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6 April 2011
Rising seas made China's ancient mariners

At a time when rice farming dominated in other regions, the inundation of the Fuzhou Basin in southeastern China starting about 9,000 years ago led to the creation of a maritime culture that eventually took to the seas, says a team led by archaeologist Barry Rolett of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
     Analyses of sediment cores extracted from the Fuzhou Basin indicate that, at that time, the kind of marshy areas that are needed for rice paddies disappeared under rising waters. Locals built outposts on newly minted islands starting around 5,500 years ago and honed their nautical skills, probably using wooden canoes or bamboo rafts to obtain fish and other aquatic food in a vast estuary, Rolett and his colleagues report in the April Quaternary Science Reviews. A largely rice-free, maritime lifestyle eventually enabled sea voyages of 130 kilometers to Taiwan, Rolett proposes.
     Rolett's team analyzed four Fuzhou Basin sediment cores, including two extracted from marshes near a pair of ancient settlements. Work at these sites has produced artifacts from a Neolithic culture that has been dated to between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago.
     Rolett's findings challenge a popular scientific view that a transition to village life in northern China around 8,000 years ago triggered rice-fueled population growth that spread southward. In that scenario, shortages of marshy land suitable for rice paddies motivated sea crossings to Taiwan, possibly originating in the Yangtze Delta just north of the Fuzhou Basin, where researchers have found a 7,700-year-old canoe and three wooden paddles.
     Rolett's evidence that fishing and seafaring dwarfed rice growing in a submerged section of southeastern China, possibly prompting Taiwan's colonization, "is quite plausible," comments archaeologist Robert Bettinger of the University of California, Davis. Villages from around 5,000 years ago in Fuzhou Basin and on Taiwan contain similar types of pottery, supporting Rolett's argument, remarks archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller of University College London.
     Seafaring ignited by ancient flooding of the Fuzhou Basin may have been crucial for colonization of islands beyond Taiwan, Fuller says. Many linguists think that ancestral populations of Austronesian language speakers now inhabiting Southeast Asian and Pacific islands - from the Philippines to Fiji - likely came from Taiwan.

Edited from ScienceNews (1 April 2011)

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