November 17, 2008 / 6:58 AM / 9 years ago

"Negritos" celebrated as early Taiwan settlers

WUFENG VILLAGE, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - Chinese have long been the dominant race in Taiwan, trailed by a tiny Asian aboriginal population. The government says so. Historians agree.

But they seldom mention a group of short, dark-skinned people who are believed to be among the oldest settlers in the island.

"Most people don't know, as this is passed on by word of mouth," said Wu Yu-ling, an oral history master's student at Tung Hua University in Taiwan. "I knew it because it was my research topic. It's a precious piece of history that should be studied."

These dark-skinned people are believed to be ethnically similar to Negritos, a term that covers several ethnic groups in isolated parts of Southeast Asia.

Although they share the dark skin and short stature of African pygmy populations, they are genetically distant from Africans and their exact origin and migration route to Asia remain a mystery.

Those who know the legacy best in Taiwan belong to an existing aboriginal group that killed what they believe to be the last village of Negritos in a battle over women 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.

The group that remains, the Saisiyat, dances for three straight bonfire-lit nights every two years to remember them. Their latest memorial ended early on Monday morning.

"There's a bit of guilt, so we're apologising to them," said Chu Fung-lu, master of ceremonies for the memorial held in Wufeng Village deep in the mountains of central Taiwan. "We want them to protect us, to give us safety."

Taiwan's Negritos, gone for good now may have reached Taiwan from Madagascar via the islands of Southeast Asia, scholars say.

Taiwan's Council of Aboriginal Affairs quietly acknowledges the dark-skinned tribe, called the "small people." Some scholars say that as many as 90,000 may have lived in Taiwan.

Because the lost tribe excelled in farming, the Saisiyat borrowed their agricultural knowledge, today's group elders say. The two groups got on until the dark-skinned men took an interest in women from the Saisiyat, a group with lighter, brown skin and Asian features, Chu said.

The Saisiyat, he said, forced a battle, cornering so many people on a bridge that the entire tribe drowned when warriors tipped it into a fast-flowing mountain river.

"But we're not afraid of their ghosts coming back, because they, too, were in the wrong," Chu said.

All of Taiwan's estimated 7,000 ethnic Saisiyat are expected to drop at some time during the memorial. At the opening this past weekend, about 200 watched fire-wielding dancers in costumes decorated with musical chimes.

As the events are seldom publicized, most Taiwan people do not know about their island's Negrito legacy. Ethnic Chinese make up 98 percent of Taiwan's 23 million population.

"Most don't know because the Han Chinese focus on their own history," said Pan Chiu-jung, curator of a Saisiyat cultural museum in Taiwan.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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