The discovery of a 6,000-year-old skull of a Negrito woman confirms legends by almost all of Taiwan’s Indigenous tribes of “little Black people” that span centuries.
On Oct. 4, a journal article article was published in World Archaeology titled “Negritos in Taiwan and the wider prehistory of Southeast Asia: new discovery from the Xiaoma Caves.” The authors of the study report that cranial morphometric studies of a skeleton found in the Xiaoma Caves in Taitung County’s Chenggong Township “for the first time, validates the prior existence of small stature hunter-gatherers 6,000 years ago.”
With the exception of the Yami (Tao) people on Orchid Island, Taiwan’s 15 other indigenous peoples have legends about “little Black people” who were short in stature, with dark skin, and frizzy hair who lived in remote mountain areas. Some 258 accounts of these peoples by Indigenous tribes have been recorded by researchers in the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese colonial period, and since 1945.
Qing Dynasty records state that these dark-skinned peoples spoke languages that were different from the Austronesians. The Saisiyat have legends of extensive contact with the “Black pygmy people,” who they called the Ta’ai.
Saisiyat say they learned much in the way of medicine, singing, dancing, and other rituals from the Ta’ai. However, because they claimed that Ta’ai often harassed their women, so the Saisiyat killed most of them by laying a trap.
They soon came to regret this act because the tribe suffered many misfortunes afterward and it was two surviving elder Ta’ai members who taught the Saisiyat the Pas-ta’ai ritual. This ritual has since been performed every two years for many centuries, with a grand ceremony practiced once every 10 years.
Scientists found the skull was that of a female and her cranial features and size were closest to Philippine Negritos and the people of India’s Andaman Islands. This population is believed to be tied to the “first layer” of anatomically modern humans (AMH) who show a closer resemblance to Africans than present-day Eurasians, who represent the “second-layer.”
The “Out of Africa” theory posits that Negrito groups in the Andaman Islands, Malay Peninsula, and Philippines are descended from some of the earliest groups of AMH who are believed to have traveled by land from Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia. It is not yet certain whether their short stature comes from common ancestry or developed later in different areas.
Although archeologists did not find a full skeleton, they estimate the woman was 139 centimeters tall. Researchers are not yet certain whether this group of people was already short in stature before they came to Taiwan or later developed that trait.
It is also uncertain where this group of people came from before arriving in Taiwan. Possible locations mentioned are the Philippines, Borneo, or elsewhere in Mainland Asia.
A few hundred years after what they are calling the “Xiaoma lady” lived in Taiwan, a wave of Neolithic farmers with different features began to stream into Taiwan in 4,800 BC and began to inhabit areas near Xiaoma. The researchers believe that these Neolithic farmers, who formed much larger communities may have driven the Negritos into “refuge” zones such as remote mountain areas.
The authors of the study suggested that this increasing isolation or linguistic differences with the Austronesian peoples could have led to the decline and disappearance of the Negritos in Taiwan.