First Koreans, early Chinese mariners tracked

October 27th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Features, Nov. 2011  |  5 Comments

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa anthropology faculty employ modern techniques to uncover the unwritten history of early peoples of Asia. Read about two projects that are gaining international attention—

Seeking Korea’s earliest inhabitants

Interest in his own past spurs an anthropologist’s million-year journey

Man in field garb outside cave

Christopher Bae outside one of the 40 caves he surveyed in Korea, where he is looking for traces of the earliest peoples to inhabit the Korean peninsula

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Assistant Professor Christopher Bae was born in Seoul but lost his parents as an infant and was placed in an orphanage. Adopted by an American family, he grew up in a Caucasian American household and neighborhood in Long Island, N.Y.

“Looking around I always knew I was different,” says Bae. That awareness triggered interest in topics such as race and human variation. Fascinated with archaeology and looking to discover his own roots, he first traveled to Korea on a college exchange program. He has returned to East Asia to conduct research and fieldwork in China and Japan.

Just two years after joining the Mānoa faculty in 2008, Bae was awarded a five-year, $1.2 million research grant from the Academy of Korean Studies. He is using the award—one of only six proposals in the world awarded by the academy—to seek traces of the earliest humans to live on the Korean peninsula. He will conduct paleoanthropological research in Korea through 2015.

As the title of his proposal suggests, The Earliest Peopling of the Korean Peninsula: Current Multidisciplinary Perspectives will draw on expertise from different disciplines to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of East Asian human evolution during prehistory.

“This project will integrate datasets from different social and natural science fields to reconstruct a synthetic view of human evolution in the region,” Bae explains. “I’ll be looking at the early peopling of Korea, possibly going back hundreds of thousands of years.” He will search for fossils of early hominins, or human ancestors.

Researchers have found evidence of human presence in China dating back almost 2 million years. “The interesting thing about Korea is that it was always geographically connected to China. It was never separated,” Bae notes. Thus, the possibility of finding hominin fossils in early deposits in Korea is very high.

Bae says the team of international experts in biological anthropology, archaeology, vertebrate paleontology and geosciences supplies the strength behind his proposal.

Christopher Bae, headshot

Christopher Bae

“This project is a multinational, multidisciplinary collaboration involving Kidong Bae (Hanyang University), Jennie Jin (U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command), Stephen Lycett and Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel (University of Kent), James Mead (Eastern Tennessee State University) and our own John Mahoney, Brian Popp and Ken Rubin (UH Mānoa School of Ocean Earth Science and Technology).”

Since Korea’s generally acidic soil contributes to poor bone preservation at open air sites, Bae is focusing on the largely limestone mountainous regions of the peninsula. “About 70 percent of the Korean peninsula is mountainous and contains many caves, which usually have much better bone preservation.” The caves provide protection for the specimens and aren’t as affected by Korea’s hot and humid weather.

Bae works with researchers from Hanyang University to locate caves. Local villagers also help. “Sometimes, even with GPS coordinates provided to us, we couldn’t find the cave. We talk to the people in the villages because they have the most knowledge about their area,” he explains.

The researchers surveyed about 40 caves this year in different areas of South Korea, including Kangwon Province, North Chungcheon Province and North Kyungsang Province. A good number of them look promising. Bae plans to do fieldwork in the caves that hold the best potential.

How long that will take and what he will find is unknown. “You could spend a lifetime working in some of the larger caves,” he says.

Once excavation begins, samples such as bones, teeth and speleothems (deposits formed in caves by mineral-rich water) will be brought back to UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology for paleoenvironmental and chronological analyses.

“The researchers there are very interested in collaborating and applying their methodologies” beyond their usual geological focus, Bae says.

The grant also addresses student involvement. Bae hopes to take UH graduate students with him next year to give them field experience in Korea. And when specimen analysis begins here, students from Korea will come to Hawaiʻ for training in anthropology and geosciences.

“The general goal of paleoanthropology is to reconstruct the past without all the pieces,” says Bae. “My original objective in going to Korea was to reconstruct my own past.” Now his journey may help solve a much larger, and older, puzzle.

