The best way to prove some mythical stories were based on real events is through archaeology. On several occasions, myths and legends have been confirmed by modern science, and there is always room for discoveries and interpretations of past stories.
A recent discovery of a curious 6,000-year-old skull raises the possibility that an unusual mythical tribe of small people existed and that the locals’ oral traditions were based on actual events.
The preceramic human remains from No. 5 Cave (1) and representative stone tools from the preceramic layer, including the cobble chopping tools (2), flake tools (3), and fine-material lithic tools made of quartz (4) of Xiaoma (after Huang and Chen 1990).
The ancient skull and some femur bones were found in the Xiaoma Caves in Taiwan. For hundreds of years, people in Tawain have kept the oral traditions of rare encounters with ‘small-statured and dark-skinned people in the remote mountains alive. Who were these mysterious “little people”? Scientists say the unearthed 6,000-year-old skull may finally solve the several-hundred-years-old mysteries of ‘little black people’ legends in Formosan Austronesian tribes.
“The island of Taiwan (Formosa) was occupied by Austronesian-speaking people for five millennia (Bellwood 2017; Blust 2019), long before the arrivals of the Spanish and Dutch in the 1620s and the Chinese Han settlers in the 1660s. 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.
As local legends describe, this particular group resembles the small-bodied ‘Negrito’ foragers in Southeast Asia and the Andaman Islands. The term ‘Negrito’, little black person, is a Spanish diminutive of negro, first used by the 16th-century Spanish missionaries to describe the hunter-gatherers in the Philippines. As the Negrito groups are characterized by their short stature, dark skin, and frizzy hair, all groups of a similar phenotype in the neighboring region, including the Mani (Maniq) in southern Thailand, the Semang groups in Peninsular Malaysia, and the Andamanese in the Andaman Islands are often labelled together as the Negritos.
Although showing a similar pheCranial of the Xiaoma female from Cave No. 5.
Although showing a similar phenotype across a broad geographical scale, nonetheless these groups are diverse in terms of anthropological, linguistic, and morphological characteristics. In contrast, the physical characteristics and the subsistence strategy, social organization, and cultural beliefs of the Negrito hunter-gathers are very different from their neighbouring Asiatic-affiliated farming groups, such as the dominant Austronesian communities in the Philippines or in Peninsular Malaysia,” the researchers write in their study.
The Xiaoma Caves at the base of the hill, view looking toward the west. Credit: Mike T. Carson
Based on these results, scientists concluded the myths of the small-statured and dark-skinned people were true and confirmed the existence of the ancient people in Taiwan, no one knows what happened to them and why they vanished. One theory is these small-sized individuals were killed by neighboring tribes about 1,000 years ago. Scientists also discovered documents from the Quin Dynasty that mention small, dark-skinned people; some may have survived and moved to other areas.