“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice: a rejoinder.

I am aware of two reactions to my last post by authors of the Alam et al. paper:  Rafal Gutaker’s private reply to me, and Dorian Fuller’s reaction both rejected my claim that the very different histories of temperate and tropical japonica rices in the Austronesian world imply that different words for the two types of rice should exist in AN languages, instead of just one, as is the case; unless the early Taiwanese Austronesians carried temperate japonica south with them at the time of the Out-of-Taiwan event. Their reasoning—if I understand it well—seems to be that since the Austronesian word for the rice plant does not specifically refer to either tropical or temperate japonica, the issue I am raising is only apparent. They seem to be assuming that Austronesian speakers have in their mental lexicons a word for ‘rice plant’, whether they cultivate rice or not, and that they will give that name to whatever kind of rice they encounter in the course of their expansion.

Languages in the modern world can have a word for a domesticated plant without that plant being cultivated by its speakers—because we import it, buy it in shops, eat it, etc. Neolithic groups only have words for plants they cultivate. The Austronesians in Oceania have abandoned cereal agriculture: accordingly they do not have a traditional word for rice.

The Alam et al. paper presents the history of Austronesian rice as a pincer movement introducing temperate japonica from northeastern  Asia to Taiwan while tropical japonica was introduced from the south.  The role of Taiwan in this medel is to be a mere contact region between north and south. However the question arises as to whether, during the period of time tropical japonica had not yet reached Taiwan, Taiwanese temperate japonica had already been introduced to the south in the Out-of-Taiwan event; and whether there was interaction between the two south of Taiwan. Linguistics has useful hints there.

At the moment tropical japonica rice was introduced to the southern Austronesian world, the Austronesian people to whom it was introduced gave it the name *panjay. This means that they already cultivated rice. Otherwise, they would have had no name for it, and would either borrow the name used in the language of the group they were receiving it from, or coin a new name for it. Only by miracle would they come up with the same name that was used in Taiwan.

Further, and importantly, the local words for the rice plant that derive from *panjay exhibit the same pattern of phonetic variation, or sound laws,1 as a significant  part of the Austronesian vocabulary, simultaneously present in and outside of Taiwan.  Linguists assign that vocabulary to the ancestor of all known Austronesian languages. That this vocabulary—currently at least several hundred words—obeys the same set of sound laws must mean that it traveled as a package in the course of the Austronesian expansion. Moreover, that phonetic shared innovations [this is the linguistic equivalent of ‘synapomorphies’ in cladistics] of the non-Formosan Austronesian languages have been observed on this vocabulary leaves no doubt that the expansion went south from Taiwan.

Thus, whatever rice was present in Taiwan at that time was transferred south, together with its name. Most likely that was temperate japonica—what else ? That would certainly explain why it was so easily eliminated by tropical japonica.

In conclusion the finding that rice south of Taiwan is of the tropical japonica type does not argue agains the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis. This hypothesis does not predict that modern Austronesian rices south of Taiwan should be temperate japonicas. It merely predicts that at the moment of the Out-of-Taiwan event, the Austronesians carried rice with them in their canoes and that they and their descendents grew it in the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia… On linguistic evidence, such was indeed the case.

In closing I note the lack so far of reactions to my criticism regarding the far too recent date proposed in the Alam et al. paper for the  introduction of temperate japonica to Taiwan.

1 This table illustrates the regularity of sound correspondence in the words for the rice plant and other words in selected Austronesian languages in and outside Taiwan.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice: a rejoinder.," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 30/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1433.

“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice

Alam, O., Gutaker, R., Wu, C., Hicks, K., Bocinsky, K., Castillo, C., Acabado, S., Fuller, D., Guedes, J., Hsing, Y., Purugganan, M. (2021). Genome analysis traces regional dispersal of rice in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Molecular Biology and Evolution Doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msab209 Download

This recent paper by Alam et al. makes the case from genome analysis that the traditional rices cultivated by Austronesian-speaking peoples outside of Taiwan are different from those cultivated in Taiwan: they are tropical japonica rices, similar to those from mainland southeast Asia, while the majority of Taiwanese rices are temperate japonicas, close to the rices grown in north China, Korea and Japan.  In their view, this goes against the “out of Taiwan” paradigm of Austronesian prehistory. Their idea is further detailed here.

