By 5,000 BC an especially potent and versatile culture combining fishing and gardening had developed on the south coast of China. As well as growing their food on land, these maritime gardeners were accomplished at fishing the waters in the Straits of Taiwan from boats with hooks and nets. Between 4,000 and 3,000 BC, these fishermen-farmers crossed the 150 km of the Straits and settled on Taiwan.
It is important to note that the fishermen-farmers who crossed the straits to Taiwan were not the Sino-Tibetan speaking Han Chinese who today make up the great majority of the Chinese population. Linguistic evidence from Taiwan suggests that they spoke an Austronesian language closely related to the Tai-Kadai language family that is the dominant language group today in Laos, Thailand and the north and east of Burma.
On Taiwan, the Austronesian speaking fishermen-farmers honed their sea-faring skills. They soon embarked on one of the most astonishing and extensive colonizations in human history known as the Austronesian expansion. By about 2,500 BC, one group, and just one group of Austronesian speakers from Taiwan had ventured to northern Luzon in the Philippines and settled there. The archaeological record from the Cagayan Valley in northern Luzon shows that they brought with them the same set of stone tools and pottery they had in Taiwan. The descendants of this group spread their language and culture through the Indo-Malayan archipelago as far west as Madagascar off the east coast of Africa and as far east as Hawaii and Easter Island in the central Pacific Ocean.
For the most part, the Austronesians encountered unoccupied coasts and islands. Where they met hunting and gathering cultures, their horticultural productivity and population growth soon overwhelmed the aboriginal occupants. All the surviving Aeta populations in the Philippines speak Austronesian languages. Where they met established agrarian cultures, such as along the coasts of Vietnam (Champa) and Indo-China, their incursions were limited.
The speed of the Austronesian expansion was also a consequence of their maritime culture. Under the pressure of an expanding population, adventurous colonizers would prefer to settle new lands on coasts and islands before pressing inland and away from the sea. Furthermore, the Austronesian kinship system gave higher status, prestige and authority to the lineages most closely related to the society's founder. Austronesian culture put a premium on founding new colonies that gave an additional incentive to continued expansion. As it was, there were many new coasts and islands available for occupation and settlement.
Over the next thousand years to 1,500 BC, the Austronesians spread south through the Philippines to the Celebes, the Moluccas, northern Borneo and eastern Java. One branch went east from the Moluccan Island of Halmahera about 1,600 BC to colonize eastern Melanesia (1,200 BC) and Micronesia (500 BC). The migration had continued well into Polynesia by 0 AD and on to Hawaii and Easter Island by 500 AD. The Austronesians finally reached the last uninhabited land on earth, New Zealand, sometime around 1,300 AD.
Other Austronesians continued west through Borneo and Java to Sumatra and settled the coasts of the Malay peninsula and southern Vietnam by 500 BC. From Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, they learned to master the semi-annual winds of the Indian Ocean monsoons. Around 100 AD, they crossed the Bay of Bengal and made contacts with Sri Lanka and southern India. The western branch of the Austronesian expansion reached its furthest extent by 500 AD plying the monsoons to colonize Madagascar.
From Taiwan to New Zealand and Madagascar to Easter Island, the Austronesian language family is made up of more than a thousand languages and dialects. (Estimates vary from 900-1200 according to how dialects are distinguished from languages.) Measured by geographical extent, number of languages or number of speakers it is one of the world's largest language groups. In the Philippines there are some 87 Austronesian languages. The five largest, Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon and Bicolano account for three-quarters of the population.