The Austronesians of Taiwan

I. The Austronesian Peoples

The Austronesian language family mainly refers to those peoples who inhabit the islands of the South Pacific. They number more than 250 million. Linguists discovered that there are a number of commonalities in the languages of these peoples and thus grouped them together into the same language family. Taiwan is located at the northernmost point of the Austronesian language family’s distribution which reaches east to Easter Island, south to New Zealand and west to Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa. The Austronesians were able to spread across such a wide area with the use of boats, as they possessed outstanding navigation skills. Some scholars believe that the Austronesians originated from Taiwan. Although Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are all part of the Austronesian language family, over a long period of time and adaptation to different environments, such as along the coast or in the high mountains, they have developed unique cultural characteristics.


Taiwan's indigenous tribes possessed the knowledge to produce and use simple looms for weaving. The woven cloth of each tribe featured unique patterns, such as the reverse swastika pattern of the SaiSiyat , the shell beads that decorate the woven garments of the Atayal and human head and hundred-pace pit viper patterns of the Rukai.

1. Tsou Leather Caps

The leather caps could only be worn by the adult males of the Tsou that had undergone coming-of-age rites. They were usually made from two pieces of deerskin that were sewn together, and worn during special ceremonies with one to four eagle or vulture feathers inserted. At other times, they were rolled up and attached to a belt when not worn as protection for the head.

2. Yami (Tao) Silver Helmets

The Yami are the only tribe in Taiwan to have developed techniques for working with silver. Silver pieces were used to produce helmets, worn by the males of the tribe on special occasions. These pieces were pounded into oblong shapes and made thin. They were then placed on a wooden mold and held together with copper wire to form a conical helmet. When worn, the helmet covered most of the face and thus two holes were made for the eyes. At the start of the flying fish season, Yami males would take their silver helmets to the shore and wave them toward the ocean in an invitation to the schools of fish to gather and to pray for blessings for a bountiful catch.

3. Atayal Shell Bead Garments

The Atayal tribe did not have a social hierarchy and their clothing typically did not bear any distinguishing marks regarding social status or position. The main functions of clothing were to cover the body, to keep warm and as decoration. However, beaded shirts and skirts were very special. Beaded upper garments were typically sleeveless and featured small white beads ground from shells. These beads were stitched on in horizontal or vertical strands. A garment may have tens of thousands of beads and could weigh between two and three kilograms. Such beaded garments were important betrothal gifts and one to dozens of these garments had to be presented by the groom’s family before the wedding.



4. Flying Fish Tray

The trays for serving flying fish could not be used for holding any other type of fish, as this could bring misfortune. If the flying fish tray was accidentally used to serve another type of fish, the tray had to be destroyed and discarded.

5. Earthenware Dolls

There was usually much fine sand and other particles mixed in with the clay. Thus, before the men could mold the clay they had to pound it. Once the object was formed it was placed on a wooden rack for firing. The firing process took place outdoors and thus the temperature that could be produced was not very high. Once the firing was finished, the object was removed from the kiln and allowed to cool.

6. Mortar and Pestle for Grinding Betel Nut

Long ago, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples began to chew betel nut. It was mostly the elderly who developed this habit. However, for the elderly the outer part of the betel nut was too hard and was removed. The remaining part was ground into small pieces with a mortar and pestle to make it easier to chew.

7. Dragonfly Bead Necklace

Glass beads, earthenware vessels and bronze knives are the three cultural treasures of the Paiwan. These were considered family heirlooms. Glass beads were also important betrothal gifts. Some beads worn as part of chest ornaments had protruding decorations on both sides making them appear like dragonflies so were sometimes called dragonfly beads. The small beads next to the larger ones came in solid colors. The yellow bead represented man, the orange bead the forest and the green bead the land.

8. Paiwan Mourning Cloths

Mourning cloths were woven with human figure patterns with clear features such as hair, eyes and body in red, orange, yellow and green. Mourning cloths were worn on the outside of the everyday clothing in addition to a mourning cap or mourning shawl.

