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Austronesian peoples are a population in Oceania and Southeast Asia that speak languages of the Austronesian family. Austronesian peoples include: Taiwanese aborigines; the majority ethnic groups of East Timormarker, Indonesiamarker, Malaysiamarker, Singaporemarker, the Philippinesmarker, Bruneimarker, Madagascarmarker, Micronesia, and Polynesia, as well as the Polynesian peoples of New Zealand and Hawaii, and the Austronesian peoples of Melanesia. They are also found in the Pattani region of Thailandmarker, and the Cham areas of Vietnammarker, Cambodiamarker, and Hainanmarker, Chinamarker (remnants of the Champa kingdom which covered central and southern Vietnam). The territories settled by Austronesian peoples are known collectively as Austronesia.

Prehistory and history

Archaeological evidence demonstrates a technological connection between the farming cultures of the south (Southeast Asia and Melanesia) and sites that are first known from mainland China, whereas a combination of archaeological and linguistic evidence has been interpreted as supporting a northern (southern China and Taiwan) origin for the Austronesian language family. In a recent treatment, all Austronesian languages were classified into 10 subfamilies, with all the extra-Formosan languages grouped in one subfamily and with representatives of the remaining 9 known only in Taiwan . It has been argued that these patterns are best explained by dispersal of an agricultural people from Taiwan into insular Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and, ultimately, the remote Pacific. Although this model—termed the “express train to Polynesia” — is broadly consistent with available data, concerns have been raised. Alternatives to this model posit an indigenous origin for the Austronesian languages in Melanesia or Southeast Asia.

An Atayal tribal woman from southern Taiwan with tattoo on her face as a symbol of maturity, which was a tradition for both males and females.
Some western scholars believe Austronesian peoples originated on the island of Taiwanmarker following the migration of pre-Austronesian speaking peoples from continental Asia approximately 10,000-6000 B.C. According to linguist Robert Blust, due to a lengthy split from the Pre-Austronesian populations, the Proto-Austronesian language, the cultures and ethnic groups of the Austronesian peoples began on Taiwan approximately 6,000 years ago.

Austronesian peoples themselves have a variety of different traditions, and history of their origins. Some Indonesian scholars believe that the Austronesian peoples originated in Maritime Southeast Asia (modern day Indonesia, and the Philippines). However according to most Western scholars, Austronesian peoples originated on the island of Taiwan, and are spread as far away as Madagascarmarker in the Indian Oceanmarker, Easter Islandmarker, Maritime Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and to the rest of the Pacific Islands. Some Austronesian informants claimed that the migration was to Taiwan, and not away from it.

According to mainstream Western studies, a large-scale Austronesian expansion began around 5000-2500 B.C. Population growth primarily fueled this migration. These first settlers may have landed in northern Luzonmarker in the island of the Philippines, intermingling with the earlier Australo-Melanesian population who had inhabited the islands about 23,000 years earlier. Over the next thousand years, Austronesian peoples migrated southeast to the rest of the Philippine Islands, and into the islands of the Celebes Seamarker, Borneo, and Indonesia. The Austronesian peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia sailed eastward, and spread to the islands of Melanesia and Micronesia between 1200 B.C. and 500 A.D. respectively. The Austronesian inhabitants that spread westward through Maritime Southeast Asia had reached some parts of mainland Southeast Asia, and later on Madagascar.

Sailing from Melanesia, and Micronesia, the Austronesian peoples discovered Polynesia by 1000 B.C. These people settled most of the Pacific Islands. They had settled Easter Island by 300 A.D., Hawaiimarker by 400 A.D., and into New Zealand by 800 A.D. In the Indian Ocean they sailed west from Maritime Southeast Asia; the Austronesian peoples reached Madagascar by 200 A.D.

By the beginning of the first millennium A.D., most of the Austronesian inhabitants in Maritime Southeast Asia began trading with Indiamarker and Chinamarker which allowed the creation of Indianized kingdoms such as Srivijaya, Melayu, Majapahit, and the establishment of Hinduism and Buddhism. Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula were thought to have brought Islam by the 10th century. Islam was established as the dominant religion in the Indonesian archipelago by the 16th century. The Austronesian inhabitants of Polynesia were unaffected by this cultural trade, and retained their indigenous culture in the Pacific region.

Europeans in search of spices later colonized most of the Austronesian speaking countries of the Asia-Pacific region, beginning from the 16th century with the Portuguese, and Spanish colonization of some parts of Indonesia (present day East Timormarker), the Philippines Islands, Palaumarker, Guammarker, and the Mariana Islandsmarker; the Dutch colonization of the Indonesian archipelago; the British colonization of Malaysia and Oceania; the French colonization of French Polynesiamarker; and later, the American governance of the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the British, Germans, French, Americans, and Japanese began establishing spheres of influence within the Pacific Islands during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Japanese later invaded most of Southeast Asia and some parts of the Pacific during World War II. The latter half of the 20th century initiated independence of modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippine Islands, and many of the Pacific Island nations.

