About 6,000 years ago, Taiwan was inhabited by Austronesians, who brought with them Neolithic technology and still make up about 2 percent of the island’s population. However, 15 of the 16 Austronesian groups on the island have stories of small, dark people already living in the forests of the island and perhaps surviving alongside the Austronesians until very recently. The discovery of a skull confirms the stories and helps place the lost people in the human family tree.
The presence of stone tools, some dating back 30,000 years, proved that Austronesian stories were not just the equivalent of European fairy or elf myths. However, until now scientists had no way of knowing anything about these first inhabitants.
The discovery of a skull and partial skeleton in the Xiaoma Caves on the east coast of Taiwan changes that. In World Archaeology, Dr Hsiao-chun Hung of the Australian National University investigates what a person’s remains can tell us.
The Xiaoma skull can be seen from all angles. 13 measurements were used for comparison with skulls from other populations. Image source: Hirofumi Matsumura
Austronesian groups had very different views of the people living next to them. Many describe them in hostile terms and have stories of combat. However, at least four groups tell stories of interbreeding with the so-called “little blacks,” and one group, the Saisiyat, continues to hold ceremonies in honor of what they call the Ta’ai, whom they consider their teachers.
As varied as these attitudes are, all groups share physical descriptions of people with dark skin, small body sizes, and curly hair living in the forested mountains, often in caves.
The skull found at Xiaoma is consistent with these accounts. It was in a layer about 5,900 years old, around the time the Austronesians were arriving. However, his features make it clear that he belonged to someone of a different heritage.
Not only is the skull small, but 13 measurements of its shape most closely match those of the Negrito people of the Philippines, followed by those of the Andaman Islands. During the Ice Age, Taiwan was connected to both the mainland and the Philippines, and people probably arrived on foot. “So far, however, no site in Taiwan has been dated between 15,000 and 6,600 years ago,” Hung told IFLScience, making it possible that the ancestors of the Xiaoma people arrived by boat to an island whose original inhabitants had fled.
The authors conclude that the bones belonged to a woman, who was buried in a squatting posture found in hunter-gatherer graves in southern China and Southeast Asia, strengthening the connection.
Hung told IFLScience that although Taiwan’s pre-Neolithic population density was probably low, “The rarity of human remains from this period reflects the rarity of preservation at ancient sites after so many thousands of years.” He attributes this primarily to the climate. Hung added that archaeologists have not looked hard for older burial sites and hope to fix that.
Hung told IFLScience that around 7,000 years ago flake tools similar to those used by hunter-gatherers elsewhere in Southeast Asia reached Taiwan, possibly through contact with fishermen from Luzon. The Taiwanese versions are smaller and benefited from the high quality stone available.
The skull and parts of the skeleton in their original position and stone tools from the same layer of cave number 5 Xiaoma. Image credit: Hung et al/World Archaeology
Reports from the Qing indicate that the original inhabitants survived as a distinct people until two centuries ago. Even today they may not be completely gone. Geneticists have contacted Hung and told her they believe there is evidence of their DNA among modern Austronesians.
The cave where the skull was found is 800 meters (half a mile) from the sea, but co-author Dr Mike Carson of the University of Guam told IFLScience:[Taiwan’s] The East Coast Range is one of the fastest-rising geological formations in the world.” When the person was buried there, the site would have been closer to the sea and a nearby river, offering the inhabitants both fresh water and a nearby food source.
Map of Taiwan, showing the Xiaoma Caves where the skull was found and other important cave complexes. Image credit: Australian National University
The study is published in World Archeology (open access).