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June 14, 2011


There are two major hypotheses defining the Neolithic Age Austronesian movement: the “out of Taiwan or South China” theory by the language-oriented Peter Bellwood; and ‘Island Origin” theory by the Southeast Asian specialist, the archaeologist, Wilhelm Solheim; and another by Stephen Oppenheimer. There are other variations that will not be discussed here.

Ever since Sapir (1968) proposed that the chronology of the distribution of languages can be traced from the area of greatest linguistic variety to that of the least, linguists have accepted this position in using this analysis to determine the origin and direction of movements of people, despite dissenting analysis that a language may appear to be more distantly related than it actually is due to the variability of language contact (Peiros, 1998). Bellwood (1995) contends that the ancestors of the Austronesian speakers spread from Yunnan in the south Chinese mainland and that as early as 6,000 BC a fishing gardening culture existed on the south coast of China, exploiting the waters off the straits of Taiwan, where eventually between 4,000 and 3,000 BC they finally crossed the straits and settled on the island. Linguistic evidence suggests that these people spoke an Austronesian language that is purportedly related to the Tai-Kadai family of languages that is spoken Southeast Asia, specifically in Laos, northeastern Myanmar and Thailand – regions flanking the Mekong River.

At about 2,500 BC one group of these Austronesian speakers sailed south to the northern island of Luzon in the Philippines and settled there, bringing with them the same set of artifacts and subsistence technology from Taiwan. Through to 1,500 BC the group spread through the Philippine archipelago southwards, on to Sulawesi, the Moluccas, northern Borneo and eastern Java. From the Halmahera of the Moluccas one branch proceeded east by 1,600 BC to colonize eastern Melanesia by 1,200 BC. By 0 AD the expansion continued on to Polynesia and to the Easter Islands by 500 AD. Finally the movement culminated by reaching New Zealand about 1,300 AD. Another wave of these Austronesian speakers moved through Borneo, Java, and Sumatra to the coasts of the Malay Peninsula and southern Vietnam by about 500 BC and from there they traversed the Bay of Bengal, through to Sri Lanka and even southern India with its final expansion to Madagascar by 500 AD.

In effect what Bellwood contends is that all the ascendants of Southeast Asians and the peoples of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean passed through the Philippines in waves of migration from 2,500 BC to 500 AD from Taiwan. Peter Bellwood’s Out-of-Taiwan (OOT) hypothesis is based largely on linguistics, hewing very close to Robert Blust’s model of the history of the Austronesian language family and adding to it archeological data. This model suggests that Between 4500 BCE and 4000 BCE, developments in agricultural technology in the Yunnan Plateau in China created pressures which drove certain peoples to migrate to Taiwan. These people either already had or began to develop a unique language of their own, now referred to as Proto-Austronesian. By around 3000 BCE, these groups started differentiating into three or four distinct subcultures, and by 2500 to 1500 BC, one of these groups began migrating southwards towards the Philippines and Indonesia, reaching as far as Borneo and the Moluccas by 1500 BCE, forming new cultural groupings and developing unique languages.

By 1500 BC, some of these groups started migrating west, reaching as far as Madagascar around the first millennium CE. Others migrated east, settling as far as Easter Island by the mid-13th century CE, giving the Austronesian language group the distinction of being the most widely distributed language groups in the world at that time, in terms of the geographical span of the homelands of its languages. According to this theory, the peoples of the Philippines are the descendants of those cultures who remained on the Philippine islands when others moved first southwards, then eastward and westward.

Wilhelm Solheim (2000), on the other hand, asserts the “Island Origin” hypothesis (also known as the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication west Africa and Madagascar Network (MNTCN), utilizing archaeological data instead of the historical linguistic evidence used by Bellwood, posits a completely different picture and direction. Solheim proposed a more elegant complex network of reciprocal regional cultural interchanges in the Asia-Pacific region during the Neolithic Age from 8,000 to 500 BC, undertaken by both Austronesian and non-Austronesian speakers. With Solheim the spread there were four geographic “lobes”: central, northern, eastern and western. The central lobe ramified into two phases: the “Early Central Lobe” and the “Late Central Lobe”. Solheim poses the origin of the NMTCN in eastern coastal Vietnam in the Early Central lobe at about 9.000 BC.

