Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: austronesian
Friday, 11 January 2013 16:37

Sakinu Ahronglong: Poetry and Song

Ahronglong Sakinu is a full-time police man, working in forest conservation, and an amateur writer, recording the wisdom passed down for generations in his tribe. Here he presents us with a poem and a song which he performed at the 2012 International Austronesian Conference - Weaving Waves's Writings:

Friday, 21 December 2012 14:46

Two Atayal villages on Taiwan East Coast

Jinyang Village

In February 2012, during the Chinese New Year Holidays, I went with Benoit Vermander and my brother to two Atayal villages on the East Coast of Taiwan: Jinyang village and Wutah. There I met again with two of the aboriginal students I accompanied to Canada for a cultural exchange in September 2011. We asked them to take us to the places and people which would represent and explain the best their Atayal traditions. 

Friday, 21 December 2012 11:54

From Tafalong to Honiara

The genesis of  the movie “Writings that Weave Waves”

It was in 2008 that I participated for the first time in the shooting of a documentary with the Ricci Institute:  during the month  of July of this year, as a small crew, we went to a village on the East coast of  Taiwan to follow a young Amis woman, Nakao Eki. She was engaged in research concerning aboriginal oral history, and as a part of her studies, she was returning for the first time in 7 years to Tafalong, an Amis village on Taiwan’s East coast (Hualien county) which is especially famous for its harvest festival. After two month of filming, editing, and post-production work, a movie was born: On the fifth day the sea tide rose…

Through the metaphor of the “tide”, the title already suggests the idea of Taiwan being shaped by waves. Indeed the title was chosen after one of the lines of an Amis song we recorded and which tells the legend of a mythical wave that brought to this place the  founding ancestors of Tafalong village. Besides this, the expression also reminds of the different waves that pound the shore of Taiwan: those of the ocean but also the waves of migration.

Thus, this very first movie experience not only introduced me to the basics of filming and editing but also to the aboriginal culture of Taiwan.  Indeed, the movie depicts the way the main character and her family deal individually and collectively with their history, and more precisely with the memory of their history. This first contact with the East Formosans already raised some questions about the way the aboriginals pictured in this movie related to the Pacific as the ocean is important in their legends and culture but they personally seemed to feel estranged to its physical existence.

At the same time, the Ricci Institute was following its shift towards the Pacific with the creation of the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies (TSPS).  In September 2011, I had the chance to accompany the Ricci Institute in taking a group of 14 aboriginal students who were sent to Canada for a cultural exchange with the First Nations peoples (a project sponsored by the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan - CIP). I was  in charge of filming the trip. It was only 9 days but for some of the students it was the first time they had ever left Taiwan and despite the brevity of the trip it was a mind opening experience in a variety of ways.   First of all, they undeniably found more self-confidence , especially after the preparation for the trip for which they had to take classes on history, culture, dance and singing. They also bonded in special way with the aboriginals they met in Canada and one could feel a real kinship between them despite the fact that the cultures are not so similar at first glance.  In fact, it was through singing and dancing together that the connections between them really became clear. But at the same time, this experience also seemed to make some of them realize how much they were alienated from their own culture and traditions.

Two parallel concepts became the starting point of a new documentary:
1. How young Taiwanese aborigines relate to their own culture and how are their traditions and knowledge transmitted?
2. How do they relate in particular to the Pacific, is there only a global Pacific culture and what would be its features?

In the meanwhile, we were planning the conference and the idea of ‘weaving’ occurred naturally, after all, a movie can also be conceived as a patchwork of images woven together.  

I chose then to go visit two of the students who were part of the trip to Canada. And in February 2012, Benoit Vermander, my brother and I went to two Atayal villages located in Ilan County on Taiwan’s East coast: Jinyang and Wutah. Despite the fact that these villages are not too far from the ocean, these aborigines still consider themselves from the mountain more than the coast. We just asked them to show us their villages and aspects of their traditional culture on the go. Our plan was also to take these students to another island in the Pacific to let them experience the culture of another Pacific island. We decided then to set out for the Solomon Islands because of its special diplomatic links with Taiwan and because the country was organizing this year’s Festival of Pacific Arts. It was a unique opportunity to gain an insight into the diversity of the cultures of the Pacific where Taiwan aboriginal culture would also be  represented as the Council of Indigenous Peoples was able this time to send a performance troupe.

