Thursday, November 09, 2006

Taiwanesia, Cavemen, and the Very First Stone

This article was originally published in the November issue of 24*Seven Magazine, which is available all over Taiwan in all the more interesting places. The drawing titled Zijanthropus by Peter V. Bianchi from National Geographic Magazine should be here but I can't post pictures right now for some reason. Oh well.

Taiwanesia, Cavemen, and the Very First Stone

"These people don't have tanks. They don't have ships. They hide in caves.”
George Bush, 2002

The following article deals with two very slippery subjects: prehistory and culture. First, the murky recesses of prehistory; that is, the stuff that may have happened before we started writing things down. This is opposed to plain history, which is the stuff that may have happened after we started writing things down. It’s good to be highly skeptical of both of them. Prehistory is littered with patchy guesswork and impossible leaps of faith and logic, while history is a house of lies. When it says that King So-and-so was a benevolent leader who was in the habit of mixing strawberry daiquiris for his subjects, it probably means he used to bath in the blood of their virgins.

The second slippery slope we will climb is culture. Culture occurs when a group of people is different enough from another group of people. Simple as that, it has little to do with folk music, silly dances, and eating the unmentionable bits of unrecognizable creatures. Culture is about being different enough to kill. Violence is always blamed on certain cultures, but rarely on culture itself. A cursory glance at world history shows a great variety of cultures and the accompanying deluges of spilt blood. When a culture moves into a new area they like to imagine it as an empty land whose virginity is lost just as they step onto the shore. “Where’d you get that land?” you might ask. “Our god gave it to us, and then we made the dessert bloom.” they will answer. History is as cluttered with ego as prehistory is with uncertainty.

Who threw the first stone in this age old cultural bloodbath? A short stroll through Taiwan’s history provides us with a long list of stone-throwers, but for the answer on the first stone, we must go to prehistory, and look at the first groups of people to settle Taiwan. Some folks believe this happened as many as fifty thousand years ago, whereas others, most notably some members of the current opposition, claim it’s only been about sixty years.

There is evidence of human occupation in Taiwan thirty to fifty thousand years ago during the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age. The first identifiable culture is referred to as the Changpin Culture, because the first site from this period was Eight God Cave, discovered in Changpin Township, Taitung County. These were probably folks that had wandered over from Asia during one of the last ice ages. Sea levels were low enough that the Strait was dry and Taiwan was joined to the rest of the continent. They were the boring sort of cavemen; mostly just fishing and hunting and gathering. No building big pyramids or eating peoples’ hearts, not yet. Culture, like coffee, has to brew for a bit before it gets truly dangerous. It wasn’t this initial culture that began the carnage, but probably the second.

The Changpin Culture continued on, basically being boring, for about twenty five thousand years and then five thousand years ago their culture was gone. Maybe they were just too boring, or maybe it had to do with the emergence of Austronesian language peoples settling in the area about six thousand years ago. “Anthropologists have no idea what exactly happened, or when, to cause some of Taiwan’s earliest natives to die out or disappear,” (1) But in the end, it is the Austronesians, and not the Changpin Culture who are the more probable ancestors of Taiwan’s aboriginal people.

The Austronesian language people were the most widely dispersed culture up until the Europeans’ maritime conquests encircled the globe and bloodied the waters. Austronesian, (or Malayo-Polynesian,) languages are found in large swathes of the Pacific and Indian oceans, from Madagascar to Easter Island; from Taiwan and Hawaii to New Zealand. Most anthropologists believe the origins of this culture to be somewhere in peninsular Malaysia. If this is the case, then I would guess that those Malayo-Polynesian goons came, saw, threw stones, and conquered in the fashion of everyone who has shown up since; here in Taiwan and pretty well everywhere else.

In recent years, some anthropologists have speculated that Taiwan is the origin of the Austronesian language people. Most notably, Dr Geoffrey Chambers of Victoria University in Wellington put forth this theory in 1998. (2) The Taiwanese government is fairly happy with the idea; it makes the claim of sovereignty over the Spratly Islands far more substantial. This could mean that Taiwan was once the starting point for a language group that includes over 1000 languages and 300 million speakers, thousands of years before it became a hinterland province of the Yellow River fiefdoms. Maybe Taiwan was the seat of power for an ancient assortment of complex chiefdoms. Perhaps this ancient glory should shape our foreign policy.

My calls for Taiwan to invade Madagascar, Easter Island and Hawaii may go unheeded, but Christ, for years the plan was to retake the mainland, (or more recently just to sell Taiwan back to it.) Why not go beyond that, beyond the dream of re-taking the mainland to the dream of re-taking this ancient maritime empire? After all, it’s the only way we can be safe. That’s accepted political science these days. We can call it Taiwanesia.

Who threw the first stone? In Taiwan, I imagine it was those cunning Austronesians during their emergence onto the world stage. But who threw the Very First Stone? I have often wondered what became of the Neanderthals. Here is this strong species with a big brain that is around for nearly two hundred thousand years and then, poof, gone. Some believe they couldn’t adapt to climate shifts, but I have always suspected that it was darker than that. Another culture, or species rather, overlaps the Neanderthals by several thousand years, and it’s us. (3) We probably threw the Very First Stone, and just kept on throwing. Can the cycle of violence really be blamed on any given culture, or is it a species thing? No one seems to care. All Hail Taiwanesia!





1 comment:

Patrick Cowsill said...

This is an amusing post, especially the part about invading Hawaii. Besides language links, which bring peoples all around the Pacific and even to Madagascar back to Taiwan, there are also similarities in creation myths between Maori groups and the Atayal.

I think the main reason that Taiwanese are so obsessed with China and vice versa is racial/racist. Many Taiwanese see themselves as Han, some kind of super pure Asian version of Aryan thinking. These same people probably wouldn't want to see themselves as Austronesian (even though it is now being suggested that around 85 percent of Taiwanese have some Aboriginal blood).