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Rewriting Taiwan’s Prehistory
A research project led by Prof. Chiu Hung-lin of the Institute of Anthropology has recently concluded that the Tso-chen Man was not the earliest human inhabitant of Taiwan, overturning a long-held belief and attracting considerable media attention.
According to Dr. Chiu, pretty much everyone in Taiwan has long believed that Tso-chen Man was the earliest inhabitant in Taiwan; as many text books used in junior and senior high schools so stated. For archeologists, however, such statement has long remained dubious.
The fossils of the Tso-chen Man were discovered in the 1970s by an amateur fossil collector gathering artifacts in the Cailiao River Basin near Tso-chen Dist., Tainan County. Since no accompanying artifacts were found at the site, it was not possible to carry out additional follow-up archeological research on this discovery that would have had helped to determine the age of the fossils more reliably.
Fluoro-manganese testing conducted by Japanese paleontologists in 1973 and 1974 estimated that the fossils were between 20,000 and 30,000 years old. Since the fossils predated the Changbin Culture, and because it was the first major archeological discovery in Taiwan since Prof. Song Wen-xun’s 1968 discovery of a Paleolithic site, the dating garnered a great deal of attention. Nevertheless, both geologists and archeologists have questioned the accuracy of fluorine-manganese test.
In recent years additional discoveries of bones of early humans in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Okinawa, Japan have convinced researchers of the need to re-exam the Tso-chen Man.
Dr. Chiu points out that in recent years Japanese researchers have been conducting extensive research on the chronology of the Paleolithic Age, resulting in many challenges and revisions of previous dating of human bones and the archeological sites where they were found. This has brought about extensive revisions in the prehistory of Japan. Moreover, today’s radiocarbon dating technology is far advanced in comparison to the techniques used to test the fossils of Tso-chen Man back in the 1970s.
As a result of these developments the National Taiwan Museum (NTM) commissioned Chiu to lead a comprehensive re-evaluation of the fossils of Tso-chen Man, including 3D simulation and anatomical reconstruction of the skull fossils.
Following over a year of rigorous preliminary investigations, in July 2015, with the permission and support of the NTM, Dr. Chiu used accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) on carbon-14 to conduct bone collagen dating—presently the most reliable and accurate method for dating artifacts up to 50,000 years old. The results were surprising, but confirmed the research team’s doubts on the original estimates.
The results indicate that most of the Tso-chen skull fragments are only about 3,000 years old, and that one of them is only about 250 years old. A detailed report on the results was presented in September, and in December the research team reconfirmed the dating by conducting cross-validation of the results. Since the 1970s it has been widely believed that the first humans came to Taiwan by crossing a land bridge which once connected the island to the mainland, but this re-dating of the Tso-chen Man supports the theory that they originated in Southeast Asia. Thus the findings have a major impact on our knowledge of the prehistory of Taiwan.
To their credit, the early researchers of Tso-chen Man utilized the most advanced dating technology available at the time, and their findings stimulated considerable interest in prehistorical Taiwan. According to Dr. Chiu, while his findings might come as a major surprise to many, they don’t preclude the future discovery of fossil evidence aged over 10,000 years in Taiwan.
Dr. Chiu also points out that even though no human remains have been found amongst them, the Paleolithic artefacts discovered in Taitung County’s Baxian Cave provide irrefutable evidence that humans have inhabited Taiwan for at least 30,000 years. Moreover, the re-dating of the Tso-chen Man in no way reduces the geological and paleontological significance of the fauna fossils also found there. He also believes that Taiwan has quite a few sites which hold much potential for further discoveries of fossils and artefacts. These include areas in the south of the island with large concentrations of limestone, especially those around Sheding and Eluanbi on the Hengchun Peninsula.
Prof. Chiu Hung-lin (right) examining one of the skull fossils of Tso-chen Man with Prof. Shao Ching-wang of the National Tainan University of the Arts.

Prof. Chiu Hung-lin (right) examining one of the skull fossils of Tso-chen Man with Prof. Shao Ching-wang of the National Tainan University of the Arts.

 Skull fossil of Tso-chen Man recently determined to be around 3,000 years old.

Skull fossil of Tso-chen Man recently determined to be around 3,000 years old.

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