Tracing China’s ancient mariners

Sediments suggest early seafaring linked China to Taiwan

Three men in wide brimmed hats with coring drill rig

Barry Rolett and colleagues collecting sediment core samples on either side of the Min River for analysis

Rising sea levels that transformed the Fuzhou Basin in southeast China into a sea of islands may have triggered an ancient maritime culture that contributed to settlement of Taiwan across the strait and perhaps eventually the South Pacific, a University of Hawaiʻi archaeologist suggests.

UH Mānoa Professor of Anthropology Barry Rolett and colleagues from China’s Sun Yat-Sen University studied sediment cores extracted near Neolithic settlements on either side of the Min River.

The peat sediments indicate that sea level began to rise about 9,000 years ago. Low hills became offshore islands in a large sheltered estuary. Unlike deltas elsewhere in China, where there is evidence of early rice production, there was little land suitable for agriculture development. But the estuary was teeming with fish and shellfish and ideal for development of early seafaring, perhaps in single-hull canoes and bamboo rafts.

Barry Rolett, headshot

Barry Rolett

“Early seafaring facilitated fishing, transportation and long-distance exchange,” the researchers write in the April issue of Quaternary Science Reviews.

It probably began in sheltered estuaries and inshore coastal waters, eventually expanding to open-sea voyaging, which requires the ability to navigate beyond the range of land visibility, Rolett says.

Similarities between the coastal Neolithic cultures of Tanshishan and Taiwan support the hypothesis that early Fujian peoples systematically made the 80 mile crossing to Taiwan, where farming villages first appeared around 5000 cal BP, he adds.

It also meshes with genetic and linguistic evidence that the Austronesians, whose descendants peopled Polynesia, Indonesia and the Philippines, were in Taiwan about a millennium before they reached areas to the south, where Austronesian languages are still spoken, adds UH Mānoa Professor of Linguist Robert Blust.

The appearance of grass pollens in the Fuzhou core samples and sediment buildup from erosion associated with human population growth and agricultural activity appear as receding waters exposed swampy lowlands over the last 2000 years, Rolett says.

map with arrows showing probable migration routes of Polynesian ancestors from China, through the Philippines and Indonesia to the Marquesas Islands and then outward to Tahiti, Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand from China through Polynesia

Probable migration routes of Polynesian ancestors

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  1. UH Magazine Spotlights CKS Faculty Member Christopher Bae | Center for Korean Studies says:

    October 31st, 2011at 9:11 am(#)

    [...] to seek traces of the earliest humans to live on the Korean peninsula. Read the entire story at Share [...]

  2. Emily Goodall says:

    November 2nd, 2011at 8:12 pm(#)

    I find this difficult at best. Menzies has already milked the shock value surrounding the possibility of China having visited the Americas in the early 1400s during the Ming dynasty. While there may have been sporadic visits to Oceania from China through history, cases have already been made for similar contacts by other cultures around the Pacific rim.

  3. george lovelace says:

    November 3rd, 2011at 8:53 am(#)

    Interesting article.

    I hope the researchers will be able to compare their data to the paleobotanical studies done in Taiwan by M. Tsukada, et. al. in the late 1960s (reported in Science).

    The idea of an early maritime culture developing on the southern/southeastern coasts of China been previously argued by Bill Meacham beginning in the 1980s. Do these new findings support Meacham’s model, or do they offer different?

    In any case, I hope the research continues.

  4. Nancy Pollock says:

    November 3rd, 2011at 10:45 am(#)

    Interesting article. I am concerned to find evidence for uses of plant and marine foods in the very earliest settlements of Korea, Japan, Taiwan etc.

    I would be interested to learn of FOOD remains – is there any evidence of rice, or millet or ???

  5. george lovelace says:

    November 4th, 2011at 7:39 am(#)

    additional information on/correction to earlier comment:

    Matsuo Tsukada’s work on the holocene paleobotany of Taiwan was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol 55, pages 543-8 (1966); and in Paleogeography, Paleoclimatogy, and Paleoecology, Vol 3, No. 1, pages 49-64 (1967).

    Meacham’s work on what he refers as to as the “Yueh Coastal Neolithic” began in the 1970s, not the 1980s, with an article in the Journal of the Hong Kong Archaeological Society (Sorry,I don’t have the exact citation at hand, but I think the particular issue has a 1973 date on it).

    Interested readers might also want the examine the Hong Kong Archaeological Society’s and of Meacham’s publications related to the Sham Wan site.

    George Lovelace