The Paths of the Ancestors:
General and Simplified Overview of Austronesian Languages, Peoples, and Culture
By A. Hōkūlani Kīna'ū Requilmán Baltrán, 2008
Within Polynesia, there are several legends of distant ancestral lands. For Hawaiians, several creation stories exist that depict lands known to the ancestors of Papa and Wakea, the two ancestral dieties of the Hawaiian people. These lands were collectively called the fat lands of Kane (the Hawaiian sun god and god of navigation), the lands of the blue mountains of Kane, the lost lands of Ku and Hina, or the wondering islands. Several legends also exist outside of Polynesia known collectively as the Kuaihelani. In the Tuamotos, the lands of Uporu and Havaiki were also depicted as wondering islands. All of these legends point out that various Polynesian peoples had knowledge of previous ancestral homelands that we recorded in their genealogical chants and navigational traditions. This in no mean means that Polynesians were not indigenous to Polynesia; but confirms many of the myths and genealogies of Polynesian people linking them directly to the ancestral civilization of most of South East Asia and Polynesia--Austronesia.
While there are those that are reluctant to accept that people on both sides of the Pacific are actually the same stock because of their own preconceived notions of race and some who prefer to see the term 'Austronesian' relegated to simply a linguistic term, research and genetic science does confirms that Hawaiians, Filipinos, Indonesians, Samoans, Malays, and Micronesians do come from a single racial stock and do have a shared ancestral language. If one is to accept paternity tests and DNA evidence in court cases, then one can not throw out the results of several independent studies in three continents confirming that the mtDNA of Malayo-Polynesians or Austronesians are the same and that based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, there seems are too many similarities to be coincidental. Therefore, again based on the general consensus of various branches of science, Austronesian are from the same ancestors and the same branch of humans that left Africa some 80 to 60,000 years ago, settled in Asia some 20 - 30,000 years ago, and settled the entire Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 years ago.
Due to modern DNA testing in the 1990s (see Genetics), Austronesians have become recognized as having the similar genetic makeup as each other proving the initial speculations were correct. This means that scientifically, Austronesians from Easter Island to Madagascar to Hawai'i to Malaysia not only speak related languages, but share the same ancestors. Polynesians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and Micronesians were all genetically related, just as Kalakaua and Vinzons predicted a century earlier. This not only confirmed the observations of early European explorers such as Captain Cook but also confirmed that Austronesians reached nearly every part of the Pacific--roughly 57% of the surface of the world--without compasses and maps but based their keen observations about astrology.
All of the terms that we use today such as 'Polynesia', 'Oceania', and 'South-East' are all modern 18th and 19th century artificial constructs created because of the cartographers and these boundries often moved depending on the political situation. Polynesia for example was created in 1756 by Charles de Brosses and meant all islands in the Pacific including the Hawai'i, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia but excluded Malaysia. In 1832, French explorer Dumont D'urville created the term Oceania which included Australia but excluded Malaysia, the Philippines, and half of Indonesia. In light of French political ambitions in the Pacific, he then divided Oceania into Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia and created the term 'Indochina' which included the Philippines, Malaysia, half of Indonesia, as well as Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan and Laos. Why D'urville divided the Pacific the way he did was based on existing European territorial claims rather than on the people of the Pacific themselves.
in 1893 by French cartographer Jules D'Ormont recognized the common ethnicity and linguistic heritage and believed the previous terms were too arbitrary. He based his understanding of the peoples of the Pacific on the observations of French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville and other ethnologists. He used Greek or Latin terms, which he felt would be politically neutral and coined the word: Austronesia. The word 'Austronesia' itself comes from two words: the Latin austrālis which means 'southern' and the Greek νήσος (nêsos) 'islands' and described most islands in the Pacific. He also coined the
In the 20th century, 'Malayo-Polynesia' became popularized by the University of Chicago until Malaya became independent from Great Britain and named itself Malaysia in 1963. Malay thus became associated with Malaysia and began to be seen as exclusive term especially given the territorial tensions between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So 'Austronesia' was then resurrected in the late 1960s while 'South-East Asia', 'Asia-Pacific-Rim', and 'Pacific Islands' also began to be used as a political term due to Cold War economic alliances (i.e. SEATO, APEC, ASEAN, etc).
