Pacific Basin.
A team of salvage archaeologists from National Taiwan University (NTU) had only 400 days to excavate the site. Then, it took them a few decades to catalogue the rich remains. After locals protested to demand the return of their heritage, the relics were recently sent back in boxes and are now part of the Beinan Cultural Park and National Museum of Prehistory (NMP).
The modern Beinan archaeological site, where progress is slow in coming, with a dearth of archaeologists on the island. Photo credit: TdG
With an annual budget of NT$200 million, a massive museum was constructed 5 kilometers from the site, so it wouldn’t be disturbed. The government also bought 20 hectares out of the 80 hectares estimated as the settlement’s size; 20 hectares were subsequently destroyed. Beinan covers a tract of rolling hills and a host of cinnamon, durian and other paradisiacal trees — a beautiful but largely unexcavated park. Farmers can only grow in the area; construction is forbidden. Only a few hectares have actually been unearthed, another indicator that what we know so far about Taiwan’s archaeology just scratches the surface.
LEGENDS OF BEINAN
What was this Neolithic town at Beinan, and what happened to it? Amis aboriginals believe the Beinan site is a sacred – some say cursed — resting place of their ancestors. Local creation myths of the Paiwan and subtribes involve mountain origins, coming from snakes or borne from a jug, rather than overseas.
I took part in an archaeological dig there, an NMP program run primarily for high school students, There was a lone placard, “Indigenous Legends about Beinan,” in the Beinan Culture Park museum that discussed the Beinan peoples’ origin. With the translation assistance of my 18-year-old “pit buddy” there are competing accounts in local folklore of what happened to the Beinan people, known as the “Lala ersa.”
The Puyuma tribe at Nanwang say two brothers were in a fight; the younger was kidnapped and abused while imprisoned. The elder used a kite to save his brother. The grandmother, who knew magic, taught the tricks of earthquakes. The house of Lala burned during earthquake and fire, left in ruins.
The Amis at Tavarong say that once, a girl was kidnapped by the Beinan people to become a bride. Her brother rescued her through the help of the Lala ersa. But fighting broke out and the Lala ersa were all killed.
LIFE IN PREHISTORIC TAIWAN
What does the Beinan site tell us about how people lived long ago in Taiwan? Using Carbon 14 dating, Beinan people lived 3,500 to 2,500 years ago. Men on average were 1.65m, women 155cm tall (the current average is 171.3 and 159.3, respectively), and they dressed in bark clothing (made using bark beaters) and animal skins. They farmed and fished, hunted wild boar, ate millet and rice, which they stored behind their house in a round, underground storage pit (“Chongma” hemp seeds were found), or raised storage structures.
The Beinan site has certain tools found only in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Taiwan’s Paiwan and the Vietnamese both have a similar dagger with a bronze handle; in Beinan a hooked spear like the one used in the Philippines was used.
Beinan people constructed beautiful slate walkways and floors inside their houses. There were shamanic healers employing the use of herbs. Four thousand years ago, Taiwanese were drinking a millet wine that was likely similar to today’s “shaomijiu,” a liqueur to the modern palette, traditionally imbibed at harvest festivals and funerals. Beinan people also chewed betelnut, evidenced by stains on their teeth; perhaps time-worn traditions die hard.
As a rite of passage, Beinan people extracted the two canine teeth at age 14-16, a tradition still practiced by many Formosan tribes until the last century, much to the dismay of Japanese colonialists. The pain is described as better enabling the individual to face life’s challenges with courage.
One of many jade earrings found at Beinan, in the anthropomorphic design. Photo credit: Based on image courtesy of NMP
A JADE CIVILIZATION
Beinan is described as a “jade civilization.” The same nephrite from Hualien has been found in other Neolithic sites as far as the Philippines and Indonesia.
Jade (nephrite), along with slate — usually transported from Hualien via nearby Beinan river — was used as a common, everyday ornament for bracelets, earrings and pendants. Jade items were often buried with the dead.
Anthropomorphic jade pendants found at Beinan depict two people side by side, with the form of a clouded leopard (now nearly extinct in Taiwan, but revered by tribes such as the Atayal), joining them together above the head. This is interpreted as a belief in a sacred connection between humans and the animal kingdom.
During funeral rites, wooden tools or spearheads were sometimes positioned over organs of the deceased. Small clay vessels were also buried with most adults but with less than half of children. The coffins are buried beneath houses, all with feet toward the north-northwest direction of nearby Tulan mountain. This practice is assumed to hold a sacred significance — ancestor or deity worship.
In southern Taiwan, people were entombed inside large clay pots underneath houses. In central and southern Taiwan, the dead are buried with face-covering pottery.
Trade throughout the region was already extensive at that time, as evidenced from the Beinan site and elsewhere in Taiwan. Archaeologists now believe Beinan people traveled to Hualien (now Shofong township) to trade with a neolithic jade workshop, the remains of which were recently discovered.
CHALLENGES IN TAIWAN ARCHAEOLOGY
In recent years, “industrial science-based parks” — such as in Taichung and Tainan — are yielding the most exciting new discoveries. However, as one museum worker frankly told me, “We don’t have a plan to protect the sites.” Many museums and sites in Taiwan need additional funding for research, academic exchanges, conservation and exhibition.
Also, Taiwan is plagued by a lack of trained experts. There are only about 20 Taiwanese archaeologists – NTU’s anthropology department offers the island’s only professional training — and this shortage has severely retarded efforts to investigate Taiwan’s archaeology.
Another huge setback – Taiwan has been unable to gain U.N. membership, so it’s difficult for ancient sites such as Beinan to gain international recognition — and funding — as World Heritage sites.
Finally, time is a factor. Sites are being discovered faster than they can be salvaged. Two years ago, a typhoon exposed yet another site on the beach south of Taitung city. The NMP is attempting to investigate, but subsequent storms continue to batter the area.