Southeast Asia's Common Roots

Southeast Asia is the crossroads to a number of human migrations, the largest of which must have been the Austronesian migration. Somewhere between 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, the Austronesians migrated from Southeast China or Taiwan, down the Philippine islands before splitting east to Polynesia and West to Southeast Asia. Based on linguistic and archaeological evidence, the Austronesians are though to be the precursors to modern Polynesians and Malays. This travel piece from Malaysia’s Star visits what may be one of the homelands of the Austronesians – Tanshishan, in Southeast China.

Common roots
The Star, 24 September 2008

For a long time, it was posited that the early ancestors of the Malays migrated south from what is now China’s Yunnan province. That there might yet be an additional source, also in China, of the peoples of archipelagic South-East Asia is perhaps less well-known, but is now widely accepted by anthropologists who consider coastal south-eastern China the original homeland of the Austronesians, a grouping which, of course, includes the Malays.

Upon migration to Taiwan, these littoral people who were intrepid sea-farers dispersed throughout Oceania (Samoa, Hawaii, etc) as well as South-East Asia, eventually reaching the Malay Peninsula 2,500 years ago (Lost Maritime Cultures, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu). Evidently the progenies of these peripatetic Austronesians became an integral part of modern Malaysia’s majority population.

The Austronesian migration proves to be one of the largest dispersals of language groups around the world, as far west as Sri Lanka and as far east to Hawaii. The impact of this migration is being more closely understood today, as genetic evidence shows that the populations in Southeast Asia were highly complex – the recent discovery of 2,000-3,000 year old skeletons in Niah showed that the people buried there were not part of the Austronesian expansion, but rather ‘locals’ who were descended from the initial migration out of Africa.

Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by I. Glover
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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