Taiwan's Austronesian Heritage

For thousands of years, while emperors and warlords fought for dominance of the Asian mainland (China), peninsula (Korea), and island (Japan), another region was growing in the Pacific. According to anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists, supported by their research, the seeds of expansive Austronesian language dispersal began about 4,500 years ago from Taiwan.


The original Paleolithic settlers of Taiwan walked across during the last Ice Age approximately 30,000 years ago, when the sea levels were much lower. After the ice melted, the seas rose, and Taiwan became an island, separated from the rest of the East Asian mainland. Additional migrations of settlers arrived by ships as early as 6,500 years ago. The island, rich in flora, fauna, and natural resources, attracted many groups of people, each with their own unique language and culture.

Yami-and-Maori.jpgHome to a diverse human population, competition for territory and resources encouraged some groups to develop ships for trade and colonization of other nearby islands. According to scholars, they spread to lands that are now central Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand, and Madagascar. They shared a common language family, known as Austronesian. There are also many cultural similarities, including Lapita pottery, clothing, and ceremonies.

These ocean-going egalitarian societies participated in trade with each other for over several thousand years. The widespread Austronesian-speaking island peoples were later divided by many conquering powers such as the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, among others.

Now we have millions of people of Austronesian language heritage. These language areas are only recently aware of their cultural connection to each other, and there is a growing effort to promote cooperation between these countries. This international family could strengthen their ties and create more economic opportunities.


As the Austronesian language diaspora rediscovers Taiwan to find their roots, the island’s people are hosting them and facilitating their discoveries. The Taiwanese are increasingly aware of their Austronesian heritage and cultural diversity.

Tony Coolidge is the founder of the ATAYAL organization (www.atayal.org), developing projects to promote Austronesian cultural exchange. He is a Taiwanese-American business entrepreneur, journalist, and filmmaker who returned to Taiwan, his mother’s homeland, to develop international cultural exchange opportunities.

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