Until recently, Austronesian
wasn’t a self-designation. The name comes from Latin auster
(south wind) plus Greek nêsos
(island). Of course, historically, Inuits
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.
Covering a vast area of the Earth, the Austronesians never established a large, centralized authority. Unlike the Mongols, Turks, English
, 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
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.
The ancestors of the Austronesians came from southern China
and settled the Penghu Islands
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.
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
From there they migrated to the rest of the Philppines
, and then the islands of the Celebes Sea
, including Borneo, Maluku, Sulawesi
(now part of Indonesia
). Around 1200 BCE, Austronesians settled in Fiji, Papua, Tuvalu, Vanuatu
and the rest of Melanesia
and then, to Micronesia
, including Guam, Kiritbati, Nauru, Palau
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
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
. Around 900, the Austronesian Kingdom of Champa
thrived from its base in Vietnam.
Today, Austronesian groups still live in parts of Burma
, Cambodia, Thailand
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
. Traditionally, the voice is the most important instrument in Austronesian music. There are also various metal percussion instruments like the gangsa
of the Philippines and the gamelan
of Indonesia. Other percussion uses the performer’s body, with clapping, knee slapping and stomping.
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 Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, 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 Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los 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 Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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