Archives for category: early agriculture
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“Guma” or ‘father’s elder sister’, a Paiwan elder of noble lineage, at 87 remembers Japanese rule and traditional millet cultivation. “I never knew envy”, she says.

Part of being an anthropologist who studies ‘the long view’ is interviewing people — most of them older than oneself. I am no longer a young woman, but feel humble and deferential in front of these folks.

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The Paiwan elder lady to the right chews betel nut, a mild stimulant with more than 3,500 years of history on Taiwan. Her niece to the left in profile looks Polynesian to me: and we know Polynesians are linked linguistically and genetically to Taiwan’s tribal people.

From Amis, Atayal, and Paiwan tribal communities, my indigenous interviewees range in age from 50 to 87 years old.

Most of them have lived through famine, wars, and the loss of their culture and language. One Amis lady, Zhong Mama, told us sadly that her two sons and daughter are already dead. And yet they share their knowledge with me, smile, offer me food and rice wine, dress me in their ritual clothes, even scratch my back when I can’t reach a mosquito bite.

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An Amis elder with the skull of a large Formosan boar that her husband caught with a snare.

When Dad is with me (he is 81), the old folks relax visibly. The grannies flirt a little, try to get him to speak Japanese with them (you have to be at least 80 now to have been in school during the Japanese colonial period, which ended with WWII in 1945).

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Dad asking an Amis elder about cultivating ferns in the forest.

My goal: to get old enough to share knowledge and show kindness to a young and curious person!

 

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A big bunch of djulis, ready for harvest.

Thousands of years ago during the Neolithic period, the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese tribes tinkered with a common weed to create a protein-rich super food. It’s related to quinoa, but much more beautiful.

The Paiwan call it djulis (‘JOOlis’), the Amis call it kowal (goWALL). It’s scientific handle is Chenopodium formosanum (as in, Formosa, the old name for Taiwan).  Together with millet and dry-cultivated rice, this mysterious scarlet crop was a key food for most of Taiwan’s tribes, and even their domestic animals, for many generations.

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Just outside Taitung, a field of scarlet djulis in front of a Taoist temple.

Under Japanese and Chinese governance, this crop has slowly declined and now very few people know how to cultivate it. I’ve been lucky to learn more from Paiwan and Amis elders. Due to its beauty and alleged high nutritional value, djulis has recently gotten some serious attention from scientists and agronomists. A key characteristic: it likes to be dry. This could be a benefit in Taiwan’s increasingly frequent droughts…

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A Paiwan couple create a lovely wreath out of djulis from their field.

The recommended cooking method is sprinkling in a handful with rice for flavor and color. But djulis is pretty good in cookies too! If you are in Taipei, come visit the nice djulis garden on the National Taiwan University campus, just to the left of the Anthropology Museum.

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I am crowned with the wreath!

 

 

 

 

 

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Ancient Paiwan village of Cacevakan. We were lucky to arrive after caretakers removed some vegetation.

Two days ago, after a very sweaty steep hike my two colleagues and I reached an amazing stone village sitting quietly in the deep forest of Taiwan’s southernmost mountains. Two eagles soared above us, monkeys clucked their warning calls, and a tiny fanged deer barked in the shadows.

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A female Formosan macaque is keeping me in sight while her youngster escapes into the canopy.

This village was last lived in maybe 500 years ago by the ancestors of the Paiwan people, a mountain tribe with great expertise in ancient traditional cultivation of seed crops. Unlike my Amis friends in the east, the stone villages of Paiwan ancestors were so high in the mountains they rarely saw the sea. Paiwan society is made up of commoners and noble families, who ruled by the favor of the gods and were responsible for caring for the least fortunate in their villages. Americans could learn from them.

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To orient you: this map shows Amis territory, light green in the lower right, and Paiwan territory, pinkish purple in the south. The map is in the National Taiwan University Anthropology Museum in Taipei.

My anthropology colleagues are amazing scholars who have generously shared their time and expertise about Taiwanese cultures ancient and modern. I am so lucky to know them! In the next installment: tribal super food.

