A Great Linguist with a Scientific Mind and Poet’s Soul: In Memory of Professor Robert Blust

Written by Hsiao-Chun Hung

Image credit: Robert Blust 2017 by Bradley Rentz/Wikipedia, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Professor Robert (Bob) Blust was a world-renowned linguist whose contributions will be sorely missed by his many colleagues. He made extraordinary achievements in his research in Austronesian linguistics and culture history, based on applying the comparative method to the many languages in this remarkable family. Today, the Austronesian language family contains more than 1,200 languages, distributed from Taiwan in the north to New Zealand in the south and Easter Island in the east to Madagascar in the west. Austronesian was the most extensive language family in the world prior to AD 1500. 

One of the most influential models proposed by Bob, related to Taiwan, identifies this island as the oldest traceable homeland of the Austronesian languages. Based on this linguistic model, archaeologists and specialists in other disciplines were stimulated to investigate this idea further from many different angles. For example, Professor Peter Bellwood already had approached the question of Austronesian origins and ancient migration routes into Polynesia from an archaeological point of view. He reached the same conclusion about the importance of Taiwan. Therefore, this Austronesian origin hypothesis often is called the “Blust-Bellwood Model” or the “Out of Taiwan Model”. 

Bob’s ideas sometimes provoked controversy. Small groups sometimes seek fleeting moments of fame in academia by targeting well-known scholars, often without sufficient or relevant supporting evidence. This approach attracts attention as a “newsworthy” difference of opinion, at least temporarily, until it can be dispelled. Facing such challenges, Bob consistently retained stoic confidence in his scientific methodology, regardless of the enthusiasm of his critics. 

Looking at just one example, ancient rice farming was one of the major elements of the “Out of Taiwan Model,” reconstructed as a Proto-Austronesian activity by Bob and connected to the “Early Farming Dispersal Hypothesis” of Peter Bellwood and Colin Renfrew. This hypothesis suggested that ancient Austronesian farmers migrated from Taiwan to other places in Southeast Asia with an economy fuelled partly by rice (and millet) production. However, this proposal was formulated more than 30 years ago, when archaeologists had produced almost no coherent evidence for plant exploitation in prehistoric Island Southeast Asia (including Taiwan), whether domesticated or wild. Although Bob’s hypothesis about early rice farming was criticized for decades, he continued to be unswayed by those opinions. Today in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, prehistoric rice remains in the forms of carbonized macrofossils or phytoliths have been discovered from several key early sites. These date back beyond 4,500 years ago in the case of Taiwan, emerging from the ground like the fast-blooming sakura. These discoveries, of course, have depended on improving field recovery and laboratory techniques that were not available in the earlier days of archaeological research. Aiming at his critics, Bob commented in a few well-chosen words: “Arguments based on negative evidence are like castles built on sand”. 

Another example of misplaced criticism has involved the origins of the Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands of Micronesia. Bob established on linguistic grounds that the earliest Chamorro must have come from somewhere in the northern or central Philippines, more than 2000 kilometres to the west of the Marianas across the open sea. While other scholars frequently have offered “guesswork” proposals, based mainly on present-day winds and currents, for different origins far to the south, last year (2021), the first ancient DNA study from Guam provided solid evidence of a biological origin proximally in the northern or central Philippines, ultimately traceable back even farther to Taiwan! 

Beyond his scientific research, Bob Blust’s talents in literary expression have shown through the lines of his academic writing. For instance, we can appreciate a paragraph from his foreword entitled “Out of Taiwan: The Austronesian Expansion as a Chapter in Human History”, written for the book The Origins of the Austronesians published by the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan (in 2021). Bob wrote:

“Even at this early stage, around 1100 BC, the Austronesian expansion was impressive, as it covered some 95 degrees of longitude from northern Sumatra in the west to Samoa in the east, and 47 degrees of latitude from Taiwan in the north to New Caledonia in the south. Chinese civilization, in the form of the Western Zhou dynasty, was still very early in its long history, the civilization of Greece had not yet blossomed into fullness, and it was hundreds of years before the rise of Rome, but through skill in deep-sea navigation Austronesian speakers had already settled lands that had never previously been touched by humans. All of this was possible because these people, uniquely at the time, had learned how to find their way across the largest ocean on Earth by following the winds, currents, and the flights of birds during the daylight hours and the stars at night. To them, the sea was no more a barrier—rather, it was a highway into the unknown.” 

In his writing, Bob brought ancient societies into view as inhabited by vibrant people. The Austronesians migrated across a sea of islands, and in his words, we can imagine the winds, the ocean currents, the flying birds, and the stars shining in the night sky. The brave Austronesian voyagers and other representatives of world civilizations of this time period, such as in China, Greece, and Rome, all come to life for us on the same page. We can understand that he dreamed of being a poet when he was younger, started to write short stories at age 10, and composed seven novels and two novelettes with Native American themes between the ages of 11 and 15. As we have seen, Bob brought his writing talents and expressive thoughts deeply into his rigorous scholarship. 

My last contact with Bob Blust was on 11 September 2021, after he had noticed a new article about an ancient DNA study from Indonesia. He added a little note in the email: “I seem to be late in learning about it”. This comment encapsulated his attitude of non-stop work and learning anew. He aimed perpetually to improve and expand knowledge, while many other scholars would have rested on their laurels after equalling just a fraction of Bob’s accomplishments. 

On 6 January 2022 (Canberra time), I was informed by Peter Bellwood that Bob had just passed away. The news brought enormous sadness. I felt the emptiness and loss in my heart for the next few days. Although Bob Blust and I could not discuss our ideas face to face, he improved my life and work through his insightful guidance and his living example as a scholar. Through emails, often very brief, I learned about an extraordinary scholar with a scientific mind, a poet’s soul, and a great passion for exploring the world of knowledge. Bob’s outstanding achievements have left a legacy to inspire and enlighten us.

Hsiao-chun Hung (洪曉純) is an archaeologist at the Australian National University (Her University profile: https://researchprofiles.anu.edu.au/en/persons/hsiao-chun-hung; and Academia.edu profile:  https://anu-au.academia.edu/HsiaochunHung).

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘In The Memoriam: Robert Blust, 1940-2022.’

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