Saturday, January 07, 2006

Glossary: Turtle

Archaeological findings suggest the turtle was important to the material and religious culture in Asia and the Pacific from very early times.

The Hoabinhian people included the turtle in their diet. Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in China and Thailand provide evidence of the importance of tortoise shell in the making of cultural implements.

At locations like Khok Phanom Di in Thailand, turtle shell breastplates and other ornaments finely carved from turtle carapaces adorned burials.

At Jiahu and in the Dawenkou culture of China, turtle shells figured prominently in burials. The shells were usually found near the waist area in Dawenkou burials. They appeared to be used mostly as rattles with the plastron and carapace tied together and pebbles placed inside.

Tortoise shell was used during the Shang dynasty for purposes of divination. The species identified for use as "oracle bones" is Testudo emys found only in Southeast Asia.

The species found most often in earlier burials was Chinemys reevesii, a type today associated with South China, although probably due to the warm Kuroshio Current it can also be found as far north as the islands of Kyushu and Honshu in Japan. Li Liu states in The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States that:

No remains of Chinemys reevesii have ever been reported from the northwestern part of China including the Wei River valley, except for the Kangjia specimens. These phenonmena suggest that the climatic conditions of ancient northwestern China may not have provided a suitable semi-tropical or tropical climate...and it is likely that the turtle shells from Kangjia were obtained, directly or indirectly, from southern or southeastern regions where the animal lived.

The turtle sacrifice was important in many Austronesian lands including Bali, where it survives to this day, Micronesia and Polynesia. Turtles in many Polynesian cultures were associated with the chiefly class.

In Fiji, indigenous chants are used to call turtles. Women sing the turtles to the surface in this ritual which celebrates a tale in which a princess and her daughter change into turtles to escape kidnappers. Here and elsewhere the turtle frequently figures as an ancestral spirit of totem in Austronesian cultures.

Often the turtle is also seen as a fertility symbol and in the Bisayan islands of the Philippines and other regions, turtle eggs are still eaten as aphrodisiacs and fertility boosters.

Chinese legends of blessed islands floating on the backs of giant turtles may be linked with the massive sea turtles of the Pacific. In Bali and various parts of Polynesia and Oceania, the concept of islands floating on the backs of turtles is also present. The idea of mobile "swimming" islands is widespread in this region and may hearken back to the rapidly-rising sea levels of the Sundaland flood periods.

In Bali, the Bedawang Nala "Big Turtle" statue is found at shrines symbolizing a cosmic turtle that supports the earth.

The Bedawang Nala supporting two large snakes on its back that act as pillars of the earth, and also the Black Stone, the lid to the Underworld, as found at Padmasana shrines in Bali.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Higham, Charles. The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia: From 10,000 B.C. to the Fall of Angkor, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Liu, Li. The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Peregrine, Peter N. and Melvin Ember (eds). Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Published in Conjunction with the Human Relations Area Files, Springer, 2001.