Numbering around 90,000, the Atayal live primarily in the island’s northern mountains.
They are best known for their skills in facial tattooing and weaving.
Their clothing and accessories include shell-bead jackets, skirts and ornaments made with black glass beads, metal bells and white shell beads obtained through trade.
Also used as a form of currency, the beads made from Tridacna shells are strung together and then sewn or suspended on tunics or skirts made from ramie cloth.
The Atayal were the last indigenous people to take up arms against outsiders when, in the Wushe rebellion of 1930, they rose up under the leadership of Chief Mona Rudao. This was followed by a harsh repression from the Japanese.
The 20,000-plus Truku were officially recognized as a separate ethnic group in 2004.
Previously they were considered a subgroup of the Atayal with whom they share many features of material culture except a common language.
The 5,000 Saisiat people have often been confused with their larger neighbor, the Atayal group with whom they share the tradition of facial tattooing. They are particularly known for their Pasta’ay celebration honoring dwarf spirits.
The 45,000-plus Bunun live in Taiwan’s central mountains at altitudes higher than any other tribes.
They are best known for their millet and ear-shooting ceremonies, but even more so for their beautiful polyharmonic choral singing.
The most populous of all Taiwan’s indigenous ethnic groups are the 170,000-strong Amis who primarily inhabits the eastern part of the island.
They have a matrilineal system of inheritance and a social hierarchy based on age.
Divided into many subgroups on the basis of language, customs and clothing, the Amis traditionally followed farming, fishing and hunting lifestyles.
They are famed for their pottery, which can be divided into everyday and sacrificial vessels.
Of all Taiwanese indigenous people, the Paiwan are probably the best known abroad, largely because of their woodcarving tradition.
Almost 80,000 Paiwan people inhabit the mountains of southern Taiwan. Paiwan social organization shows strong division between nobility and commoners and combines both patrilineal and matrilineal features.
Historically, the aristocracy leased land to the commoners and took a share of the game caught by hunters. In exchange, the chiefs, shamans, and their families interacted with the tribe’s protective ancestors. This strong social hierarchy explains the development of the woodcarving, pottery, clothing and jewelry (glass beads) traditions that occurred to meet the needs of the nobles.
Paiwan houses are constructed of slate walls and roofs around a central pillar carved with ancestral figures.
The front yard of the chieftain’s house was used as a meeting place, and was decorated with skull racks, which displayed the tribe’s headhunting trophies.
Sharing many cultural and material similarities with the Paiwan, the 11,000 Rukai are, in fact, a distinct ethnic group.
Inhabiting both sides of the central mountain range of southern Taiwan, they can be subdivided into eastern and western groups.
Like the Paiwan, they worship the snake as their original ancestor and are linked, through legend, to the snow panther.
The 6,000 Tsou live in the area around Jade Mountain, the highest peak in Taiwan.
Based on differences of customs and language, they can be divided into northern and southern subgroups.
The men meet in a kuva gathering house to pass on their customs, beliefs and hunting, fishing and farming traditions to the next generation.
The 10,000 Puyuma live in the Taitung area of southeastern Taiwan, and are closely related to the Paiwan.
Their long tradition of fighting was facilitated by a social structure based on age groups.
Even now that most have become Christian or follow Chinese popular religion, the influence of traditional priestesses is still very strong.
Puyuma artifacts are particularly appreciated for their distinct red color and their shell inlays.
Also known as Tawu, the Yami number around 3,000 and live on Orchid Island off the southeast coast of Taiwan proper.
They are closely related to the Bataan people in the Philippines. While Taiwan’s other indigenous peoples have mountain or plain cultures, the Yami have a distinctive oceanic culture. Two features that separate them from all other groups is that they did not practice the culture of headhunting or make alcohol.
Their culture is centered on the flying fish that migrate every year through the waters around their island.
They are best known for their extraordinary boat-building tradition.
They worship ancestral spirits, live in subterranean houses to protect themselves from the typhoons, and are very superstitious. To ward against evil spirits, the men protect themselves with a knife that they wear as a talisman.
The 600 Thao people live near Sun Moon Lake, originally on an island in the middle of the lake where they practice fishing.
Many features of the Thao language and customs are influenced by the neighboring Atayal and Bunun tribes.
Originally living on the Yilan plain of northeastern Taiwan, the Kavalan migrated south to the Hualien and Taitung areas when the ethnic Han Chinese immigrated from the mainland.
After long periods of assimilation with the Han Chinese people, the Kavalans along with the Pingpu and Plain tribes were finally granted the right of being recognized as a distinct ethnic group in 2002.
Their current population is around 800.
The Sakiraya, located in the Hualien area, faced open conflict with the Imperial Chinese army.
In 1878, fearing defeat, they hid amongst their neighbors the Amis, thus adopting their customs while discreetly perpetuating their own identity.
They number around 5,000 people.
The Pingpu is a generic term used to qualify the plain/lowland ethnic groups that disappeared as there became absorbed in the Han Chinese population.
A dozen of these tribes have been identified but most of them do not exist anymore. Among them, the Kavalan in the Ilan area and the Siraya, in the Tainan area, are the most well-known.