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[Special Lecture] A Botanist's Search for the Starting Point of the Austronesian Migrations: Chung Kuo-fang and the Pacific Paper Mulberry (April 25)

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By Lin Yu-ching  

Photographs by Piong Tsuey-yin 

Chung Kuo-fang's research proves Taiwan to be the biodiversity center of the Pacific paper mulberry.Chung demonstrating the distribution of the Pacific paper mulberry in Taiwan.Chung displaying a piece of bark cloth.Bark cloth is basically a very thick sheet of paper.Chen Shu-jiun, executive secretary of ASCDC, plays host to the lecture. Q & A after the lecture.

 

He walked into the lecture hall with a twig of Pacific paper mulberry in hand, and said to the audience: "I'm a botanist." This is how Chung Kuo-fang opened his lecture titled "A Holistic Picture of Austronesian Migrations Revealed by Phylogeography of Pacific Paper Mulberry." Then the associate research fellow at the Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica confessed that he had plucked the twig near the gate of Taiwan's national research complex.

 

The twig was being passed around. Chung wanted us to see whether it can be torn apart by hand. During the trial he imparted that the Pacific paper mulberry belongs to four of the most commonly seen trees in Taiwan, and that it is edible and blends well with medicine. The plant has long strips of tissue and is spread widely across South China and Indo-China. It can also be found in the Classic of Poetry (Shijing): "Pleasant is that garden, / In which are the sandal trees; / But beneath them is the paper-mulberry tree."

 

Lu Ji (261-303 CE), a literary critic who lived during the late Three Kingdoms, indicates in his commentary of Classic of Poetry that "Nowadays people in the region of Jiangnan produce fabrics and paper on the basis of its bark tissue, known as the paper-mulberry peel." It can be inferred from the passage that the bark of the Pacific paper mulberry was used in ancient South China to fabricate bark cloth. Here, Chung paused and introduced a stretch of bark cloth from the Kingdom of Tonga. Dubbing the artefact as the "gimmick" of his profession, Chung invited us to feel the fabric, suggesting "it's actually a very thick sheet of paper."

 

This "very thick sheet of paper," as Chung claims, is the emblem of the material culture of the Austronesian-speaking people, one piece of puzzle in his effort to map out the migration of Austronesians through the research in the people's commensal species. As the distribution of bark cloth culture overlaps with that of the Pacific paper mulberry—both phenomena shed light on the migration route of the Austronesians.

 

Over more than two centuries, the origin of the Austronesians and the dispersal hypothesis have remained a heavily contested field despite sustained research carried out by linguists, archeologists, and anthropologists. Chung tracks the spread of the Pacific paper mulberry and uses an ethnobotanist approach to support the "Out of Taiwan" hypothesis by examining the DNA pattern of the Pacific paper mulberry across the Pacific Ocean.

 

To do this, his team has conducted fieldwork in South East Asia and Oceania to gather living samples of the Pacific paper mulberry, applied to foreign botanic archives to procure samples, and tested numberless gene segments. Armed with a method called "phylogenetic analysis," a product of molecule biological technology which has been developing rapidly, Chung’s research results in a paper titled "A Holistic Picture of Austronesian Migrations Revealed by Phylogeography of Pacific Paper Mulberry," published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2015.

 

Chung's proof that Taiwan is the biodiversity center of the Pacific paper mulberry derives its strength from the induction of genetics and biogeography, as well as the proposition that the area displaying a higher degree of genetic diversity of a given species is the most probable place where migration has begun. The DNA sequencing shows that haplotype CP-17, the haplotype contained in the Pacific paper mulberry brought along with the migrating Austronesians, only corresponds to the Pacific paper mulberry in southern Taiwan, not to the samples from China and Indo-China.

 

The 7-year-long project puts forward a strong evidence in plant genetics for the "Out of Taiwan" hypothesis. This not only postulates that Taiwan is closely connected to the origin and migrations of the Austronesian-speaking people, but also underlines the importance of anthropology as a potent field of science leading to an accurate understanding of human material culture.

 

"Can you imagine the tree at the front gate that this twig comes from is kin to other Pacific paper mulberry planted thousand miles away by the Austronesians?" asked Chung to the audience. To tell the world about the Pacific paper mulberry's story, Chung is building on the 2015 paper by accumulating and examining more DNA segments of the Pacific paper mulberry across the Pacific in search for a more concrete evidence regarding the chronology of distribution of the plant that echoes with the "Out of Taiwan" hypothesis supported by a school of anthropologists.

 

In addition, Chung has been one of the contributors to the Taiwan e-Learning & Digital Archive Program, and he is currently curating a special exhibit in botany and biodiversity for the Open Museum with the Academia Sinica Center for Digital Cultures. The Open Museum offers online curating models for people to store and show objects and create narratives to animate the collection. This initiative is intended to let the general public know Taiwan's role in the history of world migrations.

 

Chung's undertaking sets a benchmark for the understanding of the Austronesian migrations. He is now on the way again to elaborate the account for Taiwan's role in the matrix of human migration history.

 

Further reading: "Plant DNA Segment Documents History: The Story of the Austronesian Migrations Told by the Pacific Paper Mulberry" (Mandarin)

 

 

 

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