Geographic distribution

Map showing the distribution of the Austronesian language family (light pink).
It roughly corresponds to the distribution of the Austronesian people.

Austronesian peoples consist of the following groupings by name and geographic location.

According to a recent studies by Stanford Universitymarker in the United States, there is wide variety of paternal ancestry among the Austronesian people. Aside from European introgression found in Maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Madagascar. They constitute the dominant ethnic group in Maritime Southeast Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and Madagascar. An estimated figure of around 380,000,000 people living in these regions are of Austronesian descent.

They constitute the dominant ethnic groups in Malaysiamarker, Indonesiamarker, Bruneimarker, the Philippinesmarker, the southern most part of Thailandmarker and East Timormarker, which together with Singaporemarker make up what is called the Malay archipelago. Outside this area, they inhabit Palau, Guam and the Northern Marianas, most of Madagascar, the Cham areas of Vietnam and Cambodia (the remnants of the Champa kingdom which covered central and southern Vietnam), and all countries in the Micronesian and Polynesian sphere of influence.


The native culture of Austronesia is diverse, varying from region to region.

The early Austronesian peoples considered the sea as the basic tenet of their life. Following their diaspora to Southeast Asia and Oceania, they used boats to migrate to other islands. Boats of different sizes and shapes have been found in every Austronesian culture, from Madagascar, Maritime Southeast Asia, to Polynesia, and have different names.

In Southeast Asia, head-hunting was particularly restricted to the highlands as a result of warfare. Mummification is only found among the highland Austronesian Filipinos, and in some Indonesian groups in Celebes and Sumatra.



Petroglyph on the western coast of Hawaii.

Writings among pre-modern Austronesians were limited to the Indianized states, and sultanates in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. However, prehistoric petroglyphs like the Rongorongo, and Angono Petroglyphsmarker may suggest otherwise.

Writing systems include abugidas from the Brahmic family, such as Baybayin, the Javanese script, and Old Kawi. Other writing systems include Jawi, an abjad derived from the Arabic script, as well as the modern alphabets derived from the Latin alphabet which are found in the Hawaiian alphabet, Tagalog alphabet, Māori alphabet, Malay alphabet, and other Austronesian writing forms.


Indigenous religions were initially predominant. Mythologies vary by culture and geographical location, but are generally bound by the belief in an all-powerful Divine being. Other beliefs such as Ancestor Worship, Animism, and Shamanism are also practiced. Currently, many of these beliefs have gradually been replaced. Examples of native religions include: Anito, Gabâ, Kejawen, and the Māori religion. The moai of the Rapa Nuimarker is another example since they are built to represent deceased ancestors.

Southeast Asian contact with India, and China allowed the introduction of Hinduism, and Buddhism. Later, Muslim traders introduced the Islamic faith between the periods of the 10th, and 13th century. The European Age of Discovery, brought Christianity to various parts of the region. Currently, the dominant religions are Islam which are found in Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, the southern Philippine Islands, and Brunei; Hinduism in Bali, and Fiji; and Christianity in the Philippines Islands, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, most of the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar.


Body art among Austronesian peoples is common, especially tattooing. It is particularly prominent in Polynesian cultures, from where the word "tattoo" derives. One such example is the Tā moko of New Zealand Māori, but tattooing is also prominent among Austronesian groups in the Philippine Islands, Indonesia, and Borneo. Decorated jars and other forms of pottery are also common.

Austronesian peoples living close to mainland Asia, are influenced by the native, Chinese, Indianmarker, and Islamic art forms.


Gamelan's traditional instruments - Indonesian Embassy in Canberra.
The Austronesian music in Maritime Southeast Asia had a mixture of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic musical styles and sounds that had fused together with the indigenous Austronesian culture and music. In Indonesia, Gamelan, a type of orchestra that incorporates Xylophone and Metallophone elements, is widely used in its Islamic cultural tradition. In some parts of the southern, and northern Philippine Islands, an Islamic gong-drum known as Kulintang, and a gong-chime known as Gangsa, is also used. The Austronesian music of Oceania have retained their indigenous Austronesian sounds. The Slit drums is an indigenous Austronesian musical instrument that were invented and used by the Southeast Asian-Austronesian, and Oceanic-Austronesian ethnic groups.


  1. Blust R (1999) Subgrouping, circularity and extinction: some issues in Austronesian comparative linguistics. In: Zeitoun E, Jen-kuei Li, P (eds) Selected papers from the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. Academia Sinica, Taipei, pp 31–94


  • Bellwood, Peter, Man's conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania, 1979
  • Bellwood, Peter, Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago, 1986
  • Bellwood, Peter, James J. Fox, and Darrell Tryon eds., The Austronesians : historical and comparative perspectives, Australian National University, 1995

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