The network covers all of the Pacific Ocean, the coastal areas of China Sea and Japan, the coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar, and Island Southeast Asia and the coast al areas of Mainland Southeast Asia. Beginning about 5000 BC, it expanded from Easter island Southeast Asia, it expanded to the north through the Philippines to Taiwan and the coastal South China, then north along the coast of China to western and south Korea, and finally to Kyushu in Japan.

At about 5,000 BC, he suggested a northward spread of people toward the Late Central Lobe through island Southeast Asia that included the Philippines. South China and Taiwan, were the staging area of the Austronesian language family and the Malayo Polynesian group. Between 4,000 and 3,000 BC the spread of population through northern Luzon toward Micronesian, then formed the Early Eastern Lobe, developing the Malayo Polynesian languages. The NMTCN continued its cultural expansion through Malaysia before 2,000 BC, along the coast of India to West Africa and Madagascar. There was a further movement east to the Easter Island.

Solheim proposed that “Pre-Austronesian” culture began in the Bismarck Islands off Papua New Guinea about 13,000 to 10,000 BP., with networks established with Indo China and South China, where contact was made with Hoabinhian culture.

Oxford University School of Anthropology, Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer has his own point of view: those population dispersals came earlier, from within the region and probably resulted from flooding. In his book Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, when he suggested the migrations came from within ISEA and resulted from flooding in the region.

Dr Oppenheimer said: ‘One of my main predictions in the book was that three major floods following the Ice Age forced the inhabitants to escape in boats and flee to less flood-prone regions. By examining mitochondrial DNA from their descendants in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, we now have strong evidence to support the flooding theory and this is possibly why Southeast Asia has a richer store of flood myths, more than any other region in the world.’
Dr Oppenheimer’s book, based on multidisciplinary evidence, writes about the effects of the drowning of a huge ancient continent called ‘Sundaland’ (that extended the Asian landmass as far as Borneo and Java). This happened during the period 15,000 to 7,000 years ago following the last Ice Age. He outlines how rising sea levels in three massive pulses caused flooding and the submergence of the Sunda Continent, creating the Java and South China Seas and the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia and the Philippines today.

Differing in the origins of people, the basic conflict between Bellwood and Solheim is that the formulation of the former is a lineal expansion based on soft historical linguistic interpretation equating language movement with population movements, while Solheim’s theory has a more complex structure involving overlapping reciprocal relationships of population nodes based on hard archaeological data that can validated in a number of ways including radiometric evidence. Bellwood posits directional movement but with no causal explanation. He merely assumed population movement but did not show why the movement came about in the first place. Solheim implies causality for population movement with the implication of the rising sea level at the end of the last ice age.

Oppenheimer’s hypothesis hews closer to Solheim, emphasizing the effect of the flooding of the Sunda land as the critical factor in population movement during that time.

It is notable that the Austronesian family of languages appears to be associated largely with maritime environments and spoken by people with mobile technologies that require naval capabilities that facilitated inter-cultural contact and exchanges. It is notable too, without regarding chronology, is that Taiwan is at the northern periphery whereas Island Southeast Asia is at the center of the dispersal.


The Austronesian diaspora is co-eval with the inundation of the continental shelf of the post-glacial mainland Asia, including the Sundaland, when the sea level rose between 8,000 and 4,000 BC after the final fragmentation of the Scandinavian ice sheet. Sundaland itself was dry land from about 23,750 BC to at least 15,250 BC. The rise in global seawater caused the submergence of the Southeastern Peninsula between 15,000 and 3,000 BC. The waters from the melting ice of the last Ice Age flooded huge expanses of land equivalent to twice the size of the subcontinent of India (including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, with the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea as the connecting parts) exerting pressures on the various humongous populations there that caused them to move from different nodes at different times.

The inundated land about Formosa and the island itself (included sunken tracts of the Pacific coastline and linked China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) is nowhere close to that of the inundated land of the post-glacial southeastern coast of Asia. The relatively smaller population of such an area cannot possibly exert enough demographic pressure to cause and maintain an exodus that included the Indian Ocean, coastal Southeast Asia, Island Southeast Asia, and the Pacific world from 4,000 BC to 500 AD. It is notable that Taiwan simply was not able even to re-introduce Austronesian languages to mainland China, being as it was less culturally mature than the latter. How much more mature is it at that time compared with the hydraulic societies along the Mekong River and the Indian gulf to be the wellspring of the Austronesian family of languages.

