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Taiwan, Japan team up to explore prehistoric migratory routes
Taiwan, Japan team up to explore prehistoric migratory routes

To find proof of a migratory voyage from Taiwan to Japan over 30,000 years ago, the Taitung-based National Museum of Prehistory signed a partnership agreement with Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science to conduct a sailing project.

Recent studies by Japanese anthropologists have discovered that the human remains and artifacts excavated from Paleolithic sites on the Okinawa Islands are closely related to Taiwan’s Changbin Culture, a prehistoric Paleolithic Age community found in the Basian Caves in the eastern county of Taitung.

Japanese anthropologists have hypothesized that the ancestors of Okinawan people might have migrated from Taiwan. This hypothesis has drawn more and more Japanese scholars to engage in studying prehistoric sea routes from Taiwan to Okinawa.

Among them, professor Yousuke Kaifu (海部陽介) of the National Museum of Nature and Science has spearheaded the project of “Where are the Japanese from? The trial sails of replicating the voyage 30,000 years ago.”

The collaborative project will allow the Japanese team to replicate a bamboo raft this year, using traditional raft-building techniques of the Amis tribe as reference. The ultimate goal is to complete a voyage from Taiwan to Okinawa by 2019.

According to Japanese studies, there might be three prehistoric migratory routes to Okinawa — Tsushima Strait route (about 38,000 years ago from Korea to Kyushu), Hokkaido sea route (about 20,500 years ago from northern China, crossing Sakhalin and Tsugaru Strait), and Taiwan-Okinawa sea route (about 30,000 years ago crossing the Kuroshio Current).

To test the possibility of the Taiwan-Okinawa sea route, professor Kaifu has conducted a series of trials by sailing on grass rafts, testing initially from the Japanese Yonaguni Island to Iriomote Island, but failed in the end due to poor weather conditions last July.

Kaifu then visited elders of the Amis tribe on the eastern coast to acquire their knowledge of the oceans, and climbed up Taroko Mountain to look for signs of the Okinawa Islands. He also consulted professor Liu Tong-yang (劉烔鍚), who has been promoting a similar raft project for years and even tried sailing with a handmade raft to test his theory.

Basing on the experience and information acquired in 2016, Kaifu and his team plans to construct a new raft in front of the National Museum of Prehistory’s plaza this March, using materials collected from nearby mountains in Taitung County such as bamboo and rattan.

The test trial, which is scheduled to kick off this June, will receive support from Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau under the Council of Agriculture and the Coast Guard Administration under the Executive Yuan. The Shin Kong Group has provided funds to support related research as well.   

Director Chang Shan-nan (張善楠) of the National Museum of Prehistory highlighted the prehistoric and contemporary importance of Taiwan’s strategic location. The Changbin Culture appeared as early as 30,000 years ago. Then the Austronesian people arrived about 6,000 years ago, making Taiwan a focal point in the far and wide migration of the Austronesian groups.

Deputy Director Agilasay Pakawyan (林志興) noted that the Changbin Culture artifacts excavated from Taitung are mostly tools instead of human remains, so there remains a possibility that these tools might have traveled by sea.

Recognizing the significance of the agreement signed with Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, Pakawyan hopes that the collaborative project will finally solve the mystery and demonstrate whether the prehistoric settlers of Changbin Culture are related to the Okinawan people today.

The National Museum of Prehistory and professor Kaifu are welcoming volunteers to participate in the raft-building project at the museum’s front plaza.


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