Exploring the Ancient Cultural Genomes of Fujian’s Maritime Civilization

2020-02-20 15:56:48

Exploring the Ancient Cultural Genomes of Fujian’s Maritime Civilization

Narrator: Fan Xuechun (President of the International Research Center for Austronesian Archaeology and research fellow at Fujian Museum)

The Keqiutou archaeological site in Pingtan County was determined by archaeological experts to be the birthplace of Fujian maritime culture as well as the source of the prehistoric cultures of Fujian and Taiwan. The site is the oldest Neolithic midden (“shell mound”) discovered along the Fujian coast, as well as one of the oldest Neolithic ruins on the west coast of the Taiwan Strait. The discovery of the Keqiutou site led archaeologists to consider Pingtan County as a region key to the study of the historical origins of the Austronesian languages.

More than 6500 years ago, Keqiutou site was located on the tableland surrounded by the piedmont and the gulf. The low-lying Mahoupu Mountain lay to the north of the midden. To the south, one finds an ancient mudflat by the bay, an area with even terrain, abundant precipitation and insolation that lay only 5 meters above sea level. At its eastern end, the midden was no more than 100 meters from the gulf, whereas rolling low hills lay to its north, making the midden a prime habitat nestled between the mountains and the sea.

The midden provided abundant natural resources for the production and daily lives of early settlers in the Keqiutou site, making the area a prime coastal habitat where these early settlers forged a unique prehistoric maritime culture. Archaeological excavations have provided evidence that early humans who settled down in Keqiutou led a life of gathering, fishing and hunting.

Pingtan County is made up of a series of islands that lie directly across from Taiwan. Archaeologists have excavated a large number of marine animal skeletons at the Keqiutou site, indicating that fishing was a more important means for settlers to get food, leading some scholars to characterize the site as an “adaptive marine-based economy”. Settlers used bone awls, bone daggers and pitted pebbles to pry meat from shellfish (or simply smash open their shells).

In addition, a number of ground stone implements, the most representative of which were small stone adzes (ben) with trapezoidal surfaces, were discovered in the archaeological sites of Keqiutou, along with a small number of perforated stone tools. Stone adzes were some of the smaller production tools excavated, with the smallest only 3.5 cm in length. These adzes were too small to be tools for agriculture themselves. They were used as part of composite tools equipped with handles for gathering or grabbing food. More probably, these stone adzes were tools used to break apart wood for dwellings or canoes.

With food comes the need for utensils. The early Keqiutou settlers would cook their food in large pottery cauldrons supported on zhizuo stands. The motifs on the pottery of this era were simple but extremely diverse, including shell-impressed zigzag designs, impressed dots, cord-marking, nail prints and cut-out holes. In general, pottery vessels unearthed at the Keqiutou site were gray, black, grayish-yellow, red and brown, clearly indicating that they were fired at uneven and low temperatures. However, their designs clearly reflect the primitive aesthetic tendencies of the early Keqiutou settlers.

The Keqiutou culture did not exist in isolation. Similar prehistoric relics have been discovered in the archaeological site behind the Pingtan Ancestral Hall, in the Nancuochang site, and under the Tanshishan and Xitou sites in Minhou County. In addition, similar cultural relics or sites reminiscent of Keqiutou can be found across a region that stretches from Guangdong in the south to Taiwan in the east, indicating that such cultural remains are common in southeastern China. It may even be that similar cultural relics may be present in the Indochina peninsula (where Vietnam is located), suggesting that such cultures may be the “ancestral culture” of China’s southeastern indigenous ethnic groups, sometimes known as the “Baiyue” (Hundred Yue) peoples.

The Keqiutou culture coincided with the historical period when the Austronesian-speaking peoples left the mainland and took to the sea. Because it is highly reflective of the traces and trends of the expansion of the region’s culture towards oceanic islands, Keqiutou culture has become a “hotspot” for researchers from all over the world interested in Austronesian studies.

Organized, large-scale human migration to coastal islands began approximately 6000 years ago, marking the start of mankind’s exploration of the seas. The timing of the Keqiutou sites coincided with the seaward migration of the Austronesian-speaking peoples. In terms of the time and geographical conditions, early Keqiutou settlers were most qualified for the seafaring travels.

Over the 20th century, a combination of archaeological, linguistic and ethnological inquiry has led researchers to the conclusion that the Austronesian-speaking peoples originated somewhere in the eastern end of the Asian continent. Some researchers have even pinpointed their exact origins to be the southeastern coastal regions of China. It is noteworthy to mention that two Chinese anthropologists, Lin Huixiang and Ling Chunsheng, were the first to propose that the Malays originated from Baiyue – China’s southeastern indigenous groups. It means that indigenous ethnic groups in China’s southeast and the Austronesian-speaking peoples belonged to a unified indigenous cultural community.

There are many similarities between the Keqiutou culture and Taiwan’s Dapenkeng culture, proving that interaction between the prehistoric cultures of Fujian and Taiwan began as early as 6500 years ago. Renowned archaeologist Zhang Guangzhi believes that if Dapenkeng culture (Taiwan’s oldest) “is representative of the ancestors of Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian speakers, then it proves, at a minimum, that Taiwan is one of the ‘ancestral homes’ of the Austronesian-speaking peoples”, and that “if [Kinmen’s] Fuguodun culture is a manifestation of Dapenkeng culture on the west coast of the Taiwan Strait, then it follows that archaeological research has already tentatively established that the origins of the Austronesian-speaking peoples lie in the coastal areas of Fujian and Guangdong”.

At present, the prevalent view in international academic circles is that early inhabitants of China’s southeastern coast began their seafaring journeys approximately 6000 years ago. These early seaward migrants made their first stop in Taiwan. Around 5000 years ago, they spread to the Philippines, from where they continued on south and east, sowing the seeds of civilization across the vast Pacific and Indian oceans and forming the world’s most geographically widespread linguistic group – the Austronesian language family, found throughout the islands of the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Approaching the origins and spread of the Austronesian-speaking peoples from the perspective of the integrated evolution of the proto Baiyue culture and the Austronesian culture, Keqiutou culture, as the “progenitor” of the Baiyue culture (i.e. the proto Baiyue culture) will play a key role in future research.