Thursday, May 16, 2013

From the Philippines to the Marianas: Pottery and early settlements

The pottery from three archaeological sites show similarities in style:  (1) Nagsabaran, northern Philippines; (2) Achugao, Saipan, Mariana Islands; (3) Site 13 at Lapita, New Caledonia.  Contributed photo
Pottery samples from Cagayan, Saipan and Lapita.

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor
Associate Editor
Marianas Variety
THE discovery of similar red-slipped pottery with dentate stamping, among other artifacts from Cagayan, Northern Philippines and the Marianas lends credence to the theory of direct settlement of the Marianas from the Northern Philippines.

Dr. Mike T. Carson and his wife Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung, of Australia National University, have been conducting archaeological work on Tinian as they look into early human settlements in the Marianas.

Dr. Hung, who has been studying human settlements in Asia and the Pacific islands, began her work in the northern Philippines as early as 1995 while she was pursuing her master’s degree.

She noted that in the Philippines the pottery dates back to 4,000 years ago.

“Around 4000 years ago, they started using pottery, the same type we found in the Marianas,” said Dr. Hung referring to the northern Philippines sites where they unearthed potsherds, among other artifacts.

Dr. Hung told Variety that she also studied pottery and tools from Japan and Taiwan, but none of these samples are similar to those found in the Marianas.

[She found the Cagayan and Marianas sites similar.—avz]

For Dr. Hung, not only were there similarities in pottery, there were linguistic parallels too.

Dr. Carson explains further. He said they found it interesting how early the Marianas were settled.

By dating the archeological sites, Dr. Carson said they traced the movements of people from Asia to the 
Pacific, beginning with China, then Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Pacific.

Dr. Carson said it was in Taiwan — the first time outside the Asian continent — where they saw a type of pottery with a distinctive style. They also found an archaeological site that indicated people had been living in long-term settlements.

But at archeological sites in the Northern Philippines, specifically in Cagayan, in the Marianas and in the Lapita region, they found more similar pottery styles.

He pointed out that the “shared pottery style doesn’t happen by accident. People are reproducing the same style.”

This was what attracted their attention.

Dr. Carson said that through radiocarbon dating, they determined the Philippine pottery was the oldest at 4,000 years. “In the Marianas, it dates back to about 3,500 years while Lapita in Melanesia, it is slightly later.”

“They have the same styles maintained over hundreds of years,” said Dr. Carson.

In an article published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, Dr. Carson, Dr. Hung, Dr. Glenn Summerhayes and Dr. Peter Bellwood stated that the three major techniques of point-impression, rows of circles, and fine-line incision are found in the Philippines, Marianas and earliest Lapita assemblages.

Examples of rare paddle impressions, the archaeologists said, in which vessel exteriors were impressed by using carved paddles, “are extremely few in the Philippines and the Marianas.”

They said none have been found so far in the Lapita region where the paddle-impressed pottery is found in later-settled Lapita areas in New Calendonia.

Dr. Carson told Variety they compared five ceramic attributes between the earliest Philippines, Marianas and Lapita collections: (1) use of red slip; (2) vessel forms; (3) placement of decoration; (4) decorative techniques; (5) artistic motifs.

Dr. Carson said they looked at the decorative system which is critical in making cross-regional comparisons and connections.

Dr. Carson pointed to an earlier study made by Professor Bellwood, professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University in Canberra, in which he said that the earliest pottery in the Philippines has been found in the Batanes islands and in several sites in the Cagayan Valley, in northern Philippines.

He said the predominantly red-slipped pottery appeared approximately 2000-1800 B.C. while the earliest red-slipped pottery in the Marianas dates to around 1500 B.C.

However, red-slipped pottery diminished in the sub-equator site of Lapita where the oldest red-slipped pots were found in Kamgot.

Dr. Carson said the early pots found in the Philippines and the Marianas were both small jars and bowls “often with carinated shoulders.”

However, he said, the difference lies in the Philippine jars having a hollow-ring foot while samples from the Marianas do not.

He said the Lapita collections are more diverse, with intricate dentate-stamped decoration.

Migration out of the Philippines

For Carson and other archaeologists who have conducted studies in the region, they believe that migration began in the Philippines and Indonesia, to the north coast of New Guinea and into Melanesia.

