The Austronesian speaking tribes of Taiwan are recognised as the island’s indigenous inhabitants. But what if they were not the first? Oral tradition among the Saisiyat people points to an earlier population resembling the ‘Negritos’ of Southeast Asia, who died out long ago. If true, then this ancient group would be the first human beings to live in Taiwan.
‘Negritos’, or Asiatic Pygmies, is the word ethnographers use for the indigenous peoples of maritime Southeast Asia. Unlike the dominant Malay, Indonesian and Fillipino populations, Negritos are under 150 cm and dark-skinned. They include groups like the Aeta, Semang and Sentinelese, who although diverse in culture and language, share a similar appearance. Negritos descend from the first people to arrive in Southeast Asia and were displaced by more numerous farmers and seafarers 5,000 years ago.
The Saisiyat are an aboriginal group of 6,000 from northwestern Taiwan. Anthropologists believe the Saisiyat to be among the first peoples to settle Taiwan. Among them exist oral accounts of an earlier Negrito population.
Every two years, the Saisiyat celebrate Pas’tai’ai – the ‘Ritual to the Short People’, and the tribe’s largest celebration. Thousands gather to sing, dance and drink rice wine, wearing blades of silver grass to protect them from ill-fortune. Performers wear coloured robes, beads, mirrors and bells which clang as they dance. Other rituals take place in secret and are closed to outsiders. Pas’tai’ai takes place on the tenth lunar month and lasts several nights. The festival was at risk of dying out until its revitalisation in the the 2010s.
Legend has it that the Saisiyat once lived by a tribe of dark-skinned ‘short people’ they called the ‘Ta’ai’. A river separated the two peoples. Relationships were cordial until around a thousand years ago, the Ta’ai took interest in Saisiyat women. According to one version, they made advances on the chieftain’s wife during the harvest festival. In anger, the Saisiyat turned on the Ta’ai and killed all but two. Some versions say they forced a battle; others say they cut down a bridge; some say a tree fell on the Ta’ai.
The two survivors were elders. They warned the Saisiyat that the spirits of their people would curse them unless they kept their culture alive. The elders then taught the Saisiyat the dances and songs of the T’ai, which they recited every two years to this day. Local caves said to house the Ta’ai spirits are forbidden to visitors. The Saisiyat tell of sickness and misfortune befalling those who visit them.
The Ta’ai of legend resemble Philippine Negritos. Dutch colonists of the 1600s claimed accounts of ‘Little People’ were once common, and similar, though less developed, accounts still exist amongst the Tsou tribes of Taiwan.
Archaeologists have found no trace of an earlier, Negrito presence in Taiwan. A 2019 genetic study, however, noted ‘strong genetic affinity’ between the Saisiyat and Atayal, and Philippine Negritos, but stated this ‘could not support a past Negrito presence in Taiwan’.
Folk tales of pixie and dwarf-life people are common in other Austronesian cultures, particularly the Haiwaiian and Māori traditions. However, the Ta’ai of Saisiyat folklore do resemble real people in the neighbouring Philippines. As hunter-gatherers leave less remains than settled communities, it is entirely possible there was once a small Negrito population living in the mountains of Taiwan. Their memory lives on in a thousand year old ritual still held today.
Sources: BBC, Edelweiss Journal of Biomedical Research and Review, Taiwan Museum Reuters