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Scientists analysed skulls (pictured) to confirm existence of legendary tiny people in Taiwan. Photo: SCMP composite

Scientists prove existence of tiny people - once enigmatic characters from legend - who inhabited Taiwan long before indigenous population

  • The people were extremely short with a dark complexion and were probably hunter-gatherers
  • They were familiar characters in Taiwanese indigenous legends, but no previous hard evidence had ever proven they existed

Taiwan famously features an indigenous population of Austronesian people whose history on the island stretches back 5,000 years.

But among these people, oral traditions have referred to another civilisation that seemed to be far older. They were often referred to as “pygmies” or tiny people and were described as having dark skin, curly hair and a diminutive stature.
For centuries, they only existed in fables, although they popped up with remarkable consistency over an extremely long period of time.

In early October, scientists proved they existed in Taiwan.

Modern ethnically Negritos people living in the Philippines in 2003. Photo: Hsiao-chun Hung

According to a paper published in World Archaeology, a peer-reviewed journal, archaeologists analysing skeletons from a cave in southeastern Taiwan built a strong argument that those remains belonged to “Negritos”, an ethnic group that still exists in the Philippines, Malay Peninsula and Andaman Islands.

“Prior to our work, some people knew about the legends of the ‘small black people’ of eastern Taiwan who reportedly lived there long ago, but the stories were unclear and generally regarded as a mystery,” said Hung Hsiao-chun, a senior research fellow of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University, and an author of the study.

Hung said the teams’ discovery represented proof that this ancient hunter-gatherer population had lived in Taiwan for centuries, and possibly tens of thousands of years before the island was later inhabited by the Austronesian people, who are the ancestors of modern indigenous groups.

The term “Negritos” is a direct Spanish translation meaning “small-black” and is the widely accepted scientific and historical name to refer to this ethnic group.

The geographical distribution of the living Negrito communities in Southeast Asia. Photo: Australian National University.

Negritos are believed to be descendants of the “First Sundaland People”. They are an important group of people for researchers studying the “Out of Africa” theory, as their ancestors are believed to have migrated eastward by following the coastlines stretching from Africa, through South Asia and eventually East Asia.

The scientists confirmed that the skulls found in a Taiwanese cave, called Xiaoma, are consistent with other Negrito skulls and, by analysing the femur bone, the team estimated that the skeletons were about 139cm (a bit under 4’6”) tall.

Hung said that the earliest known inhabitants of Taiwan arrived around 30,000 years ago when an ancient land bridge connected the island with modern-day mainland China. However, the land bridge disappeared about 10,000 years ago after being cut off by the sea.

“At several cave sites of eastern Taiwan, the ancient archaeological layers have shown that hunter-gatherers had been living in this area at least since 30,000 years ago. Therefore, the findings at Xiaoma around 6,000 years ago represented people of the same ancient hunter-gatherer population but at a much later time period,” said Hung.


Archaeologists in Georgia discover human tooth from 1.8 million years ago

Archaeologists in Georgia discover human tooth from 1.8 million years ago

Previous histories of Taiwan usually feature a major gap from about 15,000 years ago to 7,000 years ago. The Negrito skulls are around 6,000 years old, while Austronesian populations migrated to the island in significant numbers about 5,000 years ago.

This significant time gap raises intriguing questions. Were the Negrito cave dwellers descendants of those first humans who arrived 30,000 years ago? Or, did this tribe manage to sail to Taiwan before other ethnic groups? At this point, there is no evidence providing a definitive answer to those questions.

That being said, Hung said there was likely a crossover between the Negritos and the first Austronesian populations who landed in Taiwan around 5,000 years ago.

“At least some overlap and contact very likely occurred, although we do not yet know the details of these relations,” she told the South China Morning Post.

The legend of the Negrito people in Taiwan is quite interesting. Of the ethnic groups, about half of the Austronesians viewed the Negritos as enemies, while another half thought of them as either allies, neutrals or ancestors. However, one ethnic group, the Saisiyats, had a remarkably complicated relationship with the Negritos.

One of the larger caves in Xiaoma. Photo: Mike T. Carson

The Saisiyats, of which a small population still exists in Taiwan today, have a tradition called the “Pas-ta’ai” – a ritual to “honour the Short People”.

According to legend, the ancient Saisiyats and “dwarf-sized Ta’ai people” were neighbours, and the Ta’ai people taught the Saisiyats the basics of medicine, singing, dancing and other cultural traditions.

However, the legend says the Ta’ai people harassed the Saisiyat women, and eventually the ancient Saisiyat people decided they had enough and killed almost all of the Ta’ai people.

The myth says the Saisiyats then experienced a terrible famine, which they attributed to “vengeful pygmy spirits”. Now, every two years, the Saisiyats hold the “Pas-ta’ai” ritual to beg for forgiveness for their ancestors’ crimes.

The Pas-ta’ai traditional ceremony practised by the Saisiyat people in mainland China in 1936. Photo: National Taiwan University

Hung said the Negritos likely died out because their hunter-gatherer lifestyle clashed with increasingly sedentary agricultural societies. Over a few generations, they were likely pushed out of their habitat and struggled to adapt to the new way of living.

This was not uncommon to the experience of other Negrito populations in Asia, as Negritos in Southeast Asia also became endangered populations with the advent of widespread agriculture, albeit those populations did not go extinct like the tiny people in Taiwan did.