Historically, the earliest term for a single Austronesian speaking region of Southeast Asia and the Pacific was called Nusantara, which comes from two Javanese words 'Nuso' which means 'nations' and 'Antero', 'the combined', 'confederated', or 'allied'. This was coined around 1369CE when Java expanded its empire and began to rediscover other Austronesian nations. During the 19th and 20th century, this term began to be used by nationalists in the Philippines, Indonesia (then Dutch East Indies), and British Malaya in the broader sense in referring to the entire Austronesian speaking world. Alam Melayu (the 'Malay World' in Bhasa Malay), Dunia Melayu Nusantara (the 'Malay Nusantara world' in Tagalog and used in the Filipino Propaganda Movement) and Nusantara predate the term 'Austronesia'. However, since there is still no general consensus among all Malayo-Polynesian people on a name for the entire egion and since, for some, the term Nusantara is considered a strictly Indonesian term, the terms 'Austronesia' or 'Malayo-Polynesia' are most commonly accepted.
The Austronesian Homeland
The Austronesian homeland itself comprises of the modern nations of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Madagascar, the Cham region of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pattani region of Southern Thailand, the Moken region of Myanmar (Burma), the Tsat cultural region of Southern China, Timor L'este, Nauru, Guam, Micronesia, Palau (Belau), Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tahiti, Kiribati, Niue, Rarotonga, Tokelau, Marquesas, Hawai'i, Wallis and Fortuna, Aotearoa-New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The Austronesian homeland therefore comprises of a majority of the islands of the Pacific (about 6,000 islands and atolls), more than half of Southeast Asia (about 21,000 islands), in addition to New Zealand and Madagascar. This region accounts for more than 300 million people and is considered one of the wealthiest in natural resources.
It is also important to note that the geography of 10,000 or even 5,000 years ago was different than it is today. The modern shape of the world slowly began around 5,000 years ago--when Austronesians were already settling Pacific. The map below shows different the world looked at the time that Austronesians when they were developing their maritime technology:
As one can see from the map, what we now call South East Asia was combined with Asia itself and Australia was almost a part of Asia itself. This also explains certain groups such as the Ainu, Melanesians and the Aeta--these peoples could easily pass through Southeast Asia since it was more less connected.
Another important note one needs to remember is that the political map was far different during the migrations of the Austronesians. First, the term South-east Asia is a new idea constructed during the 20th century as a result of the decolonization process. Secondly, Han Chinese did not occupy southern China until 2,000 years ago and the Vietnamese were still in central China along with the Thais, Mons, and other groups. Thirdly, Austronesian kingdoms still existed on continental Asia until the 20th century. The Kingdom of Champasak in Laos existed until 1946 and was the successor to the Champa Kingdom of southern Vietnam. The Champas are Austronesian. Malaysia is also on continental Asia.
So when we speak of an Austronesian homeland, both the actual boundries where Austronesians are the indigenous people, the political boundaries of Austronesian present and past states, as well as where Austronesian populations still exist should also be considered.
The Beginnings of Austronesia: Formosan and Malayo-Polynesian
According to the general consensus of anthropologists, archaeologists, and geneticists, the first Austronesians to voyage into the Pacific from Southern China and South-East Asia some 4,000 years ago (see Maps) spoke a language known as 'Proto-Austronesian' (sometimes now called 'Bahasa Austronesia') . They developed maritime skills early as the climate began to change and the sea levels began to rise significantly. As they settled Taiwan (Formosa), which was not Chinese at that time, their language began to change and was known as Proto-Formosan. The need to name new plants, new places, and to communicate more effectively lead to the formation of new dialects, not to mention the geographic isolation and human creativity. Some of these great grandchildren moved around Taiwan, formed tribes, and began to have their own dialects which later became the basis for the Formosan grouping of languages of today. While there may have been other humans living in South-East Asia as early as 60,000 as the 'Out of Africa' Theory suggests, Austronesians were indigenous to Taiwan and would later also be indigenous to Polynesia as well as most parts of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
It should be noted that Austronesians are indigenous to most of the Pacific and that some believe that Austronesians originated in the Pacific region in what is now Papua and Sulawesi in Indonesia. Human DNA evidence and archaeological sites strongly dispute this theory, however, the mtDNA of certain pigs suggests that the pigs found in Polynesia are related to pigs in Vietnam, Eastern Indonesia, and in Papua.
