Rising Sea Levels Inspired Ancient Crossings from China to Taiwan: Environmental Conditions Cultivated Seafaring, Not Rice

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, April 23, 2011 | Go to article overview

Rising Sea Levels Inspired Ancient Crossings from China to Taiwan: Environmental Conditions Cultivated Seafaring, Not Rice


Bower, Bruce, Science News


A rising tide lifts all boats, but in a surprising twist, ascending sea levels launched a flotilla of rafts or canoes on voyages from China to Taiwan around 5,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

At a time when rice farming dominated in other regions, the inundation of the Fuzhou Basin in southeastern China beginning about 9,000 years ago led to the creation of a maritime culture that eventually took to the seas, says a team led by archaeologist Barry Rolett of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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Analyses of sediment cores extracted from the Fuzhou Basin indicate that, at that time, the kind of marshy areas needed for rice paddies disappeared under rising seas. What are hilltops in the region today were islands no more than one mile across.

Locals built outposts on newly minted islands starting around 5,500 years ago and honed their nautical skills, probably using wooden canoes or bamboo rafts to obtain fish and other aquatic food in a vast estuary, Rolett and his colleagues report in the April Quaternary Science Reviews. A largely rice-free, maritime lifestyle eventually enabled sea voyages of 130 kilometers to Taiwan, Rolett proposes. Farming villages first appeared on Taiwan about 5,000 years ago.

Rolett's findings challenge a popular scientific view that a transition to village life farther north in China around 8,000 years ago triggered rice-fueled population growth that spread southward. In that scenario, shortages of marshy land suitable for rice paddies motivated sea crossings to Taiwan, possibly originating just north of the Fuzhou Basin in the Yangtze River Delta, where researchers have found a 7,700-year-old canoe and three wooden paddles.

"People of the Fuzhou Basin lived on little islands in an estuary that favored maritime activities and seafaring," Rolett says. "Rice farming was not part of the equation." Small amounts of rice could have been tended on patches of dry land watered by rain, he holds.

Rolett's evidence that fishing and seafaring dwarfed rice growing in a submerged section of southeastern China, possibly prompting Taiwan's colonization, "is quite plausible," comments archaeologist Robert Bettinger of the University of California, Davis.

Villages from around 5,000 years ago in the Fuzhou Basin and on Taiwan contain similar types of pottery, supporting Rolett's argument, remarks archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller of University College London. Excavations of early Taiwanese villages have yielded millet, a type of grain, as well as some rice. Experienced Fuzhou Basin mariners may have first explored and traded up and down China's coast, acquiring millet where it grows along the northern coast before taking the grain to Taiwan, Fuller suggests. …

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