ARE WE ALL AUSTRONESIANS? by Gerry van der Linden
13 March 2020
Human beings came early to the Philippines. After homo sapiens left Africa, about 60,000 or more years ago, and spread across the vast Eurasian continent, it took them perhaps 15 millennia to reach what are now called the Philippine islands. We find traces of these early visitors in caves such as the Tabon Cave on Palawan, dated back to 45,000 BC, and in sites in Cagayan Valley, dating back to about 26,000 BC. As hunters and gatherers these early humans lived a basic existence that did not change much over the next 40,000 years.
It is believed that the Negritos are the descendants of these first settlers. For about 40,000 years they were the only people living in the Philippine archipelago. They also lived through a dramatic natural phenomenon halfway that period, by about 18,000 BC. At that time a huge global event took place in the form of the last ice age. The vast expansion of the polar icecaps caused the oceans to drop to about 120 to 140 meters below their current level. The result was that Palawan became part of the Asian continent, while the rest of the Philippines became one landmass as all the straits between its thousands of islands disappeared when the ocean levels dropped. Somehow the Negritos survived these dramatic changes in their living conditions. Their descendants can today still be found in isolated pockets all over the country, such as the Agta of northeastern Luzon, the Batak of Palawan and the Mananwas in southern Agusan.
Much, much later the Negritos were joined by a lighter skinned people. When and from where they came has been the subject of much dispute. The best-known theory is that of Otley Beyer who in the 1940s suggested that they had come in successive waves from different origins to the south and west of the archipelago. These different waves explain the variety of language and culture found around the country. This has been called the ‘multiple homeland theory’ but it is no longer accepted by most scientists.
So what really happened? There are three sources of evidence to improve our understanding of the past: archaeological findings, linguistics and genetics. Archaeological diggings give us a glimpse of the past and dating techniques tell us how distant that past is. Typically, archaeologists look for the remnants of settlements and burial sites to give them an insight into past conditions. Linguistics, the study of languages, is of a more recent date. By looking at the degree of similarity and differentiation between languages linguists can identify common origins and tell when one language split off from another or from a common ancestor. Little work has been done on the genetic characteristics of the people of south-east Asia, but in future it is likely that more can be learned through the study of their genes.
Archaeological excavations in Itbayat and other islands in the Batanes group, midway between northern Luzon and Taiwan, have provided evidence of human presence from around 2,500 BCE. The evidence also suggests that these early settlers came from Taiwan. This supports a fascinating theory that is sometimes referred as the Austronesian Express.*
Linguists have identified the Austronesian language group, spoken by people living in a huge triangle with Taiwan at the top, Madagascar as its south-western corner, and the Easter Islands as its south-eastern corner (see map). The Austronesian Express theory proposes that by about 5,000 to 4,000 BCE people from southern China settled in Taiwan by crossing the strait that separates it from China. After a pause of over a thousand years, perhaps to develop the necessary shipbuilding skills, these people crossed the waters separating Taiwan from Batanes. They then crossed to Luzon and became the ancestors of all modern Filipinos.
But the Austronesian theory is even bolder: from the Philippines these migrants moved to Indonesia and Micronesia (1,500 BCE), Melanesia (1,400-800 BCE), Indochina (500 BCE), Madagascar (500 CE), Polynesia (600-1,200 CE) and New Zealand (1,200 CE or just 800 years ago). A language tree has been constructed that shows how all the many languages spoken across this vast triangle are related to each other.**
While this Austronesian Express was in progress, the newcomers to the Philippines settled all over the country, living in co-existence with the Negritos. During the three millennia from about 2,000 BC to 1,000 AD the newcomers gradually started to differentiate from each other. The Philippines was still covered with primary forests and small groups of families would have settled in sitios along the rivers and seacoasts. There would have been little contact among these local communities and over time they developed their own languages and cultures. The more than 80 recognized languages in the country all originated from the same Austronesian mother tongue, as do the other languages in the Austronesian region shown in the map.***
*Coined by Jared Diamond, who uses 'Express' to capture how quickly this all happened. The out-of-Taiwan theory was contested 20 years ago by Oxford University scientist, Dr Stephen Oppenheimer, in his book Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia; he suggested that the migrations came from within Island Southeast Asia and resulted from flooding in the region. More recent DNA research appears to support the view
**The 1,200 Austronesian languages fall into ten subgroups, of which nine (containing only 26 languages) are spoken only by aborigines of the island of Taiwan. The tenth subgroup encompasses all Austronesian languages outside Taiwan, from Madagascar to eastern Polynesia--all 1,174 of them.
***This was of course not a process unique to the Philippines. In New Guinea a population of a few million people living in isolated mountain valleys and islands developed over 250 different languages.
Gerry van der Linden is a former Vice President of ADB and is now active in microcredit and governance NGOs in the Philippines