Which ever direction, as Austronesians organized communities and settled on islands, other groups continued exploring and settling more areas while retaining the basic language vocabulary of their ancestors as well as bringing with them certain main crops and animals such as the taro, bananas, pigs, dogs and chickens. What is also known is that these early Austronesian people that they were the first to develop advanced agricultural techniques (such as drainage, crop rotating, and compost) which was carried with them throughout the Pacific and which later civilizations such as the Chinese heavily borrowed from. The general consensus of archaeologists is that the first agricultural revolution began with the Austronesians in South China (which was not part of China at the time) and in South-East Asia.
As they settled lands more and more south, dialects began to be formed that became the basis of the Malayo-Polynesian grouping of Austronesian languages. Some of the tribes stayed within what we now call South-east Asia and others ventured farther west. As Austronesian ventured further and further away, this created new dialects which in turn becoming more creative and more independent thus becoming formal languages. In addition, they encountered other indigenous groups which added to their languages.
This process is similar to how Latin became the basis of to the Romanic or Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Italian.
Austronesian Kingdoms in South East Asia and Polynesia
The islands that Austronesians settled on both sides of the Pacific were far from gardens of Eden. Hawai'i for example did not have any food crops. Tonga had very little water. The Marquesas had sharp mountains that made unified island-wide agricultural systems unrealistic. Aotearoa presented other problems such as its weather not being suitable for most tropical crops not to mention animals such as a moa that were unknown to Austronesians. The agriculture in most parts of Polynesia had to be started from basically ground zero. Nearly every crop that has become associated with images of Polynesia were imported from Austronesia and carefully bred specifically to match every islands' natural conditions. Just as Austronesians mastered the ocean currents, Austronesians mastered their new environments and turned far flung dusty islands into tropical breadbaskets. For example, Hawaiians developed over 200 different types of taro and each type was bred specifically for its taste and the type of soil conditions that best it suited for. Likewise in Tahiti, Tahitians learned developed hundreds of types of bread fruit depending on the soil type. In Taiwan, the Philippines, Bali, and Hawai'i Austronesians also sculpted huge terraces that provided abundant food for the population. The terraces still remain after over 2,000 years and still provide food--something unmatched until the Industrial Revolution 1800 years later. The basis of modern day agriculture in the Pacific (which lead to today's tourism industry in many parts of Austronesia) was in fact a direct result of the dedicated work of the Austronesians. With the skills of Austronesians, famine became less of a threat which caused the population to boom causing further migrations and new complex political systems emerged.
The Austronesians that remained near Asia (i.e. Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines) eventually came into contact with other indigenous groups such as the Ayta and with the nations of India, China and Persia. New vocabulary became infused and adopted as well as new organizational structures, new religious ideas, and new linguistic quirks (e.g. intonation differences and new accenting). The most powerful influences on the Austronesians on that side of the world were trade and religion. Trade with the other world, in particular spices, created large maritime kingdoms and empires which in turn attracted new ideas and new religions. Western Austronesia was in particular heavily influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam and formed kingdoms as early as 100CE. The most powerful of these kingdoms that emerged was Srivijaya, which encompassed parts of modern day Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia and lasted from the 7th to the 13th century CE. The Austronesian settlement of Madagascar was largely done by the Srivijaya kings and most of Southeast Asia came under their influence. Srivijaya was also an international center for Vajrayana Buddhism scholarship and philosophy. After the collapse of the Srivijaya other empires emerged including the Majapahit empire which conquered nearly all of modern day Indonesia, Malaysia, and its influence was felt as far as Vietnam, the Philippines, and in the Thai kingdoms. The Indonesian flag is based on the Majapahit banner. Other important Austronesian kingdoms in South East Asia were the Champa (South Vietnam and Cambodia), Suwawa (in Sulawesi), Sailendra (in Java), Maratam (in Java), Yogya (in Java), Melaka (Malaysia), Johor (Malaysia), Sulu (in the Philippines), Merina (in Madagascar) and Pahang (now called Pattani in Thailand). Despite this, basic elements of ancient Austronesia remained including the art of pottery, agricultural development, tattooing, navigation, kinship, values and philosophy.
