Archaeological Theory; Taiwan Seen As Ancient Pacific Rim

Publication Dateļ¼š11/19/1990
By FCJ Editors

                1. The Yuanshan Hotel, or Grand Hotel. (Taylor Welsh) 2. Enlargement of "the stone," left, as held by Prof. Sung Wen-hsun. (J. Rupp) Ancient temple sites in Taiwan were once seats of authority in a land of wilderness. At one time, temple elders raised small militias to enforce and carry out their orders. Today, temple sites hold great archaeological clues.

         The Chihshanyen Temple, and the people who settled within its territory, were for years the arch-rivals of the Mongka people. They lived along the Tamsui River near what is now called the Wanhua section of old Taipei. The Mongka rallied around Lungshan Temple. The militias of the two temples fought bloody battles.

         Despite the passage of several centuries, Lungshan Temple has maintained some of its glory, while Chihshanyen has receded into near anonymity.

         About 10 years ago, excavators pulled away a chunk of earth at a construction site near the Chihshanyen Temple. An amateur archaeologist poked curiously into the fresh soil, striking a round stone that was chipped on one side. Sure that human hands had crudely shaped the stone, he took it to Professor Sung Wen-hsun of National Taiwan University.

         Sung and other NTU archaeologists had been digging at a site discovered in 1968 at Pahsientung (the Cave of the Eight Immortals) on Taiwan's east coast. Archaeological dating places the first humans on Taiwan back in the paleolithic period. Scientists put these prehistoric people in the Changpin culture.

         When Sung saw the stone excavated at Chihshanyen, he found the evidence of chipping to be the same as that from Pahsientung. He concluded the pebble tools were similar. Thus, the discovery at Chihshanyen meant that the earliest human residents of the Taipei Basin settled there during the Old Stone Age, possibly as early as 50,000 years ago.

         Of course, the area around Chihshanyen was far different then.

        The basin was filled with salt water. Taipei itself was a salt-water lake, or more precisely, a bay. Taipei's Stone Age settlers lived on the shores of the bay at Chihshanyen, where one of them left behind the amateur archaeologist's stone.

         Actually, very little is known about the Changpin culture. These people were probably hunters, fishermen, and gatherers of wild plants and fruits, as were all paleolithic cultures. Scientists believe the Changpin people came from southern China and that they most likely walked to Taiwan.

         The Taiwan Straits that separates the island from the mainland is shallow. Scientists believe that what is now submerged, was once above water.

         The time and place whereat the first arrivals set foot on Taiwan remain unknown. But it seems certain they first settled along the western shores of the island. This means that the pebble tool found at Chihshanyen may be an earlier artifact than those of the Changpin site on the east coast. As such, it could be the single earliest trace of human life yet discovered on Taiwan.

         The next culture to flourish in the Taipei Basin appeared about 6,000 years ago, the same time neolithic cultures were replacing those of the paleolithic elsewhere in the world.

         The neolithic people were farmers, and they domesticated animals. Also, those in southern China knew something about sailing, at least enough to travel the 70 kilometers from mainland China to Taiwan. By then, the Taiwan Straits had replaced the land bridges.

         Scientists call the island's earliest neolithic culture the Tapengkeng, after the site near Pali south of where the Tamsui River meets the sea. Traces of the Tapengkeng culture have been found throughout northern Taiwan, and at scattered sites around the island.

         The artifacts show that these people practiced headhunting and tooth extraction. Tooth extraction was apparently an initiation rite, with missing airs of maxillary lateral incisors and maxillary canines being a mark of adulthood. Missing heads meant other things.

         The Tapengkeng people also brought the knowledge of pottery making to the island. They produced a simple type known as corded ware.

         With the appearance of smooth, undecorated pottery in the basin in 3000 B.C., scientists have inferred the arrival of a more advanced wave of immigrants. This culture has been named the Yuanshan culture.

        The first traces were found by the Japanese in 1896 in the Yuanshan area near the present site of Taipei's Grand Hotel.

         Four thousand years ago, the Taipei Basin was still a bay. If the hotel had been built then on its 30-meter bluff above the water, it would have probably been called the Bayside Hotel. Its guests would have had a splendid view at the end of the Wuchih Mountain ridge, gazing out toward the center of the 300 square-kilometer expanse of salt water.

         By this time in history, neolithic people had spawned civilization in Mesopotamia and China. Egyptian culture was reaching its apex.

         For eons, Taipei's rivers have been bringing bits of the surrounding mountains into the basin. In time, a thick plain was deposited above the basin's original gravel base. As the alluvial layer rose above sea level, the salt waters of the Taiwan Straits began to retreat.

         The fragments of Yuanshan pottery found all over the basin suggest that as the shore line receded the Yuanshan people were able to move off mountain ridges onto the marshy places of the Taipei Plain.

         One such place is known today as the Botanical Gardens. The gardens are near the center of the basin, just south of the old South Gate. This area has been in use since the Yuanshan people moved there in 1000 B.C. The Botanical Gardens site lies 6.5 meters above sea level, more than two meters higher than the area around it, and as such has been protected from the Tamsui River's floods.

         The Tamsui was a good deal bigger in 1000 B.C., looking more like a lake than a river. The areas of Wanhua, Hsimenting, the Taipei Train Station, and much of Tienmu and Peitou were still under water.

         These Yuanshan people, living in their pile-supported houses beside the Tamsui, were in a later stage of development than their brethren at the Bayside Hotel. Their pottery was decorated with triangle and diamond shapes. Scientists refer to this as the Yuanshan people's "botanical garden" phase.

         Around the beginning of the Christian Era, the next major group of people walked into the basin. They brought with them the knowledge of iron making. These were the Shihsanhang people, with the type site being in a place of the same name near present-day Pali.

         The Shihsanhang culture either assimilated the Yuanshan people or drove them out. Either way, the Shihsanhang became and remained the undisputed ruler of all Taiwan until the Chinese arrived.

         The Shihsanhang peoples are considered the forefathers of the island's modern-day aborigines. Exactly where they migrated from is a subject of debate. A generally accepted theory is that they came from several areas: southern China, the Indo-Chinese peninsula, and the Philippine Islands.

         A newer theory, based on linguistic studies of aboriginal cultures on Taiwan, speculates that migration to this island may have originated in southern China and continued past the island to other parts of the South Pacific. In this way, Taiwan may have been a giver of culture to the South Pacific, rather than being a recipient of Malayo-Polynesian culture. Taiwan may thus represent the branching off point for the myriad Pacific Rim peoples.

         There is an interesting geographical coincidence in all this.

        Taiwan sits at the edge of the Asian continent, a creation of the collision of two continental plates. Historically, Taiwan is the frontier of China, the outer edge of the Middle Kingdom. But it can now be said that its location on the Pacific Rim puts it at the center of world migrations.

         All this is known from a chipped stone found near a warring elder's ancient temple.

        --Adapted from an article by Taylor Welsh, as published in Taipei Magazine.

        _____________________________________________________________________ YEARS l 15000 10000 5000 4000 3000 2000 1000 B.C. 0 A.D. 1000 1600 ---------l----------------------------------------------------------- AGE l Paleolithic l Neolithic l Iron l l Time l Time l Age l ---------l---------------l-----------------------------------------l- CULTURES l Changpin l Tapengkeng l Yuanshan l Shihsanhang l l Culture l Culture l Culture l Culture l ---------------------------------------------------------------------