6,000-year-old skull confirms legend of indigenous ‘tiny’ people in Taiwan

The discovery questions the origin of an older population in Taiwan, their disappearance, and the ancient human migrations in Southeast Asia.
Deena Theresa
The cranial profile of the Xiaoma female.
The cranial profile of the Xiaoma female.

Hirofumi Matsumura 

An international team of researchers might have proved the existence of an indigenous population of Austronesian people — whose presence was only recalled from fables and legends — from a cave in Taiwan.

Archeologists from Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam analyzed skeletons from a cave in southeastern Taiwan and published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal World Archeology. According to the archeologists, the 6,000-year-old skull and femur bones found belonged to "Negritos", an ethnic group that continues to exist 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," Hung Hsiao-chun, a senior research fellow of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University, and an author of the study, told the South China Morning Post.

The ancestors of modern indigenous groups

According to Hung, the discovery indicated that the hunter-gatherer population lived in Taiwan for tens of thousands of years before the island was inhabited by the Austronesian people - the ancestors of modern indigenous groups.

Upon examining the bones left in the mountainous region, the researchers confirmed that the skulls found in a Taiwanese cave, called Xiaoma, were similar to other Negrito skulls. Femur bones found near the skull were from the same person as the skull, a young woman a bit under 4'6'' tall.

"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.

However, the time frame raises questions. The Negrito skulls are around 6,000 years old, while Austronesian populations date far back about 5,000 years ago. This could either mean the Negrito cave dwellers were descendants of the first humans who arrived 30,000 years ago or they sailed to Taiwan before the other groups.

How did the Negritos vanish?

Hung told SCMP that there could have been a "crossover between the Negritos and the first Austronesian populations who landed in Taiwan around 5,000 years ago".

The researchers also note in their paper that the mention of such small, dark-skinned people was referenced in documents from the Quin Dynasty. However, different groups have different stories - one sees them as enemies, and the other claims to have killed off the ancient people 1,000 years ago.

Hung told SCMP that the Negritos probably died out because their hunter-gatherer lifestyle didn't merge well with sedentary agricultural societies. They were likely ousted from their habitat and struggled to adapt to what resembled the new way of living.

Study abstract:

Taiwan is known as the homeland of the Austronesian-speaking groups, yet other populations already had lived here since the Pleistocene. Conventional notions have postulated that the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers were replaced or absorbed into the Neolithic Austronesian farming communities. Yet, some evidence has indicated that sparse numbers of non-Austronesian individuals continued to live in the remote mountains as late as the 1800s. The cranial morphometric study of human skeletal remains unearthed from the Xiaoma Caves in eastern Taiwan, for the first time, validates the prior existence of small-stature hunter-gatherers 6000 years ago in the preceramic phase. This female individual shared remarkable cranial affinities and small stature characteristics with the Indigenous Southeast Asians, particularly the Negritos in northern Luzon. This study solves the several-hundred-year-old mysteries of ‘little black people’ legends in Formosan Austronesian tribes and brings insights into the broader prehistory of Southeast Asia.

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