Archeologists working on a Taiwanese islet off the coast of China have unearthed the remains of a Stone Age male who may provide clues about ancient people who eventually dispersed throughout the entire Pacific.
The man, who was about 35 when he died nearly 8,000 years ago, may be a remote relative of Taiwanese Aborigines, who today make up about 2 percent of the population, the head of the team of archeologists, Chen Chung-yu (陳仲玉), said.
“Judging from the way the body was buried, it could be a person from what we now call the Austronesia language family,” said Chen, a research fellow at Academia Sinica.
Taiwan’s Aborigines belong to the same language family as the people who migrated across the Pacific as far as Easter Island off the coast of Chile in prehistoric times.
Chen and his team of three excavated the remains — a nearly complete skeleton — on Liang Island (亮島), a tiny Taiwanese-controlled islet 30km from the coast of China’s Fujian Province, in December last year.
The burial site had emerged purely by chance, as the Taiwanese military was digging up the soil to prepare for the construction of a road on the 1.4km island.
What struck Chen when he carried out the meticulous excavation work was the way the body was buried — in a fetal position identical to the one used by Taiwanese Aborigines as late as the 20th century.
Further DNA research on the skeleton will determine the genetic make-up, which is one of the oldest and best preserved ever to turn up in Taiwan.
However, it is likely that there could be a link, since the ancestors of Taiwan’s Aborigines, and of most Pacific islanders, are believed to have lived in what is now southern China at that time.
If this turns out to be the case, the find on Liang Island will add to the understanding of the way of life of the ancestors of the Austronesians just before they set out on their epic journey to people the Pacific.
“The people of the Austronesian language family lived near the ocean and were very mobile,” Chen said.
“They had developed some level of shipbuilding techniques that had already enabled them to sail far away from land,” he said.
Among the evidence for this, he cited a canoe that had previously been excavated in China’s Zhejiang Province.
It is testimony to the ancient settlers’ familiarity with the sea that they probably went far offshore on a frequent basis.
Liang Island was not permanently settled and the 35-year-old may have died during such a routine maritime excursion.
“These people could not possibly stay on Liang Island for long, as the islet was too small to supply them with badly needed vegetables,” Chen said.