9. Ceremonial Practices: Paiwan Earthenware Pots

The traditional earthenware pots of the Paiwan were considered the dwelling places of the ancestral spirits. They were sacred and thus rarely touched. These pots were usually kept on shelves deep inside the home. The Paiwan divided these pots into male and female genders. Those with hundred-pace pit viper patterns, the rhombus-shaped patterns found on the back of this snake, or human figure patterns were considered males. Those with protruding bumps, incised carving, or sun patterns were considered females. One type of pot has both male and female characteristics and is considered to be of mixed gender.

10. Loveing Home: Slate Dwellings of the Paiwan

There is much slate to be found in the mountains of southern Taiwan. The Paiwan used this material to construct houses. They first cleared a dustpan-shaped area on the mountain slope. Then, slate pieces were stacked to create the walls and the roof, just like the scales of the hundred-pace pit viper, a sacred animal of the tribe. The Paiwan considered the home a metaphor for the womb. When a woman was in labor, men could not enter the home. If a woman was having a difficult labor, the family would shake the house from outside to encourage a smooth delivery.


II. Tsou Traditional Lifestyles

The Tsou has a population of more than 7,000, mostly concentrated in Kaohsiung County and Alishan Township of Chiayi County. The Tsou village of Dabang is located high in the mountains of Alishan Township. The Tsou typically marked the beginning of a new year with the millet planting ceremony and the end of the year with the millet harvest ceremony. Many of the Tsou major ceremonies are associated with the growing of millet. One of the largest is the Homeyaya or millet harvest festival, to pray for a bountiful harvest in the coming year.

1. Warring Ceremony (Mayasvi)

The Warring Ceremony, or Mayasvi in the Tsou language, is one of the tribe’s major ceremonies and takes place over several days. Part of the ceremony is held inside the kuba, or men’s meeting hall, during which only the males of the tribe participate. However, part of the ceremony takes place outside the kuba, with both the men and the women of the tribe forming a large circle and dressed in traditional attire.

2.    Tsou Buildings

A.    Men’s Meeting Hall (Kuba)
The kuba or men’s meeting hall is the most important structure in the village. About three hundred years ago, the Tsou established the kuba system, signaling the end of a migratory lifestyle. The males of the village meet in the kuba to discuss village affairs, mediate disputes, pass on hunting skills and produce tools, etc. Most importantly, the elders will pass on their wisdom and knowledge. There is a fire pit in the middle of the kuba. The Tsou believed that this fire was given to them by the tribal deities and had to be kept burning all year round.

B. Dwellings
The main entrance to the home was on its eastern side. Next to the entrance was a rack for holding animal bones and for storing weapons. It was taboo for women to use this entrance. There was a rear entrance usually on the western side of the dwelling. Next to the rear entrance was an area for raising animals. The males of the family would not use that entrance to avoid coming in contact with the family pigs, which might bring bad luck during a hunt. The cooking area was usually next to the central post, and was the main activity area in the home. It was also where the family members worked. There was a side room with no door which contained the sleeping quarters of the husband and wife.

III.    Rukai Traditional Lifestyles

The distribution of the Rukai tribe is on both sides of the southernmost section of the Central Mountain Range including Wutai Township in Pingtung, Maolin Township in Kaohsiung County and Beinan Township in Taitung County. Similar to the neighboring Paiwan tribe, the Rukai has a strict social hierarchy that includes nobility and common classes. The Rukai is a patrilineal society and the oldest son inherits the family property. Agriculture was traditionally the main livelihood, and the Rukai also hunted, gathered and fished. Only the nobility could own land. The commoners cultivated the fields and every year paid a land tax to the land owners. In addition, a part of the catch from fishing was given to the nobility.

