Archaeologists in Taiwan recently discovered an unusual female skeleton buried in a remote cave, which proves centuries-old legends about so-called “short, dark-skinned Negrito people” living in the mountains.
Between 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, sea levels were much lower, and the Taiwan Strait was exposed. This offered a land bridge for the first hunter-gatherers to explore the island of Taiwan. Mainstream archaeology currently maintains that in the Neolithic period (5,000 years ago), Austronesian-speaking farmers from the southeast coast of China began settling on Taiwan. According to history books, the ancient lineage of hunter-gatherers died out 5,000 years ago when they were absorbed into the Neolithic farming cultures, from which modern Taiwanese aborigines descended.
However, a new study suggests the legendary “Negritos” reputed to live in the remote mountains of Taiwan until the 1800s were, in fact, surviving descendants of the first hunter-gatherers on the island.
The eastern coastline of Taiwan near Donghe has several cave systems, including the Xiaoma Caves. Photo of the researchers in front of one of the larger Xiaoma caves (Mike Carson / CC BY NC ND 4.0 )
Measuring Up the Semi-Mythological Ancient Negrito Woman
Archaeologists recently discovered a female human skeleton in the Xiaoma Caves, about 400 meters north of Donghe on the eastern coastline of Taiwan. The woman’s remains were carefully laid in a squatting position approximately 6,000 years ago. The new paper said this matches the position of hunter-gatherer bodies unearthed from other graves in southern China and Southeast Asia dating from the Paleolithic (50,000 to 12,000 years ago), the Mesolithic (10,000 to 20,000 years ago) and the Preceramic periods (4,000 years ago).
Photo of Philippine Negrito women, circa 1900. The Negrito skeleton found on Taiwan had cranial similarities to those from Luzon, Philippines ( Public Domain )
The new study presented “cranial morphometric analysis” on the ancient woman’s skull. This scientific discipline quantifies changes in bone shape revealing evolutionary significance and relationships. The skull revealed what the scientists called “cranial affinities with the Negritos in northern Luzon,” in the northern portion of the Philippines archipelago. The team of archaeologists also analyzed the woman’s femur bones and concluded that she was about 1.37 meters (4 feet 6 inches) tall.
Depictions of the Aeta hunters of Luzon Island, Philippines, from the Boxer Codex circa 1595. The Aeta were one of several so-called ‘Negritos’ peoples of the pre-Hispanic Philippines. ( Public Domain )
Little Black People Living in the Mountains
So-called ‘Negrito’ (black) groups are shorter in stature, with dark skin and frizzy hair. According to the latest article, this human phenotype is observed “in the Mani (Maniq) in southern Thailand, the Semang groups in peninsular Malaysia, and the Andamanese in the Andaman Islands are often labeled together as the ‘Negritos’.”
A report in the Daily Mail said scientists have proven the existence of a 6,000-year-old, short, black-skinned hunter-gatherer from the pre-ceramic phase in Taiwan “for the first time”. Furthermore, the discovery has finally substantiated a several centuries-old legend told in Formosan Austronesian tribes about ‘little black people’ hiding in the mountains.
Mountain tribes in the Philippines referred to as Negritos were populous. Analysis of recently discovered, 6,000-year-old human remains in Taiwan supports Taiwanese Negrito legends. 1899 photo of indigenous Philippine Negritos. ( Public Domain )
When Reality Is Misinterpreted As Mythology
Several Chinese Qing Dynasty (1683-1895 AD) records, and later Japanese period records, detailed “small-statured and dark-skinned people” living on what is today Taiwan. These accounts said they spoke their own language and only intermarried. Furthermore, legends about ‘Negritos’ are shared by all but one of the 16 recognized Austronesian groups in Taiwan. According to the Daily Mail report, the Saisiyat tribe claim to have learned “medicine, singing, dancing and other rituals” from the people who they called Ta’ai.
The scientists conclude that the Negrito population descended from the first waves of anatomically modern humans to arrive on Taiwan. These hunter-gatherers resembled Africans more than Eurasians, the latter of which represent the ‘second-layer’ of people on the island. While the researchers are unclear as to what happened to this newly-identified ancient group, the study speculated that the arrival of the Austronesian peoples “could have led to the decline and disappearance of the Negritos” in Taiwan.
Top Image: The cranial profile of the female ‘Negrito’ skeleton found in Xiaoma Caves Source: Hirofumi Matsumura / CC BY NC ND 4.0 )
By Ashley Cowie
Hung, H., Matsumura, H., Nguyen, L., Hanihara, T., Huang, S., and Carson, M. Negritos in Taiwan and the wider prehistory of Southeast Asia: new discovery from the Xiaoma Caves . World Archeology. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00438243.2022.2121315?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Liberatore, S. October 7, 2022. Legends of ‘Negrito’ people living in Taiwan confirmed . Daily Mail. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-11291649/Legends-Negrito-people-living-Taiwan-CONFIRMED-study-says.html