The Austronesian language expansion is a Neolithic Age phenomenon that can be associated to the rise of the sea level after the last glacial period. Neolithic culture, however, it is variable as cultures go such that the definition of the Neolithic boundary in different parts of Southeast mainland and Island Southeast Asia varied because of historical and cultural parameters. These boundaries are not specific points in time, but constitute a range in time defined by the appearance of artifactual indices. This dispersal becomes blurred at the onset of the Metal Age, when population multi-lineal movements crisscrossed in their paths, and unilineal ones, no matter how short, becomes indistinctive. To sweepingly ascribe everything traditionally ethnographic to the Austronesian language movement is untenable since this will proscribe independent invention or adaptation.

Bellwood suggests Yunnan province of China as the point of departure for the ancestors of the Austronesian speakers to move north overland to cross the strait and on to Taiwan. Travel north through colder climes and rugged terrain would have been prohibitive. There is, however, a much more feasible alternative to population movement from Yunnan – an easier travel by water via the Mekong River, moving south. Mekong River, approximately 4180 km in length, originates from Tibet and runs through the Yunnan province of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. The migration of Proto-Malays who were mariners traveled by boat during the Neolithic times, and was traced by Anthropologists, along the Mekong River from Yunnan to the South China Sea, and settling down eventually in specific places. The early inhabitants of Yunnan were the ancestors of rice-eating peoples of Southeast Asia. Their practice of cultivating rice spread throughout the entire region. The native name of the Mekong River peoples’ home in Yunnan is Xishuangbanna literally meaning “twelve thousand rice fields”. The greatest varieties of domestic rice are found in the monsoonal rain zone extending from eastern India through Southeast Asia, northern Vietnam and Southern China (The Yunan province of China is actually Southeast Asian and was integrated into China much later), which supports the contention that Southeast Asia is the center of rice cultivation. Migrant peoples from South China or perhaps North Vietnam brought wet rice cultivation into the Philippines during the 2nd millennium BC (Huke, et al, 1990). The earliest evidence for rice in the Philippines is from the Manga Site in Cagayan Valley with a date of between 2610-2130 BC.

Genetic studies

A 2008 genetic study showed no evidence of a large-scale Taiwanese migration into the Philippine Islands. A study by Leeds University and published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, showed that mitochondrial DNA lineages have been evolving within Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) since modern humans arrived approximately 50,000 years ago. The DNA lineages show population dispersals at the same time as sea level rises and also show migrations into Taiwan, east out to New Guinea and the Pacific, and west to the Southeast Asian mainland – within the last 10,000 years.

Richards (Phylogenetic Analysis of Human Mitochondrial Genomes of two Major Haplogroups in Austronesian-speaking Populations”) states against the “Out of Taiwan” model of the Austronesian language movement that “The phylogeny of complete sequences of two major Austronesian-speaking populations’ specific clades of mitochondrial DNA, haplogroup E and B4a1, contradicts the consensus view. Haplogroup E presents much deeper private subclades in ISEA (Island Southeast Asia). This suggests an ancestry there and a subsequent movement of people into Taiwan, probably motivated by the sea level rising at the end of the last ice age. The geographic origin of B4a1 branch is unclear, but its most frequent sub-branch, present only in eastern ISEA and the Pacific and defined by “Polynesian motifs’ dates to around 7500 years predating the hypothetical “Out of Taiwan” movement 4000 years ago.”

Martin Richards, the first Professor of Archaeogenetics at Leeds University, who led the interdisciplinary research team, said: ‘I think the study results are going to be a big surprise for many archaeologists and linguists, on whose studies conventional migration theories are based. These population expansions had nothing to do with agriculture, but were most likely to have been driven by climate change, in particular global warming and the resulting sea-level rises at the end of the Ice Age between 15,000 to 7,000 years ago.’

The inundation of Sundaland actually favors a northward direction of migrations of populations, rather than a southerly direction back to the axis of the flooded disaster area. Agricultural development is more conducive to the settling down of populations rather than going into a diaspora, since the stability of subsistence supplies is more conducive to nucleation of settlements than a motivation to move out from the areas of development. It is expected that a pre-Neolithic culture, like a foraging society during the Paleolithic period, is the kind of population that will be more mobile than a Neolithic one. The only type of an agricultural society that will move is that engaged in a swiddening type of culture, which is however, limited to a cyclical and circuitous kind of movement and not a lineal one as proposed by Bellwood and the associated linguists.