In the case of Taiwan, however, Austronesians became directly subject Chinese kingdoms and eventually colonized by imperial China, Portugal, Holland, Japan, and returned to China.
Austronesians on the eastern end of the Pacific had also begun to establish kingdoms based on a more traditional Austronesian framework after establishing settlements in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui. Samoa was the first Eastern Austronesian nation to organize a under a Tu'i (King) around the 13th century followed by Tonga. Tonga and Samoa are important links between Eastern and Western Austronesians due to its continuance of trade and pottery. Since most of Polynesia lacked both clay and metal, Tonga is the where Austronesian pottery were still made until the 2nd or 3rd century CE when clay resources became exhausted. However the motifs found on Tongan are similarly found in Lapita in the Solomon Islands and in Borneo at the same period of time showing an advance trading network. Samoa on the other hand kept the same ancient Austronesian motifs but found new mediums--tapa and tattooing designs. Samoa was also one of the first to establish the idea of kingship that would permeate throughout the rest of Polynesia through conquest and intermarriage. Adopting a few ideas from Samoan chiefs, Hawai'i developed a political system with a specialized priesthood and ruling kings that were elected by 'Aha 'Ula (Council of Chiefs) that in some ways mirrored the kingdoms of Austronesian Southeast Asia. The Hawaiians also adopted a codified religious legal system known as the Kapu. On the other hand, the Maori of Aotearoa maintained a social and political structure that was very near to what existed (and still exists) in Taiwan as well as developing a unique institution called the Whare Wananga (House of Knowledge). These Whare Wananga helped maintain the genealogies, traditions, and orature of the various Maori tribes.
(Above) A Maori village showing the different types of houses, the central plaza or Marae, and the Whare Wananga on the far end.
Despite the distances between SE Asia and Polynesia that occurred because of religious and political differences, certain Austronesian traits, place names, references, rituals had survived on both ends. For example, the major island of Samoa was called Savai'i. Raiatea, near Tahiti, used to be called Havaiki. The main island of Hawai'i is called Hawai'i. The Maori ancestral homeland was called Hawaiki. The main island of Indonesia is called Jawa (Java). Li'it (Tagalog), Iki (Maori), Iti (Tahitian), Li'i (Hawaiian) all mean small, lesser, or offspring (e.g. tamariki, kamali'i). 'I'i' meanwhile could also mean to gather or to admired. Hawai'i, Savai'i, and Hawaiki all therefore could translate as 'Little Java', 'Child of Java', 'the Gathering of Java', or 'Desirable Java'. Interestingly, according to Marco Polo, 'Little Java' was one of the early names for the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
On the Southeast Asian side, many of the same ancient religious practices that are still common among Austronesians were integrated into the newly established religions of Hinduism, Islam, and Roman Catholicism--as would later be done in parts of Polynesia itself. In addition, the words itself for canoe show the canoe traditions survived from Taiwan to Malaysia to Hawai'i (i.e. waga, bangka, barangka, vaka, waka, va'a, wa'a, etc). The smallest political unit in the Philippines is called a 'barangay', now translated as village or community but literally was a type of large double-hull canoe and could also mean tribe.