Unfortunately, neither of the two boys could come on the trip in the end. One was called for military service and the other had to finish his medical internship. So we went to find another student from a village in the same area. Yubax Hayung (羅秀英) was born of an Atayal father and a Bunun mother and she is from Aohua, an Atayal village located a few kilometers away from the other two villages and from the coast. She turned out to be a very interesting character to follow, being also probably one of the most unsettled within the group of students.

Thus, in July 2012, we flew to the Solomon Islands to continue the shooting and I completed the editing within four months in order to present the movie at the International Austronesian  conference organized on November 27-28 this year  by the CIP and the TSPS.

Solomons lilisiana

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The summary of the documentary is available here:


Or watch the trailer


Tuesday, 16 October 2012 17:24

Sra Manpo Ciwidian: Models for Autonomous Development

I’m Sra Manpo Ciwidian from the Pangcah (Amis) Tribe. I was born in the Ancuhy (安通) tribal village. When I was still young, my parents decided to leave their home in the east of Taiwan due to economic considerations and in order to get a good education for their children, and the four of us moved to Taoyuan County, where we live to this day. I read diplomacy for my undergraduate degree, in the course of which I learned a lot about international politics. A field research project inspired me to rethink my own relationship with aboriginal communities, so I applied to change my degree to joint honours with ethnology. I knew that if I wanted to help my tribe to protect their cultural heritage, I would have to broaden my perspective on it and learn more about it, in order to improve things for the aboriginal peoples. In 2009 I passed the admittance examination for the National Chengchi University’s Ethnology Masters program, gaining entry to the program.

In the course of reading my masters, I got to know aboriginal classmates from different backgrounds, and we founded a group of Amis young people in our age set studying in the North of Taiwan called La Qinghan. It was as if we’d brought the feel of our tribal villages to the capital. Whether we were having a laugh, singing, or engaged in more serious discussions about the current issues affecting aboriginal peoples, it made me feel that even though I was in the capital, I had a concrete sense of belonging.

When I complete my studies, I always hoped to be able to integrate the fields of diplomacy and ethnology. This was, therefore, a great opportunity for me to broaden my own horizons by harnessing my own identity as a Taiwanese aborigine and coming into contact with the larger world; at the same time, I had the chance to interact with other Austronesian groups like myself, the indigenous Fijian people, from several different perspectives, in the hope that the dialogue we engaged in during the visit would provide a frame of reference for the way aboriginal affairs are dealt with in Taiwan.

Our trip was divided into two parts, specifically our encounters with the different villages and our visit to the University of the South Pacific. We visited four villages during the trip: Navala, Koromakawa, Muaivusu and Korova. In our visits to these four villages we observed not only the beauty of the villages themselves, but we also got an idea of the social intimacy amongst the villagers. Even though we spent only half a day in each village, the feelings of unfamiliarity were quickly broken down by the overwhelming similarities in language and culture.

I attached a lot of importance to how the village had chosen to orientate its development and how it took the initiative to develop autonomously. In contrast to the more touristic development model of the villages of Navala and Koromakawa, I’d like to share my experience of visiting the other two villages, which left the deepest impression on me of the whole trip.

Muaivusu village chose marine life protection as its orientation for village development. Muaivusu wasn’t involved in the tourism industry, and few tourists visited the village. USP Professor Randy Thaman brought us to the village, he had been working in cooperation with local villages to protect the ocean for over ten years, throughout this period he’s seen how the marine ecology had gone from near destruction to gradual recovery. His environmental protection work did not just extend to protecting marine life and their natural environment, but it also included recording the local Fijian indigenous peoples’ knowledge and techniques with regard to animals, plants and ecology. Professor Thaman understood that this section of ocean was a big part of the Fijian way of life, their knowledge of it came from their interaction with it, and had been passed on through generations. Protecting was not just blindly following the demand to ‘let natural reserves recuperate’, but rather it was the idea of incorporating man into the ecological model, in that Taiwanese aborigines and the indigenous people of Muaivusu village know how to interact with the ocean.

