Taiwan, Neolithic Seafaring and Austronesian Origins

Article excerpt

New evidence for the movement of Neolithic basalt adzes across the Taiwan Strait may indicate the beginnings of regular Austronesian voyaging. This seafaring tradition culminated in the Polynesian colonization of the Pacific.

Key-words: Taiwan, Neolithic, seafaring, Austronesians, adzes, archaeometry

The Peng-hu archipelago, comprising 64 diminutive volcanic islands, represents the only inhabitable landmass in the middle of the Taiwan Strait (FIGURE 1). Evidence for the Neolithic transport of stone tools from Peng-hu to Taiwan was first identified by Kokubu (1940), who surface-collected around 300 basalt adzes from pottery-bearing archaeological sites on the southwest coast of Taiwan.(1) Since the natural occurrence of basalt is rare in Taiwan, and because the geological landscape of the southwest coast is dominated by uplifted coral formations, the adzes were readily identifiable as imports. Kokobu realized that the Peng-hu Islands are the nearest major source of basalt and he suggested that the adzes were thus likely brought to Taiwan from this archipelago.


Interest in the problem of imported basalt adzes reemerged during the Yale/National Taiwan University investigation of Fengpitou, a well-stratified site located on the Fengshan raised-coral tableland in southwestern Taiwan (Chang 1969). The Fengpitou sequence spans the period from around 6000 to 2000 BP, beginning with the earliest Neolithic occupation of Taiwan. Palaeoenvironmental reconstructions place the site on an ancient shoreline and faunal studies point to a maritime subsistence adaptation (Chang 1969: 196-202). Excavations yielded 49 basalt adzes which Chang (1969: 80), like Kokobu, interpreted as having been introduced from Peng-hu. The basalt adzes are especially well represented in the Fine Red Ware Settlement Period (Chang 1969: 124, table 6), now known as the Niuchouzi Period and dated to 4500-3500 BP (Sung 1980: 131).

In the 1980s, Cheng-hwa Tsang (1992) launched a major archaeological investigation of the Peng-hu archipelago, with extensive survey and excavations on the main islands. Tsang's Peng-hu cultural sequence dates Neolithic colonization and permanent settlement of the islands to around 5100-4600 BP. Artefact assemblages from the Suo-kang Period (4700-4300 BP) include a slate projectile point, nephrite jade adzes and other jade artefacts, all of which stand out as imports from Taiwan or the mainland (Tsang 1992: 132-4). Tsang's study also included the first geological comparison of basalt artefacts from Peng-hu and Taiwan, based on the petrographic analysis of adzes from three Peng-hu and two southwest coastal sites (1992: 333-9). All of the six adzes analysed consist of the same type of olivine basalt that is prevalent in Peng-hu. Tsang's (1995: 193) interpretation is that, at least around 4700-4300 BP, Peng-hu was linked to Taiwan, and probably also mainland China, in a pattern of regular interaction maintained through open-sea voyaging across the Taiwan Strait. This hypothesis supports Chang's (1986: 239-46) Neolithic interaction sphere model proposed to explain similarities among the archaeological sequences for Taiwan and coastal China.

The Neolithic colonization of Taiwan is associated with origins of the Austronesians (Bellwood et al. 1995; Chang 1995), whose Lapita and Polynesian descendants were the most accomplished seafarers of their time (Irwin 1992; Finney 1994). There is considerable value, then, in elucidating the nature of early voyaging in the Taiwan Strait, both because it helps explain Neolithic era cross-strait interaction during the prehistory of Taiwan and coastal mainland China, and because such voyaging may help to explain the origin of Austronesian seafaring traditions that later flourished across Oceania.

Geological sourcing studies involving the compositional analysis of stone tools offer an empirical and practical means of investigating prehistoric contact across the Taiwan Strait. …