Austronesia – Don’t Tease Ya

Austronesia

 

Until recently, Austronesian wasn’t a self-designation. The name comes from Latin auster (south wind) plus Greek nêsos (island). Of course, historically, Inuits and Aztecs never referred to themselves, in collective solidarity, as “Indians” or “Native Americans,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t see similarities now. Having just  just returned from Taiwan, I’ve observed a growing pride by some Taiwanese Austronesians in their culture. In June, the International Austronesian Conference was held in Taiwan.

It’s probably happening amongst other Austronesians, too, and if anyone wants to buy me a plane ticket to see first hand, I will be there as soon as possible.

Outrigger canoe
Covering a vast area of the Earth, the Austronesians never established a large, centralized authority. Unlike the Mongols, Turks, English or Russians, the Austronesians didn’t conquer and assert their sovereignty. Rather, they explored and spread, intermingling when they encountered natives, trading with neighbors and populating previously uninhabited islands. What they left is a vast cultural and linguistic umbrella, on par with the Bantu, Indo-Europeans, Afroasiatics and Uralics.

Andry Rajoelina
Madagascar’s Austronesian President Andry Rajoelina

I first learned of Austronesians when I was channel surfing and randomly came upon an unknown TV program. I watched in fascination as I tried to figure out where the documentary was taking place. It turned out to be Madagascar, the large island originally settled sometime around 300BC – 500AD by Austronesian pioneers. I’m sure we didn’t talk about Asians being indigenous to part of Africa in school, and my interest was piqued.
Taiwanese Aborigines
Taiwanese Aborigines
The ancestors of the Austronesians came from southern China and settled the Penghu Islands andTaiwan between 10000 and 6000 BCE. New evidence suggests they weren’t the first on the scene. At the time, Taiwan was still home to the Australo-Melanesians who may’ve been descended from the first migration out of Africa and may’ve arrived arrived some 23,000 years earlier.

Filippino outrigger canoe
Between 5000 and 2500 BCE, population growth fueled the great Austronesian expansion. The early settlers landed in Luzon to the south where they again encountered and intermingled with the Australo-Melanesian natives, the Negritos.

Mentawai Islanders
Mentawai Islanders
From there they migrated to the rest of the Philppines, and then the islands of the Celebes Sea, including Borneo, Maluku, Sulawesi and Sumatra (now part of Indonesia and Malaysia). Around 1200 BCE, Austronesians settled in Fiji, Papua, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the rest of Melanesia and then, to Micronesia, including Guam, Kiritbati, Nauru, Palau and Yap.

Rapa Nui
Rapa Nui
From there, in around 1000 BCE, they moved on to the previously uninhabited islands of Polynesia and the rest of the Pacific. Between 0 and 500 CE, a western group of Austronesians discovered and settled the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. By 300, the Austronesians discovered Rapa Nui. From there they may’ve traveled to Chile, and made contact with the Mapuche. By 400, they discovered Hawaii. Around 800, they discovered Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Ruins of Champa
Ruins of the Champa Kingdom

From their Oceanic bases, some Austronesians returned to the Asian mainland. In the first millennium CE, they traded with China and India and established the kingdoms of Majapahit, Melayu and Srivijaya. Around 900, the Austronesian Kingdom of Champa thrived from its base in Vietnam. Today, Austronesian groups still live in parts of Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Tattooed Maoris

Not surprisingly, all the Austronesian cultures viewed the sea as the most important part of their existence. Their skill with watercraft allowed them to move far beyond the territory of their Australo-Melanesian neighbors to far flung, uninhabited corners of the world. Most Austronesians believed in an omnipotent being and also practiced animism, shamanism and ancestor worship. Body art was also important to most Austronesians. In fact, the word “tattoo” is Polynesian.

Today there are around 380 million people of Austronesian ethnicity. In Taiwan, there’s something of an Austronesian reawakening taking place, especially in the south. In Taitung, the Tiehua Village regularly features indigenous performers and I caught a performance by Puyuma/Ami singer Panai. Traditionally, the voice is the most important instrument in Austronesian music. There are also various metal percussion instruments like the gangsa and kulintangs of the Philippines and the gamelan of Indonesia. Other percussion uses the performer’s body, with clapping, knee slapping and stomping.

Thanks to Lai Xiao Mei for being my guide at Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory, LanYang Museum and for being a helpful and informative hostess.

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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