Austronesian peoples

Austronesian peoples

Native Tahitians, one of many Polynesian peoples in the Pacific.
Total population
Regions with significant populations

 Indonesia: 260,581,000 (2016)
 Philippines: over 98,000,000 (2016)
 Madagascar: over 20,000,000 (2011)
 Malaysia: 14,290,000 (2010)
 Papua New Guinea: 6,300,000
 East Timor: 947,000 (2004)
 New Zealand: 855,000 (2006)
 Brunei: 724,000? (2006)
 Singapore: over 700,000[1]
 Solomon Islands: 478,000 (2005)
 Taiwan: 480,000 (2006)
 Fiji: 456,000 (2005)
 Samoa: 193,773 (2015)
 Tonga: 105,323
 Northern Mariana Islands: 52,344
 Hawaii: 140,652 or 401,162 (depending on definition) [2]

 Suriname: 71,000 (2009)[3]
Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian languages or Formosan languages)
Animism, Shamanism, Christianity (Protestantism, Roman Catholicism), Indigenous religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam

Austronesians,[4] Austronesian peoples[5] or Austronesian-speaking peoples[6] are various populations in Asia, Oceania and Africa that speak languages of the Austronesian family. They include Taiwanese aborigines; the majority ethnic groups of Malaysia, East Timor, Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Madagascar, Micronesia, and Polynesia, as well as the Malay people of Singapore, the Polynesian peoples of New Zealand and Hawaii, and the non-Papuan people of Melanesia. They are also found in the regions of the Pattani in Thailand, the Cham areas in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Hainan region of China, parts of Sri Lanka, southern Myanmar and some of the Andaman Islands. The territories populated by Austronesian-speaking peoples are known collectively as Austronesia.

Prehistory and history

Austronesian expansion map.
Colorized photograph of a Tsou warrior wearing traditional clothing, pre-World War II.

Archaeological evidence demonstrates a technological connection between the farming cultures of the "south", meaning Southeast Asia and Melanesia, and sites that are first known from mainland China; whereas a combination of archaeological and linguistic evidence has been interpreted as supporting a "northern" origin for the Austronesian language family in mainland southern China and Taiwan.

Before the Southward expansion of the Han dynasty and of Vietnam, Austronesian speakers spread down the coast of southern China past Taiwan as far as the Gulf of Tonkin. In time, the spread of Chinese culture led to the sinicization of all Austronesian-speaking populations that remained on the mainland, whether in the Yangtze Valley or in coastal areas from the mouth of the Yangtze to the Gulf of Tonkin (a process that continues today in Taiwan).[7] In a recent treatment, all Austronesian languages were classified into 10 subfamilies, with all the extra-Formosan languages grouped in one subfamily and with representatives of the remaining nine known only in Taiwan.[8] It has been argued that these patterns are best explained by dispersal of an agricultural people from Taiwan into insular Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and, ultimately, the remote Pacific. Although this model—termed the “express train to Polynesia”[9][10] – is broadly consistent with available data, concerns have been raised.[11]

Alternatives to this model posit an indigenous origin for the Austronesian languages in Melanesia or Southeast Asia.[12][13][14][15]

Migration and dispersion

Genomic analysis of cultivated coconut (Cocos nucifera) has shed light on the movements of Austronesian peoples. By examining 10 microsatelite loci, researchers found that there are 2 genetically distinct subpopulations of coconut – one originating in the Indian Ocean, the other in the Pacific Ocean. However, there is evidence of admixture, the transfer of genetic material, between the two populations. Given that coconuts are ideally suited for ocean dispersal, it seems possible that individuals from one population could have floated to the other. However, the locations of the admixture events are limited to Madagascar and coastal east Africa and exclude the Seychelles. This pattern coincides with the known trade routes of Austronesian sailors. Additionally, there is a genetically distinct subpopulation of coconut on the eastern coast of South America which has undergone a genetic bottleneck resulting from a founder effect; however, its ancestral population is the pacific coconut, which suggests that Austronesian peoples may have sailed as far east as the Americas.[16]

