As long as 5,500 years ago the Formosan, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, lived in small settlements in relative isolation along the coastal terrace in the Taichung (formerly Niumatou) basin areas. The men fished and hunted deer or wild boars, while women farmed and raised the families. They predominantly occupied the edges of the low-lying river terraces on the slope of the mountain which were covered by lush forests. Their stilt houses were raised on platforms above the typhoon flood levels. Possibly due to population expansion as well as needing a safer place to live, they moved higher up into the hilly areas approximately 3,800 years ago.
Atayal indigenous woman ( Public Domain )
The Taiwan aborigines are termed Austronesian, with linguistic and genetic ties to a list of ethnic groups including those of New Zealand and Hawaii, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei and others from the African region, to name a few.
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Roger Blench (British linguist, development anthropologist and ethnomusicologist) believes that there is in fact no true single language that gave rise to present-day Austronesian languages. Based on recent archaeological and linguistic evidence, he believes that several migrations of various pre-Austronesian peoples and languages from the Chinese mainland that were related but distinct united to form what we now know as Austronesian in Taiwan.
Taiwanese Aborigines ( Public Domain )
Colonized by the Dutch in the 17 th century
Commonly known as Formosa until the 1970s, the island of Taiwan came under colonial Dutch rule from 1624 to 1662 and during this time a large Han Chinese immigration began, almost completely absorbing the original Taiwan people. The Dutch East India Company traded with the Chinese and Japanese and established a base on the island, introducing new crops and attempting to convert the aboriginal inhabitants to Christianity and suppress aspects of their traditional culture.
In 1895, the island was ceded to the Japanese but off-limits until recent years as the area became an army camp after World War Two when the Republic of China took control at the end of the war. An estimated 800,000 people relocated from China to the island.
Despite the fact that there was a lack of attention and interest in the history of indigenous peoples until the mid-1980s, through the works of scholars, anthropologists, historians and remaining descendants of indigenous peoples, there has been a gradual restoration of plains indigenous culture, history, identity and language. It was not until the Japanese rule (1895 to 1945) that proper anthropological and ethnographic classification systems of plains indigenous peoples were formed. Contemporary Taiwanese aborigines now mostly live in cities and they make up less than three percent of the population.
Construction of a shopping mall led to the discovery of the Niumatou Site
In May 2002, a student noticed pottery shards on the ground while walking on a construction site in a district of Taichung City. He collected the fragments and gave them to Ho Chuan-kun, history professor and chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural Science (NMNS). Neither had any idea how significant the discovery would be to the city's history.
The Huilaili site (the name refers to a city ward as well as the archaeological site it contains) consists of three layers, representing three cultures that once inhabited the area. The Niumatou cultural layer is at the bottom and therefore represents the earliest culture found in the city although nearby, pieces of pottery belonging to a culture earlier than the Niumatou have been discovered dating back 4,000 years.
The excavation began with pits that contained broken pottery and turtle, bird and fish bones giving archaeologists a glimpse into the diet of prehistoric peoples.
Unearthed cultural relics from Niumatou ( Public Domain )
At the Niumatou site, archaeologists discovered dwellings, graves and items such as stone hoes to harvest millet, knives, adzes, arrowheads, net sinkers, flakes, cores and other agricultural, fishing and hunting equipment, all depicting daily life of an Austronesian ancient people at a time when Chinese civilization was beginning on the mainland.
The excavated layers contained colorful marble and lazurite beads, which indicate trade with Southeast Asia or the coastal region of Southeastern China. The discovery of nephrite rings and the adzes suggests interaction with residents in eastern Taiwan, where the stone originates.
Model of an adze ( Public Domain )
Due to the archaeological finds, the Taichung County Government designated the site a historical relic to preserve finds from the mid Neolithic period as well as the culture of the lowland Taiwan Aborigines people. Niumatou Site is the oldest such site in central Taiwan and reveals a great deal about the rich and long history of Taiwan.
Top image: Tayal Objects Taiwan, late 19 th century . Royal Antario Museum Source: Public Domain
By Michelle Freson