Taiwan Aboriginal Peoples

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Taiwan Aboriginal Peoples


The indigenous people of the island of Taiwan (Formosa) are now only a small minority of the Taiwan population, which is mainly Han Chinese. Many of the aboriginal groups are now assimilated almost completely into the mainstream culture. Anthropologists conventionally have divided the seven major remaining groups into three categories based on location, as follows. (1) Eastern Lowland Groups: Ami (Amia, Moamiami, Mo-quami, Pangtash); Puyuma (Panapanayan, Pelam, Pilam, Piuma, Pyuma). (2) Western Lowland Group: Saisiat (Saiset, Saisirat, Saisiyat). (3) Central Mountain Groups: Atayal (Atazan, Etall, Taiyal, Tayal); Bunun (Bunum, Vonum, Vunun); Paiwan-Rukai (Tsarisen); Tsou (Alishan, Arisan, Northern Tsou, Tsu'u, Tsuou, Tzo).

The aboriginal peoples of Taiwan speak or used to speak Austronesian languages of two or possibly three branches: Atayalic (Atayal and Sedeq), Tsouic (Tsou, Kanakanabou, and Sa'aroa), and possibly Paiwanic (all others). The speakers of Atayalic and Tsouic languages inhabit or inhabited the central mountain area, whereas Paiwanic speakers inhabit primarily the coastal plains.

Although Chinese pirates had been settling Taiwan from the sixteenth century, it was not until the seventeenth century that Chinese began to have much of an impact on aboriginal societies and cultures. From that time on, however, the relationship between Han and non-Han peoples has been one of profound acculturation and assimilation for the latter. By the early nineteenth century, there were 2 million Han in Taiwan, and most of the aboriginal peoples living on the plains had been assimilated or driven into the mountains. By the mid-1960s, one-third of Taiwan's 13 million aboriginal people lived in large cities. Today many of the aboriginal people of Taiwan cannot be considered to exist as identifiable groups, and so they are not included in this article. The following are the groups that still exist.

Eastern Lowland Groups

Ami. The 90,000 (in 1975) Ami were indigenous to the east coast between Hualien and Taitung. They have been growing rapidly in number (their 1939 population was 52,000). The influences of the Japanese after 1900 and the local Han peasantry have led to a great deal of acculturation, although the Ami are one of the few aboriginal peoples on Taiwan who still speak their own language.

The Ami were originally swidden agriculturalists who adopted wet-rice agriculture and the water buffalo (used for plowing) from the Han in approximately 1900. They raised dogs for hunting and pigs and chickens for ritual sacrifice. They made their clothing from bark cloth. Prior to Japanese occupation, the members of villages owned land corporately; it was parceled into units worked by younger men's age-grade groups. Since then, private ownership has become common. Hunting and fishing territories are administered by age-grade groups.

The Ami are matrilineal (with 50 clans) and generally matrilocal. The ambl-anak form of marriage, however, allowed those without daughters to pay a bride-price to gain patrilocal residence for the couple. Owing to Chinese influence, at least in part, this pattern is being used more and more by those with daughters.

Political structure is dualistic. Secular authority resides in the men's age-grade groups. Ritual authority is provided by the matrilineal kakitaan, or hereditary priestly families, though it is the men and not the women of these families who function as priests.

Social control of murder depended less on law than on blood vengeance by the deceased's kindred. Warfare against the Atayal, Bunun, and Puyuma peoples involved headhunting; pacification circa 1930 ended this. Traditionally the taking of heads was integral to the irisin renewal and fertility ceremony, celebrated following the millet harvest. Ami villages were once protected against their enemies by sharp bamboo stakes and trenches.

Puyuma. The approximately 6,000 (in 1975) Puyuma are now essentially assimilated among Han peasants. Traditionally they were agriculturalists who also hunted and fished. Land was owned by heads of aristocratic families, who rented it to commoners for part of the agricultural and faunal goods they produced.

The Puyuma lived in permanent villages of approximately 600 people. Each village was politically independent and almost entirely endogamous. Leadership was inherited among chiefly families. The Puyuma are matrilineal and matrilocal.

Of special importance was the moiety and age-grade system. The age-grade groups functioned as military training schools, among other things, and the moieties would practice attacking each other. From the ages of 18 to 22, a young man lived segregated from females in a men's house and learned to fight. At 22 he was allowed to marry, and he left the men's house to live with his wife's family.

The Puyuma believe that each person has three souls, one of which resides in the head, and one of which resides on each shoulder. Illness is caused by the departure of a shoulder soul, and death by that of the head soul. Female shamans treat illness by returning a shoulder soul.

Western Lowland Group

Saisiat. The 2,800 (in 1966) Saisiat live in the coastal cities of Miaoli and Hsinchu in northwestern Taiwan. Their culture has been greatly affected by their contact with the Atayal and the Han.