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My two colleagues from National Taiwan University: Dr. Sumei Lo, left, is a cultural anthropologist who works with the Amis people and is learning more about the Paiwan people. Dr. Maaling Chen, right, is an archaeologist who studies ancient stone house settlements. Maaling is carrying a stick for the ‘hundred pacer’ snakes in the area, allegedly so poisonous you die after taking 100 steps! They are sacred to the Paiwan people, luckily we didn’t encounter any.

 

A question that haunts archaeologists: Who were Taiwan’s first farmers? Were they descended from indigenous hunter-gatherers who walked across Pleistocene land bridges, or from Chinese farmers who floated across the Taiwan Strait 6,000 years ago?

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A sleepy face? A pregnant torso? Neolithic figure at the A’tolan site, eastern Taiwan.

Or were the first farmers the result of cultural blending, intermarriage, and exchanges like this:

“Hi, we just got in. Have you ever tried planting rice? It’s tasty!”

“Nice to meet you. Looks like a lot of trouble. I like our fish, boars, and wild roots and ferns–thanks.”

“Well, let us know if you want to give it a shot, we’ll be happy to show you.”

“Ok, thanks. We’ll think it over and be back around this way in 6 months.”

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Curved slate knife from descendants of the first farmers: Beinan people.

Farming did take root, and eventually overtook Taiwan as it has nearly every other place on earth. My quest is to explore why the transition seems inevitable, whether it was gradual or even reversible, and finally if our most ancient foraging and early farming roots can help unlock secrets of sustainability and resiliency to todays’ massive, interlocked global food systems. A small goal, no?

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Remains of a stone village from the Beinan Middle Neolithic site, Taitung, Taiwan. Farmers stay in one place to tend crops, but non-movement drives foragers crazy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fusion of tribal wild vegetables and Chinese cooking techniques can have very happy results…during my interviews with Amis Tribal Elders, I purchased two sacks of wild vegetables sold by elders at booths on the main street. The restaurant down the street was happy to prepare them for us…

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Mr. Wang Seng Chang, an Amis tribal elder, holds a wild vegetable that he cultivates in a garden plot. Mr. Wang says that his family eats wild veggies every single day.

There were two main vegetables in season: one called ‘tadugum’ is a leafy green of the nightshade family, related to tomatoes and potatoes. Unlike those plants, it’s the leaves that are eaten exclusively. You can stir fry the deep black-purple leaves like kale or spinach with garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and a hit of soy…

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Tadugum, or wild nightshade, stirfried to perfection.

The second is called ‘lo kutl’ by Amis farmers. This beautiful plant, also known as bird’s nest fern, normally grows high in the forest canopy but enterprising tribal people now cultivate it in pots or gardens. Like a hungry bear, you can collect the tender ‘fiddleheads’ of the ferns as they emerge. These may be lightly stir-fried like the tadugum, or battered and flash-fried then served with fabulous sweet-tangy Taiwanese home-made catsup.

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Battered fern fiddleheads with homemade catsup. Just the thing after a long day of ethnographic fieldwork!

 

 

 

In the small Amis tribal gardens and fields, between the rows of familiar crops is a riot of mysterious edible wild plants and native domesticates lovely to behold. This is a uniquely tribal approach to farming.

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Mr. Gao’s field. Wild greens grow between the crops, and when added to soups or lightly fried with garlic and salt are a delicious part of a typical Amis dinner.

The wild plants offer shade, keep soil moist, and some fix nitrogen. The pinkish red Taiwanese quinoa, above, was domesticated by tribes thousands of years ago and exists only on the island.

Common wild veggie dishes this time of year are dadugum and bird’s nest fern. The leaves of the former, and the baby fiddleheads of the latter, are coated in a light egg batter and deep fried, then dipped in a powdered mixture of salt and hot pepper (do NOT breathe this)!

Dadugum leaves taste like young dandelions: tangy with a light peppery after-taste. The fern fiddleheads are wonderfully succulent, like baby zucchini but a little sweeter. Our ancestors enjoyed lots of wild veggies too.  Let’s re-discover wild vegetables in our own gardens and farms!