Biological Issue
The biological Austronesian people is distinguished by Harry Widianto from the Austronesian speaking populations by referring to them as southern Mongolids that flourished in the Southeast Asian region – different from the northern Mongolids of China and Japan. Howells (1973), identified similarities between Polynesian and Micronesian specimens with phenotype characteristics of Southern Mongolid, and he concluded that the inhabitants of these areas in the region are the descendants of Southern Mongolids and not of Northern Mongolids. (Widianto, undated)

Philippine Neolithic
Bellwood (et al, 2004) states that prior to 3700 BP (1750 BC), there is no evidence of any human population in Batanes, and that it was only after this period (3700-2700 BP) that there were prolific evidences of Neolithic settlement from Eastern Taiwan (contrary to what he stated earlier that 2,500 BC one group of these Austronesian speakers sailed south to the northern island of Luzon in the Philippines and settled there, bringing with them the same set of artifacts and subsistence technology from Taiwan. This period is well into the end of the Late Neolithic Age of the Philippines, if indeed the Austronesian Neolithic coursed through this country. In fact he concludes in the same paper that the “Austronesian ocean crossing technology, that eventually allowed the settlement of Polynesia, occurred well to the south of northern Philippines” (underscoring mine).

There is a series of Carbon-14 dates that defines the Neolithic boundary of the Philippines. Two of the earliest are from both the northern and southern parts of the country. The earliest is 7830 +- 170 BC from the Laurente Cave, Penablanca, Cagayan province showing the earliest presence of pottery in the Philippines; and the other is 6650 +- 180 BC in the Bolobok Cave of Sanga-sanga, Tawi-tawi where red-slipped pottery was first reported. There at least forty (40+) other Neolithic dates on record, with the youngest being 2070+- 90, from the Arku Cave in Penablanca. Cagayan province.

A simulation model of Philippine Neolithic based on the indices of blade tools, pottery, edge-ground tools, oval adzes and rectangular adzes, suggests that except for rectangular adzes that appeared about 2000 BC, all the other indices appeared more or less almost simultaneously in time at about 6000 BC, as if it were a complex already developed suddenly introduced into the country. Countries like Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand, ranged approximately more than 10,000 BC to well into the Christian era, suggesting a long and gradual development of Neolithic technology. Only Indonesia approximates the Philippines, although behind a bit later, in ranging from about 6000 BC to the Christian era. It appears from this that island Southeast Asia seemed to have lagged behind Mainland Southeast Asia in terms of Neolithic development, suggesting a technological movement from the mainland to island Southeast Asia.

This being the case, the 1750 BC influx from Taiwan to the Batanes is very late in Neolithic progression of the Philippines since the Neolithic Carbon 14 dates listed above indicate a time dimension earlier in the south, Batanes, being much later. The data indicate earlier movements from the south during the Neolithic times rather than from the direction of Taiwan. The data from mainland Southeast Asia is even more revealing. The Neolithic boundary in Thailand, for instance, took place as early as 10,000 BC, as it is in the rest of mainland and Island Southeast Asia. The 4000 BC “out of Formosa” hypothesis is much too late and becomes untenable in this light.

Kurushio current
“Migration by boat from Taiwan southward, statistically speaking, is very improbable because of the Northward current, Kurushio current, and going downwards is only probable at only certain parts of the year. The odds of migrating downwards is very farfetched considering, five thousand years ago, sail tacking was not yet developed. It is improbable to go from Taiwan to the Philippines because one will just end up going to Japan from Taiwan. It is curious, in fact, that with this facility afforded by the Kurushio current, Austronesian is not associated with the Japanese. There is no land bridge between Taiwan and the Philippine at the end of the last ice age. And so crossing by land bridge from Taiwan to the Philippines is out of the question.”