However, this is not an easy road to take, and in the process of protecting the marine ecology they’ve come up against some stumbling blocks. There are still instances of illegal fishing that occur there, the rubbish from neighbouring towns pollutes the ocean, amongst other problems. The most serious problem, however, is that the knowledge of the ecology passed down from the elders in the past, is gradually disappearing amongst younger generations. Due to the loss of local languages, young people no longer use traditional fishing methods, and the elders, due to their great age are no longer able to go out on the ocean to observe the ecological environment, this is one of the reasons that Professor Thaman is recording local indigenous knowledge of the ecology. In the course of this visit, I was able to perceive clearly how to take a positive and active role in pushing for development in the village, as well as observing the role that academia should play, not sitting in an ivory tower unrelentingly pursuing esoteric abstractions, but engaged in the issues, big or small, that life throws up, contributing academically to the society of which they are a part.

The fishing village of Korova is a little village in close proximity to the capital. It was there that we came across an instance of land issues that was still an issue today. This was because the land on which the village was built didn’t legally belong to the villagers. However, according to Professor Paul Geraghty, who took us to the village, when the villagers migrated there, they asked the then chief of Suva if they could use the land there, a request to which he acquiesced. This approach was the most commonly accepted way of going about this under the traditional system, and so Korova village felt they had the right to use the land, but this was not acknowledged by the legal system. There are several examples of similar circumstances when it comes to Taiwanese aborigines, like the Sanying (三鶯) tribal village and the Xizhou (Shijou 溪州)) tribal village.


On the first day of our visit to the University of the South Pacific Professor Marika Kuilamu and a graduate student from the university Apisalome Movono shared with us the current state of the tourism industry in Fiji. Apisalome’s presentation compared the social impact of involvement with tourism on two villages. He employed both qualitative and quantitative information to relate how tourism had affected local culture, it felt as if he could just as easily be talking about Taiwanese tribal villages. Taiwanese tribal villages have faced many similar problems, like, for example, funding, professional training, as well as land issues. Apisalome’s presentation reminded us once again of the similarities between the Fijian and Taiwanese indigenous peoples. That afternoon we participated in a forum with five professors who taught at the school, in which one of the professors informed us that the term ‘Austronesian’ was a linguistic term, and that, in fact, people from Oceania did not recognise themselves as being Austronesian. However, recently, some countries that speak Austronesian languages had started to incorporate the concept of ‘Austronesian’ as an ethnic grouping, so younger people were more familiar with the idea. This was quite a shock for me.

On the final day of our trip we visited the Pacific Harbour Arts Village, which resembled something akin to the Taiwan Aboriginal People Culture Park. However, in their arts village they had only to introduce Fijian indigenous people as a whole, they didn’t have the task which falls to Taiwan of introducing fourteen different ethnic groups in one go. At the start the tour was hosted by warm hearted elderly gentleman, who had been working there for 30 years. First he took us to an area where he introduced the origins of the lovo (an earth oven), which had originally been used to cook people, as part of Feiji’s cannibalistic tradition. In our discussion afterwards we considered the possibility that the cannibalism had perhaps been over-emphasized in the interests of tourism. In aboriginal societies, cannibalism perhaps wasn’t as common or as everyday a custom as they seemed to suggest. I think, it perhaps merits comparison with the way Taiwanese aborigines are often said to have loved headhunting, but was headhunting so lightly or casually looked upon by aborigines? I doubt that very much.

We went on a little boat tour, on which they introduced different aspects of the traditional Fijian way of life: mat weaving, making fire by rubbing sticks together, how the tapa bark cloth is made, pottery techniques, as well as traditional Fijian weapons and defences. In the second part they took us into the forest, to experience other aspects of Fijian traditional life. In the course of this second part several interesting things happened, like when a Fijian performer came up on us as if to kill us, and the idea that traditional Fijians didn’t want a pretty wife, because it meant that they would live longer. I gleaned two concepts from this experience:

The first was that the Taiwan Aboriginal People Culture Park could use this performance-led tour experience model to introduce the different tribes within Taiwan, allowing tourists to get closer to the aboriginal way of life, which would help to facilitate better communication between aboriginal peoples and the Han population, or even between different aboriginal tribes. What concerns me, however, is whether or not this experience model would turn make tradition overly formulaic, and would simplify the diversity of development and culture between different tribes.