Other Austronesian Migrations--Japan and the Americas
The general consensus of the scientific community is that there were several waves of migrations into the Pacific consisting of various Austronesian people coming from different points of Austronesia. Some in the scientific community support a fast train meaning a quick large scale settlement of the Pacific followed by smaller waves while others support several small waves from the same source or location over the course of 5,000 years. Both theories are plausible and can be supported by genealogical chants in Polynesia (such as the Coming of Pele the Hawaiian Fire Goddess and Pa'ao's migration from Samoa to Hawai'i) and historical accounts by the Chinese of Austronesian trading routes.
Evidence, both linguistic and genetic, is beginning to surface of that Japanese from southern Japan have Austronesian DNA and the Japanese language itself is a hybrid of Austronesian and Altaic languages. Therefore, modern Japan is a East Asian nation with Ainu, Korean and Austronesian ancestors. In addition, there are Hawaiian accounts of Japanese being shipwrecked in Hawai'i dating back to around the 17th century CE and during King Kalākaua's world tour of 1881, the Meiji Emperor (明治天皇) of Japan believed that Austronesians (Malayo-Polynesians) were among the ancestors of the Japanese. As a result of this understanding, Hawaiians were allowed to attend the exclusive Gakushuin (学習院) or school for Japanese nobility. The first two Hawaiians (and non-Japanese subjects) to be admitted to the elite school were James Haku'ole and Isaac Harbottle in 1882 and became classmates of the future Taisho Emperor (大正天皇) of Japan.
There has been several attempts to prove that Austronesians reached the North America. As of to date no human genetic material from any Native American tribe in both North and South America have similar mtDNA to Austronesians. However, legends from various North and South American natives do suggest contact with Austronesians and chicken bones have been found in South America that suggests a Pan-Pacific trade. Austronesian maritime technology was capable of reaching the far corners of the Pacific and Indian Oceans so a trading route or settlements in the Americas would not seem so far fetched. But again, there is still no human DNA that can genetically link any North or South American tribe or nation to Austronesians. This means that the evidence suggests that contacts were made to Native Americans by Austronesians but there were extremely little or no intermarrying (or at least the children of such intermarrying did not remain in North or South America but returned to Austronesia). The Haida of British Colombia and the Tlingkit of Alaska records legends of visiting of Austronesian voyagers--possibly Hawaiian or Maori--who left with the people certain cultural and technological skills and then returned to Polynesia. At any case, unlike in Japan where DNA from previous Austronesian populations survives, no Austronesian DNA has been found in the Americas though it is reasonable to assume contacts were made. It is also of note that a few Native American groups in the Alaska are genetically related to the Ainu people of Japan. More can be read in genetics
More Recent Austronesian History
As Europeans increasingly sought more trade routes to China and more access to the fabled spices of the 'East Indies' after the 15th century CE, a period of colonialism began. Spain eventually annexed the Philippines, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and the Marianas and in the process imposing Spanish culture and Roman Catholicism. Gregorian music free. Portugal at the same time took over East Timor. The Dutch were able to gain control of modern-day Indonesia. The French gained Madagascar, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and incorporated the remnants of the Austronesian Champa Kingdom into French Indochina. The British annexed Aotearoa (New Zealand) as a colony and installed 'British resident advisors' to the Malaysian sultanates who indirectly governed Malaysia. The last major player were the Americans who through the Spanish-American War took the Philippines and Guam and gave the Marianas and Micronesia to the Germans. Rapa Nui found itself incorporated into Chile. Hawai'i on the other hand enjoyed international prestige and had established itself as a constitutional monarchy complete with a parliament, constitution, and embassies as early as 1840. It was the first Austronesian country to adopt the English legal system, the first to hold free elections, to have civil rights, to have free public schools, and other trappings of the modern nation state. However, in 1893 Western expatriates backed by United States marines deposed and imprisoned the reigning Hawaiian monarch. Then as a result of the Spanish-American War, Hawai'i was incorporated into the United States as an overseas territory. By 1900, Tonga was the only Austronesian kingdom in the Pacific to avoid formal colonization but held the status of 'protected state' under the British Empire until 1970.