Transhumant Marine Oriented Populations
Apropos to the discussion, attention may be called to the existence of mobile population nodes particular to Southeast Asia that exercises a pre-agricultural or food foraging strategy of subsistence that speak Austronesian forms of languages. Being referred to are the strand and coastal people with a marine orientation, principally living in boats. The spread of the peoples after the Pleistocene Epoch was facilitated by the rising level of the sea. This is further enhanced by the development of boating technology. Subsequent modes of adaptation by these migrant peoples oriented many groups to terrestrial life ways farther up from the coastlines; while some others remained in different degrees of marine orientation. The latter are mobile communities that are strand or coastal food foragers who rely on fishing, hunting of sea mammals, turtles, collection of sea cucumbers, mollusks, and crustaceans. The early mention of their origin is the first millennium AD although their subsistence technology goes farther back in time. The present Sama Dilaut of southwestern Philippines is one of these groups that remained culturally immersed in life with the sea linked with other Southeast Asian “sea gypsies,” such as the Orang Laut (“ocean people”) of Indonesia’s Riau Islands and parts of Malaysia’s coast, the Moken or Urak Lawoi of Thailand and the Salon of Myanmar (Burma) in the Andaman Sea; Urak Lawoi on the west coast of Thailand and Malaysian; the Orang Suku Laut of Sumatra and nearby islands – all practicing a type of water adaptation found nowhere else in the world.

Much have been written about these “boat people” or “sea gypsies” that are scattered along the seaboards of island and mainland Southeast Asia, precisely in the region inundated by the rising sea level after the Ices Age. The early typologies of their boat construction are ascribed to Neolithic technology. These marine orientated populations were most probably created at the onset of the Neolithic Age when the Sunda land was inundated by the rising sea level. They are endemic to the region. Instead of moving out of the region, they stayed and adapted to the flooded region of their former habitat. The point of dispersal and radiation is Southeast Asia. The mobility of the boat people can be ascribed to their marine orientation and the facility with which they move about in boats. The central point of dispersal, too, of the Austronesian languages is Southeast Asia.

The marine adaptation of these people can be exemplified by Kurais (1975) who encapsulates the Sama of the Philippines’ way of life as “musay magusaha” which is to earn a living implying a journey by boat. Several types of boats have been associated with the Sama that give an insight into the precision of their adaptation to marine life: adjong, sappit, hawi, lepa, parangkang, buggoh (buggoh jungalan, Bugoh-buggoh, and buggoh) pelang, dapang, dapang-dapang, bagya, belamput, garay, jungkong, damas, lunday, biral, kumpit, bettu, peddas, birok, zingnging, jalampah, adjong, gulita, boggoh. Mentioned too are the prahu, garay (panco or penjajap) andsalisipan (vinta, barato or kakap).

Notable is the complexity of the boat technology of the group especially with reference to specific types that denote the pinpointed mode of adaptation to the various regions of habitation. These are highly mobile populations. However, more notable is that these populations nodes, hewing closer to the Solheim hypothesis of the Austronesian language dispersal, are transhumant – they engage in cyclical movement in Southeast Asia through seasons in circular and recurring patterns, and not in a lineal north to south dispersal with a central point of origin. So, too, their widespread food foraging subsistence technology cannot be explained by the agricultural causality of the OOT hypothesis.

Concluding Statements

Closer to the reality of the Neolithic Age is the dispersal of populations caused by the inundation of Sunda land by the rising sea level with its attendant technologies like agriculture, pottery, weaving, polished stone adzes and blade tools, in sporadic movements, some linear, others nodal, some in stasis, depending on the environmental circumstances relevant to specific cultural groups. The various hypotheses (Bellwood, Solheim, Oppenheimer, et al.) are facets or parts of simultaneously occurring realities which are reflections of particular foci or perspectives. Each facet explains the realities of a part, though not necessarily the whole. The movements of populations cannot be ascribed to a single causality because of the imperatives imposed by socio-cultural and physical environments, especially by the fact that human populations continually adapt to changes depending on the relevance of any of these through the time. The dispersal of Austronesian-speaking populations is so extensive and vast, not only in terms of area but also of other factors as people, culture, environment, subsistence technologies, adaptation and such, so that it is not possible to ascribe the movements to a single sweeping cause as the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis.

The fatal flaw in this hypothesis is that it confuses distribution of language with distribution of people. Language can not explain the distribution of people but it might be able to explain the distribution of language. Language is cultural and is learned. People are biological, and biology is not learned, but people learn culture, including language. Language can move without populations moving, although it can move with populations. A language can be learned without the population moving at all. This is the reason people can be multi-lingual. People can move independently of language. Because language is cultural, people can choose what language to carry when they move. The Filipino are English speaking people, but certainly, the Philippine population is not English, and the English people have not moved into the Philippines.


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Source: Oxford University