Jade Earrings Reveal Ancient S.E. Asian Trade Route

Carolyn Barry in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
November 20, 2007

Jade jewelry found near ancient burial sites across Southeast Asia has revealed one of the largest marine trading networks of prehistoric times, a new study says.

Mineral analysis shows that most of nearly 150 sampled artifacts dated as far back as 3000 B.C. can be traced back to a single site in Taiwan (see map), about 75 miles (120 kilometers) off the coast of mainland China.

This indicates that the small island supplied much of Southeast Asia with a unique variety of the semiprecious stone via a 1,800-mile (3,000-kilometer) trade route around the South China Sea.

(Related news: "Jade Axes Proof of Vast Ancient Caribbean Network, Experts Say" [June 12, 2006].)

The existence of such a vast trading network shows that these populations had developed sophisticated seafaring vessels and had extensive communication much earlier than previously believed.

"I think [ancient Southeast Asian cultures] were more advanced than we thought," said study co-author Peter Bellwood, an archaeologist at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

"These are very widespread connections. We really had no idea that this jade from Taiwan was traveling so far."

Traveling Craftsmen

The researchers studied 144 jade artifacts from 49 locations in modern-day Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Most of the objects had been found next to prehistoric skeletons buried in jars or on the sides of skulls, suggesting that they were earrings belonging to the wealthier members of society.

"They were clearly being worn," Bellwood said.

Specifically, the team focused their study on two types of distinctive jade ornaments: three-pointed "lingling-o" earrings and two-headed animal pendants that were popular from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500.

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