Many research scientists suggest that Southeast Asia, particularly the island of Taiwan, is the birthplace of the people who colonized the Pacific islands, therefore the ancestors of today’s Polynesians. The culture of the Aborigines of this island has striking similarities to Polynesian culture: tattooing, tapa, horticulture, cooking in an underground oven (ahima’a), etc. An exhibition organized in Tahiti until May 5, 2012, entitled “Our ancestors … Taiwan?” brings out the affinities between the two cultures.
Insulated lands scattered over the largest ocean on the planet, the Polynesian islands were undoubtedly among the last areas of the planet to be inhabited by man. Just as they were among the last countries to be “discovered” by the European explorers who reached their shores, first sporadically from the late sixteenth century and, more regularly, at the end of the eighteenth century. After long and perilous voyages, these navigators were surprised to meet islanders who had, somehow preceded them. They had inhabited these islands for hundreds of years before, using the methods and advanced navigation techniques whose existence disconcerted the Europeans. The surprise soon gave way to questions: where did the Polynesians come from and how did they manage to reach these islands? Several hypotheses were then advanced, one after another or simultaneously, to try to explain the settlements of Eastern Polynesia, among which was the present French Polynesia.
While such researches have shown that Polynesian maternal lineages originated in insular Southeast Asia, recent genetic research brings however some new perspective to the hypothesis of a biological “Taiwanese only” origin and of a unique “Lapita” settlement for Polynesians. For the record, the civilization called “Lapita” – named after an archaeological site in New Caledonia – is associated with the Austronesian people before they conquered remote Oceania from the closer oceanic lands. It therefore appears that the Polynesians are probably the result of several routes of settlement at different times.
Nevertheless, there are still, especially in Taiwan, small aborigines communities that have perpetuated traditions which are reminiscent of other cultures of South-East Asia and Oceania, an area of dissemination of Austronesian languages. These tribal communities are trying to continue living with their traditions and their ancient knowledge. Hence Danee Hazama’s interest, a photographer based in Tahiti, for these populations. “Danee Hazama, while combining an ethnographic approach to his art of photography, challenges us to these cultural ties that link Polynesian people to Taiwan Aborigines” says Tara Hiquily. It is indeed surprising that, through his photographs, the culture of the Aborigines of Taiwan shows striking similarities to Polynesian culture: tattooing, tapa, cooking in underground oven (ahima’a), horticulture, etc.
An Amazing Cultural “Kinship”
But who are these Aborigines of the old Formosa? 6,000 years ago, people from the coast of Southern China began to cross the strait separating the island from the mainland to settle in Taiwan. Their descendants still speak Austronesian languages, just like this of the people of navigators, which several millennia later, discovered and populated a large ocean area stretching from Madagascar to Easter Island and to Hawaii. Today, they are divided into 14 tribes living mainly in the mountainous areas of Taiwan, on its west coast and on the island of Lanyu (Orchids Island). They are the living witnesses of a way of life particularly close in many ways, to that which was, until the late eighteenth century, that of the Polynesians. This exhibition, held in Tahiti, has for objective to raise awareness about the various aspects of this cultural “kinship” illustrated all along a path acknowledging the existing complementarities between these two people separated by thousands of miles of vast ocean.
In Search Of Lost Origins
After several centuries of questioning and also decades of scientific research, it is now believed that this odyssey followed the slow prehistoric migration – over tens of thousands of years – of hunter-gatherers who became navigators and horticulturists. They would have reached the islands most remote from the Asian continent during their journey, first along the coast and the continental islands of the region, including Taiwan. This island would therefore be one of the cradles of Polynesian civilization.
“The relationship between the people of Austronesian culture spread between Madagascar and Rapa Nui is now an evidence that archeology, linguistics, anthropology and DNA studies have repeatedly confirmed over nearly half a century” , says Tara Hiquily, the Curator of the exhibition, in charge of the ethnographic collections at the Museum of Tahiti and her Islands. The term ”Austronesian” designates a language family whose domain extends from Taiwan to New Zealand and Madagascar and to Easter Island, excluding Australia and parts of New Guinea.
Since 4,000 B.C.
Located 160 km southeast of Mainland China, south of Japan and north of the Philippines, the island of Taiwan has long been known in French under the name Formosa. This independent island has been administered by the Government of the Republic of China since 1949. It is 394 km in its longest dimension and 144 km in its widest, it has just over 23 million people. While the first traces of human occupation date back 30,000 years ago, it was not until 4,000 BC that the first settlements of the ancestors of present Austronesian populations arrived in successive migration waves from South-East China and South-East Asia. These Taiwan Aborigines have therefore inhabited the island for several thousand years before the start of Chinese colonization in the seventeenth century, incidentally, the island was also occupied by the Dutch, the Spaniards and the Japanese.
These later arrivals of newcomers were not without consequences for the original populations. Those who were settled in the West Coast plains, were in fact more exposed and were quickly acculturated. The “Mountain Aborigines” (Gaoshan) found refuge in the inhospitable hills of the island, and remained there until the middle of the 20th century. Today, the population of Taiwan is composed of 98% of Han Chinese and 2% of Austronesians “Aborigines”. According to the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, more than 205 000 Aborigines, 40% of the population identified under that name, live today in the cities, a higher proportion than those living in the mountains (33%) or the plains (26% ).