Archives for category: Neolithic
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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!