"Out of Taiwan" model

An element in the ancestry of Austronesian-speaking peoples, the one which carried their ancestral language, originated on the island of Taiwan following the migration of pre-Austronesian-speaking peoples from continental Asia between approximately 10,000–6,000 BC.[4][8] Other research has suggested that, according to radiocarbon dates, Austronesians may have migrated from mainland China to Taiwan as late as 4000 BC.[17] Before Taiwan, Austronesian speakers are thought to have been descended from the neolithic cultures of Southeastern China, such as the Hemudu culture or the Liangzhu culture.[18][19][20] According to the mainstream "out-of-Taiwan model", a large-scale Austronesian expansion began around 5000–2500 BC. Population growth primarily fuelled this migration. These first settlers may have landed in northern Luzon in the archipelago of the Philippines, intermingling with the earlier Australo-Melanesian population who had inhabited the islands since about 23,000 years earlier. Over the next thousand years, Austronesian peoples migrated southeast to the rest of the Philippines, and into the islands of the Celebes Sea, Borneo, and Indonesia. The Austronesian peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia sailed eastward, and spread to the islands of Melanesia and Micronesia between 1200 BC and 500 AD respectively. The Austronesian inhabitants that spread westward through Maritime Southeast Asia had reached some parts of mainland Southeast Asia, and later on Madagascar.[4][21]

Sailing from Melanesia, and Micronesia, the Austronesian peoples discovered Polynesia by 1000 BC. These people settled most of the Pacific Islands. They had settled Rapa Nui (Easter Island) by 300 AD, Hawaii by 400 AD, and into New Zealand by about 1280 AD. There is evidence, based in the spreading of the sweet potato, that they reached South America where they traded with the Native Americans.[22][23]

In the Indian Ocean they sailed west from Maritime Southeast Asia; the Austronesian peoples reached Madagascar by ca. 50–500 AD.[24][25]

"Southeast Asian origin" model

This "out of Taiwan model" has been recently challenged by a 2008 study from Leeds University and published in Molecular Biology and Evolution. Examination of mitochondrial DNA lineages shows that they have been evolving within Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) for a longer period than previously believed. Population dispersals occurred at the same time as sea levels rose, which may have resulted in migrations from the Philippines to as far north as Taiwan within the last 10,000 years.[26] The population migrations were most likely to have been driven by climate change — the effects of the drowning of a huge ancient subcontinent called ‘Sundaland’ (that extended the Asian landmass as far as Borneo and Java). This happened during the period 15,000 to 7,000 years ago following the last Ice Age. Oppenheimer outlines how rising sea levels in three massive pulses caused flooding and the partial submergence of the Sunda subcontinent, creating the Java and South China Seas and the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia and the Philippines today.[14]

The new findings from HUGO (Human Genome Organization) also shows that Asia was populated primarily through a single migration event from the south.[27] They found genetic similarities between populations throughout Asia and an increase in genetic diversity from northern to southern latitudes. Although the Chinese population is very large, it has less variation than the smaller number of individuals living in South East Asia, because the Chinese expansion occurred very recently, following the development of rice agriculture — within only the last 10,000 years.

Formation of tribes and kingdoms

By the beginning of the first millennium AD, most of the Austronesian inhabitants in Maritime Southeast Asia began trading with India and China which allowed the creation of Indianized kingdoms such as Srivijaya, Melayu, Majapahit, and the establishment of Hinduism and Buddhism. Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula were thought to have brought Islam by the 10th century. Islam was established as the dominant religion in the Indonesian archipelago by the 16th century. The Austronesian inhabitants of Polynesia were unaffected by this cultural trade, and retained their indigenous culture in the Pacific region.