The paper claims that the Taiwanese temperate japonicas were introduced from northeast China, and that the tropical japonicas in the Philippines were introduced from the south; and further, that temperate japonicas never left Taiwan. Given these very different histories, one would normally expect to see different words for temperate and tropical japonicas in the Austronesian languages. Instead, the Austronesian languages mostly use the same word for the japonica plant, whether temperate or tropical, in Taiwan or outside of Taiwan. Local phonetic variations are mostly predictable: this indicates that the words are inherited from the Austronesian ancestor language, as opposed to being borrowed locally from other Austronesian languages through contact. This term is reconstructed as *pajay in a widely-used resource [1]. My own reconstruction is *panjay. This word is regarded by linguists as the name of the rice plant in the ancestral Austronesian language, widely believed to have been spoken before 5000 BP in Taiwan.

The formation of the Austronesian language family through a primary differentiation in Taiwan, followed by a single migration out of Taiwan circa 4000 BP, is supported by multiple lines of evidence: shared linguistic innovations of non-Formosan languages [2]; , Bayesian phylogenies of Austronesian languages [3], archaeology [4], studies of the Austronesian human Y-chromosome [5], genetics of the human pathogen Helicobacter pylori [6], and of the paper mulberry, a domesticated plant [7]. Language, then, argues that the out-of-Taiwan migration did introduce temperate japonica rices, together with the term *panjay to the Philippines and islands further south. Absence of temperate japonicas in these modern regions can be explained in terms of competition between temperate and tropical japonicas: as the latter did not grow well in the new southern environment, they were  out-competed by tropical japonicas introduced “from the south”— probably from mainland southeast Asia.

The higher yields of tropical japonicas would feed a larger population. This can be related to a recent proposal that Bayesian phylogenetics of Philippine languages support a diversification from the south, implying a northward back-migration of Philippine speakers   [8]. This population movement was quite plausibly fueled by the possession of tropical japonicas: it was also the instrument of their northward spread. Philippine farmers, one supposes, did not think of tropical and temperate japonicas as different plants, referring to both kinds as *panjay—they would later also recognize the more strongly divergent indica rices, introduced from the Indian subcontinent, as *panjay. When temperate japonicas were abandoned, their original name continued to be used for tropical japonicas. This both accounts for the existence of a single term for the rice plant in the Austronesian languages, and reconciles the out-of-Taiwan hypothesis with the finding of a southern origin of tropical japonicas.

The date of separation between temperate japonicas from northeast Asia and from Taiwan, given as 2600 BP by the authors, is another problematic area. They attribute the introduction of temperate japonica to Taiwan to a migration from northeast Asia, which must, then, have started after 2600 BP, and reached Taiwan at an even later date. They seek support for the migration, and for their own chronology, in the observation that “Taiwanese peoples from ~1300 BCE to 800 CE carried ~25% of a northern East Asian lineage in their genomes” [9]. This, however, means that the northerners had already reached Taiwan by 3300 BP, 700 years before the proposed date of separation. The northerners and their temperate japonica rices may actually have reached Taiwan much earlier, as the last-mentioned study did not use any earlier ancient DNA data for Taiwan. The date the authors of that study suggest for the arrival of northerners in Taiwan is 5000-4500 BP: this is based on archaeological finds of domesticated foxtail millet in Taiwan during that period. Foxtail millet is generally thought to have been domesticated in north China around 8000 years ago. Under the Alam et al. paper, two distinct southward migrations are necessary for the introduction of millet and rice to Taiwan from northeastern China.

[Added Aug. 30, 2021: this post occasioned some reactions from authors of the Alam et al. paper. See my response here].


[1] Austronesian Comparative Dictionary, web edition. Robert Blust and Stephen Trussel. Online at www.trussel2.com/ACD.

[2] Blust, R. A. 2009. The Austronesian languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

[3] Gray, R.D., A.J. Drummond and S. Greenhill. 2009. Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement. Nature, 323, 479-483.

[4] Bellwood, Peter. 1985. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago. Sydney: Academic.

[5] Trejaut J.A., Kivisild T, Loo J.H., Lee C.L., He C.L., et al. 2005. Traces of archaic mitochondrial lineages persist in Austronesian-speaking Formosan populations. PLoS Biol 3(8).

[6] Moodley, Y, B. Linz, Y. Yamaoka, H. M. Windsor, S. Breurec, J.-Y. Wu, A. Maady, S. Bernhoft, J.-M. Thiberge, S. Phuanukoonnon, G. Jobb, P. Siba, D. Y. Graham, B. J. Marshall, M. Achtman. 2009. The Peopling of the Pacific from a Bacterial Perspective Science, 323 (5913), 527-530 DOI: 10.1126/science.1166083

[7] Olivares G, Peña-Ahumada B, Peñailillo J, Payacán C, Moncada X, Saldarriaga-Córdoba M, Matisoo-Smith E, Chung KF, Seelenfreund D, Seelenfreund A. Human mediated translocation of Pacific paper mulberry [Broussonetia papyrifera (L.) L’Hér. ex Vent. (Moraceae)]: Genetic evidence of dispersal routes in Remote Oceania. PLoS One. 2019 Jun 19;14(6):e0217107. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.

