Taiwan – or Formosa as it was named by the Portuguese - is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. However only two percent of over 22 million inhabitants are indigenous Malayo-Polynesian, who speak the languages of the Australasian Family. In fact the richness of language branches of native Taiwanese suggests that this family group originated or matured on the island. Other cultural traits often point to Taiwan as the strong link in spreading Australasian-speaking people and their traditions through Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Indeed Australasian people migrated via extraordinary maritime journeys as far as Madagascar in the west, Easter Island in the east, Hawaii in the north and New Zealand in the south. These migrants propagated their cultural traditions, often modified to suit local conditions and preferences.

Indigenous Taroko - Clay Figue, Taiwan
Indigenous Taroko - Clay Figue, Taiwan Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

In the past few millennia, Southeast Asia has experienced many cultural changes which were layered on the older traditions. They ranged from the adoption of domesticated pigs and chickens, through to rice cultivation, the use of bananas, sweet potatoes and chillis; production of sophisticated bronzes and intricate textiles; new beliefs such as Hindu, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and astounding creativity in music, arts and literature.

However, underneath the layers of various cultural traditions, strong marks of common Australasian culture are clearly visible.

Some of these cultural markers include: Canoes with outriggers which allowed the extraordinary maritime migration to occur. Head-hunting was an important, dynamic element of social organisation, vital in political interaction in reaffirming or challenging power structure. Body and facial tattoos were a visual expression of social and political standing and attainment. Bark cloth – an iconic product of Australasian people – was not only an essential equivalent of textile and paper, but also a carrier of spiritual and ceremonial narrative.

Over a dozen of officially recognised indigenous groups live in Taiwan. Many other groups cannot achieve such status, as their genealogies and cultural evidence was destroyed through colonial intervention and violence. Marginalised, and suffering discrimination, as indigenous people in most countries, they are testimony to common origin and strong historical links between many Pacific islanders and their Asian roots.