Thu, Dec 30, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Austronesian culture rises to the surface

Austronesian culture is unearthed by archeological discoveries that are displayed at the National Museum of Prehistory

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Weaving by Atayal artists.

PHOTO: YU SEN-LUN, TAIPEI TIMES

The east coast county of Taitung is home to beautiful mountains, valleys and beaches and it's also the place to experience different cultures. Taitung County has become a center of archaeology and famed for the study of Austronesian cultures because it is also home to the National Museum of Prehistory (國立台灣史前文化博物館) and Beinan Cultural Park (卑南文化公園).

Two weeks ago, the museum held an international conference, Austronesian Forum: New Perspective on Museum and Cultural Tourism. Guests from Austronesian-speaking countries New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Northern Mariana paid visits to the museum and exchanged their experiences on preserving Aboriginal culture.

Prior to the forum, the installation ceremony of an 8m-long ancient Palau sailing boat took place in the entrance hall of the National Museum of Prehistory. The museum made an order for the boat in Palau in September as part of its plan to establish permanent collections of boats from all Austronesian-language countries. According to director Tsang Cheng-hwa (臧振華), the collection will promote the sea-based culture of Austronesian people.

At the end of the two-day forum, Tsang announced plans to build The Austronesian Cultural Center (南島文化園區), to be located next to the museum. The government plans to spent NT$3.6 billion in the next five years to build a multifunctional complex that will include a theme park, a research center and performance halls to celebrating Austronesian cultures.

The trend of exploring Austronesian culture is not embraced only by Taiwan independence fanatics, who are eager to prove Taiwan's its distinctness from China. The trend is also no longer just an academic question. It's now a popular topic that recognizes how Taiwan's past is tied up with the Austronesian culture.

When visiting the Aboriginal villages, Lawrence Foanaota, director of Solomon Island National Museum, pointed out that the "meeting house" in Taitung's Rukai tribe is very similar to those in the Solomon Islands.

He said: "We have a very similar system where young men are asked to stay in this men-only house for three years, learning fishing, hunting and surviving in the wild. Their moms or female relatives are not allowed to visit them in the house." Besides, Foanaota said, in music performance style, Taiwan Aborigines share much similarity with that of Solomon Islands.

According to current research, Taiwan is at the northern end of the vast area in which Austronesian languages are spoken, which stretches to Easter Island in the east, Madagascar in the west and New Zealand to the south. Some researchers even believe that Taiwan may be the "original land" or "ancestral land" for all the peoples who speak Austronesian languages on the islands in the South Pacific and Indian oceans.

The language used by Taiwanese Aboriginal people is also an Austronesian language, so the country's 400,000 Aborigines are Taiwan's representatives of the Austronesian people.

"The prehistoric cultures excavated here underground have provided some support and helped explore the Austronesian culture. At least we are sure that the prehistoric people are the Aboriginal, the ancestors of the Aboriginal people here," Tsang said.

Turning the time back to 1980, when construction began on a new train station for Taitung, workers excavated a massive congregation of slate coffins and pottery relics. There were more than 1,500 slate coffins and tens of thousands of pottery relics. The construction site was found to be the location of the largest prehistoric burial site on the Pacific Rim. The site stretched more than 10,000m2 and is now known as the Beinan Prehistoric Site.

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