However, not all Austronesians accepted colonial rule--in fact most did not. Revolts against the Dutch, the Spanish, the Americans, and Portuguese were frequent and intellectual movements dedicated themselves to the single task of rebuilding nationhood by reasserting the culture and the past of the Austronesian forbearers. In the 1860s, King Kalākaua of Hawai'i--an independent kingdom at that time-- founded one of the earliest nationalist newspapers in the Pacific. Ka Hōkū o Ka Pakīkīpa (The Star of the Pacific), which as the name suggest was nationalistic, progressive and Pan-Pacific. In 1879, he authored a bill in the Hawaiian parliament--the first democratically elected national parliament in Austronesia--to formally declare Hawai'i as an Asiatic Malay state and went around the world in 1881 making visits to Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and India. King Kalākaua through discussions with Maharajah Sultan Abubakar bin Tuan Ibrahim of Johor, Malaysia, began to formulate the idea of 'Pan-Malay Unity' and discussed the idea of a federation to combat colonialism. The Maharaja was already well known among the Hawaiian royals for gifts such as tiger claw necklaces (which can be seen in official portraits of Queen Emma and Princess Pauahi) and would later give King Kalākaua a copy of the Malay translation of the Quran.
Queen Emma of Hawai'i wearing the tiger necklace that was a gift from Johor
The Maharaja further showed his solidarity with the Hawaiians by offering Queen Lili'uokalani to establish a government in exile after she was deposed in 1893 as 'fellow Malays'. The Queen later declined the offer but was visited in 1896 by a delegation from Johor, including the Maharaja's son, who again expressed their support of her and denounced her imprisonment. At the same time in the late 1880s, Filipinos in Europe began their own newspaper, La Solidaridad. One of the contributors, Dr. José Rizal, would later bring research information on the extant of Austronesian history and languages. This would help fuel the first successful anti-colonial revolution in modern Asia in 1896. In 1898, the Philippines became the first democratically elected republic. The first premier, Apolinario Mabini openly wrote about the 'liberation of all Malay peoples' and credited Hawai'i for its early stand on the idea. In 1903, the first democratic republic in Austronesia fell to the United States.
King Kalākaua Maharajah Abubakar Vinzons
Pan-Malaysia and 'Malaysia Irredenta'
Many writers and leaders in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hawai'i, Samoa, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) began to research the deeper roots of Austronesian culture in order to combat the effects of colonialism. One of the most vocal advocates of 'Pan-Malay Unity' was Governor Wenceslao Q. Vinzons, founder of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, the Young Philippines Party, and a students association called Perhempunan Orang Melayu (Union of Malays) in the early 20th century. These organizations had members from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Polynesia. It also became a cradle of ideas for future presidents and prime ministers of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia as these students began political parties based on the idea of a Melayu Raya (Greater Malaysia) and Vinzon's dream of liberating Malaysia Irredenta (Unredeemed Malaysia). He championed the idea that '“..A unified Malaysia extending from the northern extremity of the Malay peninsula to the shores of New Guinea, from Madagascar to the Philippines and to the remotest islands of Polynesia will be a powerful actor in the Oceanic world..and [finally] we would have redeemed the Malay race.” Vinzons and many others later died resisting the Japanese invasion during the Second World War.
After World War II and the devastation of most of East Asia, political independence was slowly achieved in the western half of Austronesia ushering in a new era. Austronesians began to look at the past as a guide towards modern nation-state building while at the same time dealing with the problems of the 20th century. Notably, the Hōkūle'a voyaging canoe in the 1970s proved that Austronesians could sail the Pacific without maps or compasses. The Hōkūle'a undertook several round trip voyages to Tahiti, Micronesia, and Japan to showcase the navigational skills of Austronesians. Increasingly, archaeological digs in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Borneo, the Philippines, and Taiwan are proving how sophisticated the technology Austronesians possessed thousands of years ago and are shedding new light on what we thought about early Pacific migrations.
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