The patrilineal Saisiat are organized into seventeen exogamous sibs, which now bear Chinese names. Governmental pressure and the introduction of wet rice have weakened the sib ownership of land in favor of private ownership.

Sister exchange was the preferred marriage pattern, although in some cases bride-service was practiced.

Villages were composed of localized sib segments. Although villages were autonomous, they did cooperate for defense.

Central Mountain Groups

Features common to all mountain groups include their great reliance on millet and their extensive acculturation.

Paiwan-Rukai. The 51,000 (in 1966) Paiwan and Rukai live in the southern reaches of Taiwan's central mountain area. They are known for their monumental wood and stone artwork and their bronze dagger handles.

The Paiwan-Rukai traditionally lived in close-settled villages of from 100 to 1,000 people on hillsides. Because relations with other groups were hostile and alliances rare, the villages were protected by bamboo and stone walls and by guard patrols. Villages were autonomous and independent. Houses were semisubterranean.

These peoples were swidden horticulturalists and hunters and fishers. All land belonged to chiefly lineages, although commoners had rights of usufruct.

Descent was ambilineal and residence ambilocal. Divorce, usually attributable to adultery, was common. Inheritance was by primogeniture without regard to sex.

Social control was primarily legal; chiefs adjudicated disputes and levied fines. The amount of fines varied inversely with social class, and aristocrats were immune to prosecution for many offenses, including theft. Tattoos indicated noble status, with the exception that young men gained the right to have tattoos through successful head-hunting. They also blackened their teeth as youngsters and pierced their earlobes.

The deceased were buried under their houses; all members of one family were buried in a single grave.

Bunun. A full article on the Bunun is included in this volume.

Tsou. The 3,100 (in 1966) Tsou traditionally lived in the western central mountains near Mount Ami. In the 1930s, the government relocated them to lower elevations and encouraged the farming of wet rice. The Tsou traditionally lived in hamlets of three to ten households, although at one time there were core villages with men's houses at the center of several hamlets. Tsou houses were unique in Taiwan, being oval in shape and having thatched roofs that reached nearly to the ground. Nuclear-family houses were considered complete only if they had a shelf for the bones of animals killed in hunting, a millet field, and a storage basket for sacred millet. The wall-less men's houses once had shelves for heads taken in battle.

The Tsou are known for their strict enforcement of gender roles. Men hunt, burn fields, and make baskets, nets, and weapons. Women make cloth, pottery, and embroidery, take care of pigs, and weed the fields. According to traditional belief, to touch the tools used by, or the goods made by, members of the other sex was to risk supernatural sanction (such as scarcity of game) for oneself and for the group.

The Tsou are patrilineal, and lineages own hunting territories; people who are not members of the lineage may use these lands by paying a tribute.

The functions of political leader, ritual leader, and war leader were usually performed by one man.

Atayal. The Atayal occupy nearly a third of Taiwan's mountainous area, in north-central Taiwan. They speak two languages, Atayal proper (with dialects Seqoleq and Tse'ole') and Sedeq.

The Atayal traditionally lived in hamlets or isolated huts above 1,500 meters in elevation. They lived in almost entirely subterranean houses that one entered by climbing down a ladder from the door. There was a shelf for the heads of enemies, and the bones that were trophies of hunting hung from rafters. Pigs lived in their own huts in fenced yards. Japanese and Han Taiwanese forced the Atayal to move to lower elevations in this century, and now they live in typical Chinese-style houses.

The Atayal subsisted mainly by horticulture, but they also hunted (often in groups) for boars, deer, goats, bears, bats, squirrels, and monkeys. Fishing was done with poison.

The preparation for marriage could be a lengthy affair. First, the prospective groom would have a male relative propose and negotiate on his behalf. Then came the haggling over the bride-price, which could take as many as four years. The bride-price was paid in the form of shell money, pigs, and embroidered clothing. Some practice sister exchange, but since this practice violates taboo there must be an accompanying pig sacrifice and ritual feast. The incest prohibition extends to fourth patrilateral and third matrilateral cousins, though one may marry a third patrilateral cousin upon payment of a fine. There are no lineage groups. Inheritance is patrilineal and by primogeniture.

Traditional political organization lay in hamlet groups that were patrilineally related and that observed the same rituals and taboos. Social control was by law and by taboo. In some types of case, headmen imposed fines. In others, violations of taboo required confession and a pig sacrifice, in which the injured parties would eat the meat of the pig.

Although all Taiwanese aboriginal peoples practiced head-hunting, the Atayal were the most feared. The group's reason for warfare was usually to gain or defend territory, but the individual's reason to fight was for honor and prestige. The use of an enemy head was crucial to ancestor worship, and the skull, teeth, and hair were used for personal protection from spirits.

See also Bunun; Taiwanese


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