The second idea was that this experience model would lead to the formation of another stereotype of aborigines. To me aboriginal life is not just about maintaining and continuing traditional ways of life, but aborigines are surviving in the contemporary world, and they play an important part in our country.

On this journey to Fiji, we discovered that Indigenous Fijians owned 80% of the land, and they can choose their own development model. Therefore, some villages, in response to the demand to maintain their livelihood, choose to rent land to property development groups, who launch large scale tourist resorts. Others choose to develop their own tourist industry, and others still choose to protect the natural resources of the village, choosing environmental protection as an orientation for development. Regardless of which developmental model is in place, the village always plays an important model within it. This is very different from the experience of aborigines in Taiwan. In Taiwan, aborigines don’t own their own land completely. The majority of the area of our traditional territory is now called “government-owned land”, and aborigines cannot take the initiative to make use of their own natural resources. To me, land holds the role of a mother to our culture. With the loss of land, how is it possible for a society to pass on its culture and social structure to the next generation? I rejoice for Fijian Indigenous people therefore, as they don’t need to concern themselves with land issues, as land can’t be bought or sold, nor cannot it be lost.

How can we apply what we learned in this experience to the development of Taiwan’s aboriginal people? It’s true that Taiwanese aborigines no longer hold the rights to their traditional territories, and they are still engaged in a struggle over it. This will take a long time to settle, whether from a political point of view, or a cultural one. My experiences in Fiji inspired in me a thought on this issue, the drawing up of the borders between traditional territories and their promulgation is an extremely important act. Although in the context of the gradual erosion of aboriginal knowledge of the ecology, is this really possible? Are we still capable of using the wisdom of our ancestors to manage mountain forests, rivers and lakes or the ocean? Therefore, in addition to continuing to research traditional territory, there should be an attempt to discover and record traditional aboriginal knowledge and ecological knowledge, and pass these on to the younger generations in the tribe. This is the only way that aboriginal wisdom can continue to be passed on. In the future, if aborigines gain autonomy, we’ll be able to demonstrate aboriginal wisdom and techniques to the government, proving our ability to look after the forests, rivers and oceans that our ancestors had entrusted to us.

As well as autonomous development by the villages themselves, we discovered that professors and students from the University of the South Pacific also play an important role. Through cooperation with the University of the South Pacific, the villages got access to a lot of management techniques and wisdom, as well as paving the foundation for a friendship with USP. For the university, the village provides an opportunity to put their theory into practice, and to give back to society. For the village, the university’s participation gives the village more resources in managing the land, allowing the village to keep up their livelihood, as well as passing on local cultural practices. It made me think of National Taiwan University, or any other academic organization that researches aboriginal culture, and how they could take part in tribal village life in this same spirit, allowing the villages to develop autonomously, not just treating it as the passive object of research.

As my undergraduate degree was in diplomacy and by masters is in ethnology, I had hoped that through this experience, I could get a feel for the interaction between different Austronesian communities. I did feel a sense of intimacy between the two groups of aborigines, not only through hearing Paiwan tribe businessman, Shi Xiongwei, who is based in Fiji, sharing his experience, but also through direct interaction with local people, as well as with USP professors and students. They gave me the feeling that Taiwanese aborigines have a lot of brothers and sisters in Oceania. Although Oceanic islanders don’t universally identify as being Austronesian, but I think that the more contact we have with other Austronesian communities, we can form a new connection, reconnecting the people living in Oceania, and this new connection will provide a narrative of the similarities between our languages, cultures and even our social structures.

For me it is important to share my experiences in Fiji with other members of my tribe. Although it’s not possible for them to go to Fiji themselves, I hope that through pictures and film they can get a general idea of what indigenous Fijians were like, and to use the issues revealed about them to reflect on the development of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples.

