“In honor of the Little Black People”
Such was the heading of a 2004 story in the Taipei Times. Its subtitle was equally droll: “The Saisiyat tribe of Hsinchu and Miaoli will perform a solemn rite this weekend to commemorate a race of people that they exterminated.”
Drinking, singing and dancing are expected to take place deep in the mountains of Miaoli and Hsinchu when the “Ritual of the Little Black People” (矮靈祭) is performed by the Saisiyat tribe once again this weekend.
For the past 100 years or so, the Saisiyat tribe (賽夏族) has performed the songs and rites of the festival to bring good harvests, ward off bad luck and keep alive the spirit of a race of people who are said to have preceded all others in Taiwan.
The “Taiwanese” are, for the most part, descended from Han Chinese settlers who settled the island after its seizure from the Dutch by Sino-Japanese Ming loyalist Koxinga. Predating them and today reduced to around 2% of Taiwan’s population are the so-called Taiwanese aborigines, tribal groups like the Saisiyat who speak (increasingly, spoke) Austronesian languages. Though the chronology remains in dispute, linguistic as well as genetic and archeological evidence points to Taiwan as the Urheimat of this family — the root of a many-forked tree of tongues lolling from Madagascar to Hawaii and Easter Island.
So whom do the Saisiyat commemorate? Negritos, the article claims — a catch-all for short, superficially African-like peoples represented today by the Andaman Islanders and tribes sprinkled throughout the Malay Peninsula and insular Southeast Asia (e.g., the Philippine Aetas at right). With the exception of the Andamanese (for whom we look to the British and Indians), most of these tribes have been severely marginalized by the expansion of Austro-Asiatic and Austronesian agriculturalists, whose languages they have adopted; physical evidence for similar peoples further north in East Asia is scantier, but any such groups assuredly suffered a similar fate. It’s worth mentioning, if only skeptically, that physical anthropologists have claimed to see Negrito affinity in groups as far afield as Tasmania, Yemen, and even Japan.
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