Taiwan is often presented as a thoroughly Chinese society, and you’d be forgiven for thinking its people were homogenous. Long before the 17th century, when Chinese migrants began to settle on the island, Taiwan was home to at least 25 Austronesian ethnic groups. These aborigines, who currently number around 534,000, still speak more than a dozen languages. These tongues are very different to the Mandarin and Hokkien used by most Taiwanese citizens, and the fabulous linguistic diversity they display is one reason many scholars are now convinced Taiwan is where the Austronesian branch of humanity began.
Archaeological discoveries also support the theory that Austronesian people spread out from Taiwan to Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand and other places in the first millennium AD.
Taiwan's indigenous people are slightly darker and stockier than their Chinese compatriots. Their eyes are rounder, their noses more prominent. But generations of intermarriage have blurred the boundaries between Chinese and Austronesian. Many, possibly a majority, of the former have some indigenous blood.
Taiwan’s aborigines account for just over two per cent of Taiwan's 23 million people, but they're very well represented in the fields of pop music and professional sport. However, these glamorous worlds are far removed from the lives of most indigenes. On average, they earn less and have fewer years of schooling than Taiwanese of Chinese descent. Many leave their villages in Taiwan’s mountainous interior to take labouring jobs in the big cities...
The complete article can be read in the May edition of Sawasdee, the inflight magazine of Thai Airways, and is accompanied with photographs taken by Rich J. Matheson. The photo here, taken in Pingtung County's Wutai Township, is mine.
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