The home of the main chieftain is larger than the other homes in the village. Courtyards with a banyan tree mark the homes of the main and lesser chieftains. Weddings between chieftain clans were considered major events in traditional Rukai villages.

1. Rukai Dwellings

A. Slate Homes
This slate building is a replica of a traditional chieftain’s home. The lintel above the door is carved. In front of the home is a spacious courtyard with a carved stone pillar. The entrance is on the left side and the facade features several windows. The attached workhouse is where the cooking was done and where the firewood was stored.

B. Granary
To the right of the home was a granary. As its name suggests, its main function was for the storage of grain. However, other items might also be stored there such as clothing. This building was designed to keep out rodents and snakes.

C. Weaving Room
To the left of the slate dwelling was a weaving room. It was taboo for cloth to be woven inside the home. Thus, a special work area was built for this task.

D. Forging Room
To the left and rear of the home was a forging room. This is where the Rukai males forged tools for farming and weapons for hunting. Inside is a hearth and bellows.

E. Danan Youth Meeting Hall
The youth meeting hall is built with wooden walls and a thatched roof. Inside there are two floors. The bottom floor is for storing firewood. The upper floor is the sleeping area. There are also 10 carved wooden pillars, which represent the images of the ancestors. These images are used to teach the lessons handed down by the ancestors and the importance of passing on these teachings to future generations.

IV. Coastal Lifestyle of the Yami

The Yami, also known as the Tao, inhabits Lanyu (Orchid Island) located southeast of Taiwan proper. This is the only indigenous tribe to possess a marine culture. The ancestors of the Yami immigrated to Taiwan from the Batanes Islands of the Philippines. Their current population is more than 5,000. Yami society is based on equal rights, and there is no obvious social hierarchy or chieftain system. Individuals can cultivate various skills to earn special recognition.

1. Yami Village Introduction

A. Dwellings
The living area of the Yami consists of three buildings. The largest was the main house, followed by the workhouse and a free-standing veranda. The main house can be divided into a front porch, front room and back room. Usually, a home will be taken down by the children when the parents have passed away. The materials removed will be distributed among the sons. However, the oldest son has the right to keep the main post.

B. Workhouse
The workhouse was built in the front or back or to the left or right of the main house. It was usually a spacious room with good natural lighting. This is where the Yami worked during the day, and was also used for entertaining guests.

C. Free-standing Veranda
The platform of the free-standing veranda is about 150 cm from the ground. This height enables good views. Free-standing verandas were usually built near the paths leading to the village, and thus were where people would gather to chat. The Yami would often stop to rest at a free-standing veranda on their way back to the village from elsewhere on the island. In summer, this is where the Yami often eat and sleep, as they provide a good escape from the heat.

2. Fishing Boats

The Yami lives on Lanyu (Orchid Island), which is 49 nautical miles from Taitung in eastern Taiwan. Every year, from February to June, the Kuroshio, bring schools of flying fish, which the Yami traditionally caught using wooden fishing boats. Building a traditional fishing boat is a major event. Just obtaining the wood is a big task, as different parts of the boat require different types of wood. The boat is constructed with numerous planks that must be shaped to fit perfectly together using wooden dowels. The seams between the planks are sealed using plant materials.

3. Connection to the Supernatural World: The Main Post of Yami Homes

The main post in a traditional Yami home is made from the timber of Pometia pinnata. It is erected under the roof ridge beam in the back room of the home. It is considered the spiritual pillar of the home. When erecting the main pillar, it is necessary to slaughter a pig or goat and to smear the blood of the animal onto the post, while performing prayers. When a home is completed, the owner invites everyone in the village to a ceremony in front of the main post. This ceremony is called miparraka in the Yami language. During the ceremony, the owner of the house announces the heir of the main post. The main post is passed down until it is no longer able to be used. However, once removed it must be left to decay naturally and cannot be used as firewood.

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Text and images are provided by National Museum of Natural Science (The Digital Museum of Nature & Culture)