Oct 12, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Fossils of an Ancient Mysterious Little People Species Discovered in Taiwan

The study of archaic (pre-modern) humans took an unusual alternative path in 2003 with the discovery of remains on the Indonesian island of Flores of an adult individual who stood 3 feet, 7 inches (1.1 meters) in height. As partial remains of at least nine more of these diminutive hominins were discovered, anthropologists realized they had found a news species which they named Homo floresiensis – however, popular culture quickly nicknamed them “Hobbits” and that is what they are better known as. The most recent phylogenetic (evolutionary) analysis studies conclude that H. floresiensis is an early species of Homo and a sister species of Homo habilis – another diminutive extinct hominin which lived 2 million years ago in east and south Africa. Now, it looks like another small branch of small hominins has been discovered – this time in Taiwan, where almost all of the indigenous peoples have legends of a short, dark-skinned group of hunter-gatherer people who lived on the island before the modern Austronesians arrived. Femur bones from a female who lived 6,000 years ago resemble no other species, so researchers believe they have found proof of the existence of legendary – and unfortunately extinct -- Ta’ai, which the invaders from Spain later called “Negritos.”

It is amazing what researchers can learn from parts of skeletons (not the remains from the story)

“This study solves the several-hundred-years-old mysteries of ‘little black people’ legends in Formosan Austronesian tribes and brings insights into the broader prehistory of Southeast Asia.”

In a study titled, “Negritos in Taiwan and the wider prehistory of Southeast Asia: new discovery from the Xiaoma Caves,” published recently in the journal World Archeology, a team of archeologists led by Hsiao-chun Hung of the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University, describe how they discovered a female human skeleton in the Xiaoma Caves about 400 meters north of Donghe on the eastern coastline of Taiwan. The 6,000-year-old skeleton was carefully placed in a squatting position used by other ancient hunter-gatherer cultures in southern China and Southeast Asia dating back to the Paleolithic period 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. The researchers gave their female discovery the name “Xiaoma lady."

“Although Taiwan is known for this long and unbroken occupation by the Austronesian people, the Formosan oral traditions often refer to rare encounters with ‘small-statured and dark-skinned people’ in the remote mountains. These traditions for a long time have been mysterious as possibly referring to a group who had descended from an even older population, pre-dating the Austronesian context, who somehow continued to dwell in isolated areas until one or two centuries ago.”

The existence of these small, dark-statured people is told in the oral traditions of 15 of the 16 indigenous groups of Taiwan, with the Saisiyat tribe claiming they learned medicine, singing, dancing and other rituals from the people who they called, Ta'ai. The best written documentation of the mysterious people comes from China’s Quin Dynasty (1683-1895 CE) which mentions “small-statured and dark-skinned people” in Taiwan who spoke a different language and only intermarried among themselves. After 1945, linguistic and ethnological field research collected many more stories from indigenous Austronesian groups. While all but one agreed they existed, some saw them as their ancestors, while others believed they were “aliens and enemies,” and some were said to have interbred with the small humans.

What is common among the stories is that the small people had the island of Taiwan to themselves up until 4,800 years ago, when Neolithic farmers began to arrive in what is now called the Austronesian expansion. That was a good time for the Ta’ai or Negritos … for a while. It appears they coexisted on Taiwan for a few thousand years, but their larger cousins eventually pushed them out of the prime lands and into the mountains. However, the ones who lived amongst the Saisiyat group fared the worst.

“In addition to the legends, the Saisiyat who live in the mountain areas of Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties have sustained traditional ceremonial events and songs in honour of their ancestors’ neighbours, mentioned as the ‘black pygmy people’, including the most famous event known as the ‘Pas-ta’ai’.”

According to the study, thing began well between the Saisyat and the Ta’ai people, as the Ta’ai shared their knowledge of medicine and their love of dancing and singing. However, the Ta’ai also liked to harass the women of the Saisiyat. Things came to an ugly confrontation about 1,000 years ago when the Saisiyat could take no more harassment. They attacked the last known village of the Ta’ai and drove all of the small people onto a bridge, which they then shook and tipped until all of the Ta’ai fell into the raging Chu Fung-lu mountain river and drowned. It is believed that that the Saisiyat immediately regretted wiping out the little people and feared the revenge of their spirits, so they began the Pas-ta’ai’ ritual to worship and appease their spirits – the ritual was still performed in modern times.

“Xiaoma lady" was not part of the last of the little people of Taiwan – in fact, she probably never met any of the new arrivals. The skeleton and the artifacts found in the cave (many photos appear in the study) offer little in the way of explaining where these Negritos came from nor if they were part of other Negrito peoples of the Philippines and India's Andaman Islands. It is believed that Xiaoma lady’s people are part of what is called the "first layer" of anatomically modern humans (AMH) who more closely resemble Africans rather than modern Eurasians, the "second-layer" of AMH. As Taiwan News explains, many researchers believe that these Negrito groups in the Andaman Islands, Malay Peninsula, and Philippines are descended from ancient extinct humans who traveled by land from Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia. One big mystery – is their short stature from common short ancestors or did it happen naturally and concurrently in multiple areas?

How much more can we learn from these ancient remains?

Most of Xiaoma lady’s descendants died from isolation in remote mountain areas, while the rest were killed by the Saisiyat and probably by other groups who took advantage of them. The invading Europeans then lumped the stories together into one big “Negrito” category – ignoring the many nuances and histories of these unusual people.

Will we ever find the true origin of the Ta’ai? Will we learn anything from the consequences of their harassments?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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