Western Europeans in search of spices and gold later colonized most of the Austronesian-speaking countries of the Asia-Pacific region, beginning from the 16th century with the Portuguese and Spanish colonization of some parts of Indonesia (present day East Timor), the Philippines, Palau, Guam, and the Mariana Islands; the Dutch colonization of the Indonesian archipelago; the British colonization of Malaysia and Oceania; the French colonization of French Polynesia; and later, the American governance of the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the British, Germans, French, Americans, and Japanese began establishing spheres of influence within the Pacific Islands during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Japanese later invaded most of Southeast Asia and some parts of the Pacific during World War II. The latter half of the 20th century initiated independence of modern-day Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and many of the Pacific Island nations.

Geographic distribution

Map showing the distribution of the Austronesian language family (light pink). It roughly corresponds to the distribution of the Austronesian people.

Austronesian peoples consist of the following groupings by name and geographic location.

According to a recent studies by Stanford University in the United States, there is wide variety of paternal ancestry among the Austronesian people, aside from European introgression found in Maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Madagascar. They constitute the dominant ethnic group in Maritime Southeast Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and Madagascar. An estimated figure of around 380,000,000 people living in these regions are of Austronesian descent.

They constitute the dominant ethnic groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, the southernmost part of Thailand and East Timor, which together with Singapore make up what is called the Malay archipelago. Outside this area, they inhabit Palau, Guam and the Northern Marianas, most of Madagascar, the Cham areas of Vietnam and Cambodia (the remnants of the Champa kingdom which covered central and southern Vietnam), and all countries in the Micronesian and Polynesian sphere of influence.


The native culture of Austronesia is diverse, varying from region to region. The early Austronesian peoples considered the sea as the basic feature of their life. Following their diaspora to Southeast Asia and Oceania, they used boats to migrate to other islands. Boats of different sizes and shapes have been found in every Austronesian culture, from Madagascar, Maritime Southeast Asia, to Polynesia, and have different names.

In Southeast Asia, head-hunting was particularly restricted to the highlands as a result of warfare. Mummification is only found among the highland Austronesian Filipinos, and in some Indonesian groups in Celebes and Sumatra.


Left: Petroglyph on the western coast of Hawaii. Petroglyphs were symbolic, but could not encode language. Right: An Austronesian abugida known as Baybayin from the Philippines.

With the possible exception of rongorongo on Easter Island, writing among pre-modern Austronesians was limited to the Indianized states and the sultanates of the Malay Archipelago. These systems included abugidas from the Brahmic family, such as Baybayin, the Javanese script, and Old Kawi, and abjads derived from the Arabic script such as Jawi.

Since the 20th century, new scripts were mostly alphabets adapted from the Latin alphabet, as in the Hawaiian alphabet, Filipino alphabet, and Malay alphabet; however, several Formosan languages are written in zhuyin, and Cia-Cia off Sulawesi has experimented with hangul.


Left: A young Bontoc man from the Philippines (c. 1908) with tattoos on the chest and arms (chaklag). These indicated that the man was a warrior who had taken heads during battle.[28]
Right: A young Māori woman with traditional tattoos (moko) on the lips and chin (c. 1860–1879). These were symbols of status and rank, as well as being considered marks of beauty.

Body art among Austronesian peoples is common, especially elaborate tattooing which has ancient origins.[29] It is particularly prominent in Polynesian cultures, from where the word "tattoo" derives. But tattooing is also prominent among Austronesian groups in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Borneo.[30]

Among the Māori of New Zealand, tattoos (moko) were originally carved into the skin using bone chisels (uhi) rather than through puncturing as in usual practice.[31] In addition to being pigmented, the skin was also left raised into ridges of swirling patterns.[32]

In the Philippines, the Spanish called the Filipinos they first encountered in the Visayas as the Pintados, ("the painted ones" or "the tattooed ones") [33] due to their practice of tattooing their entire bodies.[34] Tattooing traditions were mostly lost as the natives of the islands converted to Christianity and Islam, though it is still preserved in isolated groups in the highlands of Luzon and Mindanao. Philippine tattoos were usually geometric patterns or stylized depictions of animals, plants, and human figures.[35][36][37] Some of the few remaining traditional tattoos in the Philippines are from elders of the Igorot peoples. Most of these were records of war exploits against the Japanese during World War II.[38]

Decorated jars and other forms of pottery are also common, with patterns often resembling those used in tattoos. Austronesian peoples living close to mainland Asia were also influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Islamic art forms.