They also believe that there was another migration route going directly to the Marianas.

“That would be entirely over the ocean,” he said.

Dr. Carson said it could be the longest ocean crossing of its time, a voyage encompassing 2,000 km of ocean — not island hopping.

He posed the question: could there be multiple migration routes from Asia to the Pacific?

He also raised the question of the seafaring technology employed by the early settlers of the Marianas, what kind of boats were used.

Dr. Carson said they have yet to excavate a 3,000-year-old canoe.

“Until we have something like that, we can’t really answer that question. But it is important to keep that in mind,” he said.

Dr. Mike T. Carson and wife Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung     
Dr. Mike T. Carson and Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung
Tinian excavations
The Carson couple has been conducting extensive work at a site north of the House of Taga on Tinian which has yielded more than 30,000 potsherds and human remains. 

“The excavation near House of Taga was even more productive than we originally had expected. During the last few weeks, we have been making steady progress with the data-analysis. Dr Hung and I are working on several aspects, so far with encouraging results,” Dr. Carson told Variety.

He said the excavation on Tinian was a great success and he recognized the assistance from the CNMI Historic Preservation Office and the Tinian Mayor’s Office, as well as from volunteers.

Dr. Carson and Dr. Hung were able to expose “the living surface of one of the very first habitation sites in the Mariana Islands, slightly inland from today’s House of Taga.”

“This location was right on the old seashore about 3500 years ago. We found the remains of old house structures, cooking areas, and concentrations of different types of artifacts that help us to reconstruct what people were doing at the site,” he said.

For Dr. Carson, their latest work on Tinian which they concluded in March 2013 gave them a clear picture of what life was like in the Marianas 3,500 years ago “when people lived for the first time on the remote and small islands of the Pacific.”

He said, “At the site just inland of House of Taga the original habitation layer has been remarkably well preserved, plus we were able to uncover a large contiguous area of the best preserved portion. As a result, we now can draw definite conclusions about this important period in Marianas culture history and about humanity’s first contact with the remote Oceanic environment.”

But for Dr. Carson, there is no rush because their work requires thorough analysis of the evidence.
“Dr Hung and I are taking every precaution and exercising as much patience as we can,” said Carson.

Dr. Carson said what drew their attention was the oldest decorated pottery.

“It’s the best opportunity to learn about the technical skills, artistic output, and daily lives of the people who lived at the site,” said Dr. Carson.

He told Variety that the pottery was all locally made with red-clay and mixed with local sands.

They also found lumps of partly-worked clay not yet finished into the final pots.

“The very first people to live here, therefore, knew how to find and manage the raw materials, as well as how to use a complex decorative system of tiny dentate-stamped and circle-stamped motifs,” said Carson.

From the perspective of the Asia Pacific region, Dr. Carson said, “We now are seeing the same decorative system in different regions, and we can trace the trail through archaeological dating.”

Following the so-called “pottery trail,” reveals the routes of people who first settled in the remote islands of the Pacific, according to Dr. Carson.

He said, “According to the dating, the oldest settlement in the Remote Oceanic islands was in the 
Marianas, about 3500 years ago, now confirmed at three sites on Guam, two on Tinian, and another three on Saipan.”

He added that among these sites, the deep layer inland of House of Taga has provided the most abundant material evidence and all in excellent context.

“The site of course contains much more than just pottery. We are busy examining the animal bones, shellfish remains, stone and shell tools, and many shell ornaments. We are even looking at artifacts and samples of the sediments under a microscope, where we can identify starches and other traces of the plant-foods that people ate at the site. Additionally, all of this information can be coordinated with the spatial lay-out of the ancient house structures at the site,” he said.

DNA study
Asked if they intend to conduct a mitochondrial DNA study of the human skeletons found on Tinian, Dr. Hung told Variety that they might just do that.

“If we can find early human skeletons, we can do isotope studies or DNA analysis,” she said.

The couple recently revealed to Variety that one of the bones uncovered in five burial sites north of the House of Taga was dated at 700 years old, two hundred years before Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition.

Dr. Carson said they look forward to completing the dating of the bones found and they are excited about coming back to continue their work on the early human settlements in the region.

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