In November 2016, a skeleton with its hands folded in prayer was unearthed, making it the first chronicle European burial from the 17th century in the Asia-Pacific region. (Image Credit: University of Konstanz)
In November 2016, a skeleton with its hands folded in prayer was unearthed, making it the first chronicle European burial from the 17th century in the Asia-Pacific region. (Image Credit: University of Konstanz)

European Colonization of Asia – a New Perspective

New light was recently shed on the colonization of the Pacific region when María Cruz Berrocal, associated with the Department of History and Sociology at the Zukunftskolleg of the University of Konstanz and a Research Fellow, excavated a settlement in northern Taiwan.

The archaeological excavations showed that the small Spanish colony of ‘San Salvador de Isla Hermosa’ was an early globalized spot.

Cruz Berrocal focused her investigation on a settlement on the Island of Heping Dao, which belongs to the city of Keelung in the north of Taiwan. Excavations have been carried out at this site since 2011 and important archaeological artefacts have been recovered. These artefacts document the history of human habitation on the island and indicate that from early history onwards, the region played an important role for Taiwan. It was also influential during the age of European colonization. In 1626, ‘San Salvador de Isla Hermosa’ was founded on Heping Dao as a Spanish colony. The Spanish occupied the settlement from 1626 until 1642, when it was invaded by the Dutch. The Chinese eventually annexed the territory. Chinese rule was followed by Japanese occupation until World War II ended.

The excavations by Cruz Berrocal’s international archaeology group unexpectedly provided significantly more evidence of early European influence and presence. The researchers discovered the foundations of a Christian church or convent and the cemetery associated with it. Cruz Berrocal noted that these findings show that the colony did not play a marginal role. As a juncture for commercial relations in the Pacific region, Taiwan was a hub for extensive interaction.

The most recent excavations took place from September to November of 2016. The team has so far uncovered six burials, as well as other dislocated human remains near the church. A skeleton of a deceased person who was buried with hands folded in prayer was unearthed by the archaeologists in November 2016. Cruz Berrocal explained that the colonial cemetery that was unearthed is the oldest in the region and added that these burials are the first European ones from this period discovered in the entire Asia Pacific region. They also contain the first human remains that have been documented.

A multifaceted picture has been revealed by detailed analysis of the human bones, and especially the teeth. Isotope and botanical analyses of dental remains, and the examination of the preserved DNA of pathogens can reveal exciting biographical information such as diet, geographic origin and medical history.

The botanical analysis was performed by Dr Alexandre Chevalier from the Royal Belgian Institute of Science, while Dr Estelle Herrscher from the CNRS, France did the isotopic analysis.

The human and pathogen DNA was analyzed by yet another international scientist, Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

Since Europeans introduced many new plant species into the Pacific region, plant remains also provided important information.

Initial findings indicate that the human remains most likely belong to people who originally arrived from Asia and Europe, and possibly even Africa. Since the immigrants were interacting with the native Taiwanese population on Heping Dao, further research needs to be done here to determine the impact they experienced because of European colonization. A more comprehensive picture of the early history of this region will provided by further analyses.

Cruz Berrocal concluded that the results clearly show that this is an early globalization hub. The Spanish style characteristics of the church demonstrates that this colony was just as important to the Spanish Crown as colonies established elsewhere, for instance in the Americas. Historians have assumed that Taiwan only played a marginal role in the colonization of the Pacific region because Spain’s attempt to gain a long-term foothold there was ultimately unsuccessful. That is however not the case.