Austronesians mean “the people from the southern islands” in Greek. Approximately 8,000 years ago, the indigenous people of Taiwan originally came from continental southeast Asia, part of Indochina and mainland China. They moved to Taiwan and began their migration towards the south, spreading around the Oceanic islands to settle in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. To the west, they went to Madagascar; to the east, the Easter Island; and to the south, to New Zealand. All the languages spoken in this huge area belong to the Austronesian family, proving that this wave of migration was one of the most significant diaspora in the history of humanity.
Due to the lack of written recordings, we do not know much about the Austronesian people in Taiwan before the arrival of the first colonial powers during the 17th century. Moreover, until the late 19th century, little was known about the territories of the highland ethnic groups in the mountainous parts of the island. In fact, the inhabitants were feared because of their head-hunting tradition.
Some brief facts from the past
Head-hunting was a wide spread practice among all the Taiwanese ethnic groups except the Yami. The social and ritual aspect was very important in head-hunting tribes because it established the hierarchies of social structure. Its purposes were manifold which included the passage into adulthood, to avenge a prior death, to repulse bad luck and to bring blessing to the family or the village. Heads were kept on shelves, close to the living. The single head, symbolizing the hunted head, is a very common motif of the Paiwan and Rukai objects. In 1895 when Japan colonized Formosa (former name of Taiwan), the tradition of head-hunting came to be abolished by the Japanese authorities.
Consumption of alcohol from fermented millet was important to all indigenous groups except the Yami. Alcohol was consumed to celebrate important events and was an important offering to ancestors—often associated with betel nut chewing—during prayers or ceremonies. Even today, before taking their drink, some aborigines will dip their finger in their glass and throw a few drops in the air to share with the ancestral spirits.
In the north and central areas, indigenous groups do not produce much anthropomorphic carvings. In the south, it is a very different story. The Paiwan and the closely related Rukai and Puyuma tribes have an elaborate tradition of wood carving in which human figures and animals serve as the main subjects. The islands of Lanyu and Yami also share the figurative wood carving tradition but in a much less extended way.
The Atayal, the Truku and the Saisiyat practiced facial tattooing as evidenced by the elderly people in those tribes. This act was forbidden by the Japanese in the early 20th century. The purpose of facial tattoos was for deceased to be recognized by their ancestors in the afterlife so they could be welcomed to the next world. Facial tattoo was also believed to enhance one’s beauty by honoring men for their hunting and headhunting skills and women for their weaving skills and chastity.
The shamanistic and animist beliefs of the aborigines have been widely replaced by Christianity or a mix of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
The Aborigenes today
With the exception of the Kavalan, Amis, Sakiraya and Yami, most of the dozens of original lowland groups, now banded together under the generic term Pingpu (Plain), have disappeared or become integrated with Han Chinese communities following large-scale settlement by Chinese from the 17th century onwards. One result of this ethnic mixing, which only the highlands tribes resisted until relatively late, is that genetic studies show that 80 percent of Taiwanese people have some aboriginal DNA.
Today, despite government policies aimed to benefit aboriginal people and notable improvements in various aspects of their lives, by any social or economic measure, they still represent a disadvantaged section of Taiwanese society.
The central government has an agency dedicated to the aboriginal groups, the Council of Indigenous peoples, and measures were taken to help preserve aboriginal languages, as they are now officially taught at school.
Restoring tribal names has been another long struggle for the aboriginal civil rights activists. The law required from 1946 to 1995 that all Aborigines adopt a Chinese name. Nevertheless, since the lifting of the ban, only 6 000 Aborigines have reverted back to their tribal names. Obstacles are mostly discriminations from the mainstream society and administrative difficulties.
On the subject of the self-rule, the autonomy has been promised to the indigenous groups in 2000 by Chen Shui-bian while he was on the presidential campaign trail. Since then, the idea has resurfaced but has never gone very far. A government plan is on the making, but there will be a lot of questions to answer : how to draw and decide the borders of the future tribal regions ? How are these new regions going to finance their autonomy ?
Following 20 years of debate, in September 2007, the UN General Assembly finally adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What this means for the aboriginal people of Taiwan remains to be seen. A number of activists have expressed their position to the Taiwanese government that the aboriginal people of can only hope to gain a seat in the UN seat once the Taiwanese government pays full respect to the rights and interests of the island’s indigenous minorities.