Left: A troupe of Bahau Dayak performers during the Hudoq festival (Harvest festival) in Kalimantan, Indonesia). (c. 1898–1900)
Right: Balinese small familial house shrines to honor the households' ancestor in Bali island, Indonesia.

Indigenous religions were initially predominant. Mythologies vary by culture and geographical location, but are generally bound by the belief in an all-powerful divinity. Other beliefs such as ancestor worship, animism, and shamanism are also practiced. Currently, many of these beliefs have gradually been replaced. Examples of native religions include: Anito, Gabâ, Sunda Wiwitan, Kejawen, and the Māori religion. The moai of the Rapa Nui is another example since they are built to represent deceased ancestors.

Southeast Asian contact with India and China allowed the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism. Later, Muslim traders introduced the Islamic faith between the periods of the 10th, and 13th century. The European Age of Discovery, brought Christianity to various parts of the region, including both Aotearoa (the native name for New Zealand before it was named later by the Dutch) and Australia. Currently, the dominant religions are Islam found in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, the southern Philippines and Brunei; Hinduism in Singapore, Bali and some parts of Lombok and Java; and Christianity in the Philippines, much of eastern Indonesia, some parts of Sumatra and Borneo, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, most of the Pacific Islands, and Madagascar.


Traditional instruments of Gamelan, from the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, Australia.

The Austronesian music in Maritime Southeast Asia had a mixture of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic musical styles and sounds that had fused together with the indigenous Austronesian culture and music. In Indonesia, Gamelan, a type of orchestra that incorporates Xylophone and Metallophone elements, is widely used in its Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic cultural tradition. In some parts of the southern, and northern Philippines, an Islamic gong-drum known as Kulintang, and a gong-chime known as Gangsa, is also used. The Austronesian music of Oceania have retained their indigenous Austronesian sounds. The Slit drums is an indigenous Austronesian musical instrument that were invented and used by the Southeast Asian-Austronesian, and Oceanic-Austronesian ethnic groups.

Genetic studies

Genetic studies have been done on the people and related groups.[39] The Haplogroup O1 (Y-DNA)a-M119 genetic marker is frequently detected in Austronesians, as well as some non-Austronesian populations in southern China.[40] Other genetic markers found in native Austronesian populations are Haplogroup C (Y-DNA), Haplogroup O2a (Y-DNA), and Haplogroup O3 (Y-DNA).

A 2007 analysis of the DNA recovered from human remains in archeological sites of prehistoric peoples along the Yangtze River in China also shows high frequencies of Haplogroup O1 in the Neolithic Liangzhu culture, linking them to Austronesian and Tai-Kadai peoples. The Liangzhu culture existed in coastal areas around the mouth of the Yangtze. Haplogroup O1 was absent in other archeological sites inland. The authors of the study suggest that this may be evidence of two different human migration routes during the peopling of Eastern Asia; one coastal and the other inland, with little genetic flow between them.[41]


An Atayal woman from Taiwan with tattoo on her face as a symbol of maturity, which was a tradition for both males and females. 
A Rukai village chief visiting the Department of Anthropology in the Tokyo Imperial University during Japanese rule. 
A Balinese from Indonesia performing Barong dance. 
A young Māori man from New Zealand (Aotearoa) performs in a kapa haka group. 
A Tagalog couple of the Maginoo (nobility) caste depicted in the 16th century Boxer Codex, Philippines. 

See also


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  2. U.S. 2000 Census
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  39. The Austronesian Moment
  40. 臺灣原住民族的Y 染色體多樣性與華南史前文化的關連性
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External links

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