[8] Benedict King, Lawrence A. Reid, Mary Walworth, Simon J. Greenhill, Russell D. Gray. 2021. Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Philippine languages supports rapid initial Austronesian expansion followed by northward back-migration. Communication to 15ICAL, June 28-July 2, 2021 (online).

[9] Wang CC, Yeh HY, Popov AN, Zhang HQ, Matsumura H, Sirak K, Cheronet O, Kovalev A, Rohland N, Kim AM, Mallick S, Bernardos R, Tumen D, Zhao J, Liu YC, Liu JY, Mah M, Wang K, Zhang Z, Adamski N, Broomandkhoshbacht N, Callan K, Candilio F, Carlson KSD, Culleton BJ, Eccles L, Freilich S, Keating D, Lawson AM, Mandl K, Michel M, Oppenheimer J, Özdoğan KT, Stewardson K, Wen S, Yan S, Zalzala F, Chuang R, Huang CJ, Looh H, Shiung CC, Nikitin YG, Tabarev AV, Tishkin AA, Lin S, Sun ZY, Wu XM, Yang TL, Hu X, Chen L, Du H, Bayarsaikhan J, Mijiddorj E, Erdenebaatar D, Iderkhangai TO, Myagmar E, Kanzawa-Kiriyama H, Nishino M, Shinoda KI, Shubina OA, Guo J, Cai W, Deng Q, Kang L, Li D, Li D, Lin R, Nini, Shrestha R, Wang LX, Wei L, Xie G, Yao H, Zhang M, He G, Yang X, Hu R, Robbeets M, Schiffels S, Kennett DJ, Jin L, Li H, Krause J, Pinhasi R, Reich D. Genomic insights into the formation of human populations in East Asia. Nature. 2021 Mar;591(7850):413-419. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03336-2.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 26/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1423.

The Chinese name of the soybean

The soybean (Glycine max) is credited with having provided Chinese civilization with an abundant source of protein, but considering that it is “the  world’s foremost oilseed source” and that is “is widely used as cooking oil“, the primary reason behind its domestication may have been its high content in oil.

Soybean is called 荏菽 MC nyimX syuwk in ode 245〈大雅・生民〉of the Shi Jing:


Legge’s translation of this passage:

“He fell to planting large beans.
The beans grew luxuriantly”

Legge’s “large beans” is 大豆, the common appellation of soya beans in Chinese culture.  The Mao commentary on the Shi Jing states that 荏菽 is the same thing as 茙菽, which was presumably how that thing was called when the Mao commentary was written. Zheng Xuan’s 鄭玄 (127-200) Maoshi jian 毛詩箋, a commentary on the Mao commentary, adds that both 荏菽 and 茙菽 refer to 大豆— the soybean. So we have two ancient names for the soybean: in MC pronunciation, nyimX syuwk  and nyung syuwk.

In a forthcoming paper, Ma Kun and I present evidence of a dialectal difference in Western Zhou times, manifested in particular in the treatment of the Old Chinese *-um rhyme: in western Old Chinese, *-um changes to *-uŋ, while in  eastern OC, it changes to *-əm. Middle Chinese continues eastern OC, with *-əm further evolving to MC -im after nonpharyngealized onsets. Western OC words also find their way into a limited layer of Middle Chinese: 茙 nyuwng and 荏 nyimX clearly form a doublet, western and eastern, of an OC *num(ʔ). We may reconstruct an early OC form *num(ʔ)-s-t(ʰ)uk, where *s-t(ʰ)uk means ‘bean’ and *num(ʔ) is its modifier. What did *num(ʔ) mean ?

Not ‘Glycine max’. 荏 MC nyimX also refers to 蘇, the plant Perilla, another source of oil. This suggests that *num(ʔ) was a name of vegetal oil in OC. I propose that 荏菽 and its western doublet 茙菽 originally meant ‘the oil bean’.

A number of western ST languages have a word num or similar to express the meaning ‘oil’: Tibetan snum, and similar forms in Lepcha, Cuona Menba, Boka’er.  Chinese *num(ʔ) and these western ST forms are evidently cognate.

There is no linguistic evidence to suggest that the soybean was a Sino-Tibetan domesticate, although it may have been used as a source of oil.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The Chinese name of the soybean," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 24/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1417.