This trip also helped to decide my own direction of research into Austronesian peoples. Currently my research is focused on “Austronesian Diplomacy”. However, in the future I hope to go to Oceania and engage in regional research there. I hope, as well as comparing this experience to Taiwan, that my research will enable links between different Austronesian groups in the Pacific.

In the hope of engaging in a pilot study for Austronesian research, I have applied for next year’s World Austronesian Project. As well as this, I am trying to save money, in the hope that I can attend the Pacific Arts Festival, which will be held in 2016 in Guam. If at the time I have enough money, I’m sure that the exchange will be of great benefit for Oceanic arts and culture as well as encouraging links between different groups of Austronesians.

If it were possible, I would have liked to have stayed in the village for a night. If we had stayed in the villages for a night I think we would have gotten a more complete picture of life in the village and it would have facilitated more interaction with the local aboriginal people.

I’m extremely grateful to the Council of Indigenous Affairs and to the Ricci Institute. Thank you for allowing us this rare opportunity, at the same time I hope that this scheme will continue to be held, to give young aborigines a chance to create their own links with aborigines from other countries, and to share their history, their society and culture, as well as harnessing this experience to make a difference to their own tribe, helping contribute to the future development of the Taiwanese indigenous peoples.

Photos by Sra Manpo Ciwidian and Lin Yimiao. Translated from the chinese by Conor Stuart


Wednesday, 03 October 2012 16:30

Panay Raranges: Tourism and Authenticity

My hometown is the Mulating tribal village in Fuli, Hualian, I belong to the Amis tribe and my name in the tribal language is Panay. I’m part of an aboriginal university society in which I’ve participated in a lot of debates with my other classmates concerning issues affecting aboriginal peoples, but mostly this is limited to discussion of Taiwan, it’s rare that we discuss foreign indigenous affairs. When I heard of this opportunity to go to Fiji as part of an international exchange program, I knew it was a rare opportunity that I didn’t want to miss out on. From another perspective, as Taiwanese aborigines and Fijians are both Austronesian, in the process of researching in preparation for the trip, I discovered a lot of striking similarities between the two, these similarities were the elements that I was most eager to explore throughout the course of the trip. Our team held countless discussions both in the selection process and in the days before we departed for Fiji, in the hope that we would learn a lot through this once in a lifetime experience, and be able to share this learning experience with other team members as well as our own tribes. The ten day trip was divided into three main parts: visiting indigenous villages, educational institutions and government departments. As everyone in the team had a different specialty, we were able to get different things out of the experience, and we would share these experiences at the end of each day, and more importantly, we were acutely aware that we were not just a group of exchange students, but that we were also representing Taiwanese aborigines, and each member of the group had a different aboriginal background and experience. With each scheduled visit, we would try to use our hearts to interpret all that we saw and heard, and relate it to our own experiences growing up, this is another important tenet of international exchange.


Navala and Koromakawa had a very touristic feel to them, both in their sevusevu welcoming ceremony and in their village tours, you felt that the whole thing was as a result of accumulated and experience, somewhat rehearsed.

Readers in Mainland China can watch it here

On the other hand, however, I discovered a lot about the background of the development of tourism in those villages, and how they struggled to preserve traditional culture at the same time. In Navala for example, all the buildings were traditional “bures”, not as a result of government grants or encouragement, but rather because the village residents took the initiative to preserve this tradition. The ceiling of the meeting house in Koromakawa village was covered in all sorts of totems, these were painted by the women of the village bit by bit standing on ladders. It’s possible that the conservation of traditional culture was an attempt to attract tourists, but even if the motives are suspect, the traditional culture is still being preserved, and it plays a very important role in the everyday life of the villagers. In Koromakawa we asked the spokesperson (the person who spoke for the chief) if they were concerned that the development of the tourism would contribute to the loss of traditional culture, he answered that they were; he told us that because of modern developments, that they had suffered cultural leakage, some ways in which the villagers lived their lives had long changed from the way they lived before, the young people leave the village to work elsewhere, there they came in contact with very modern things, and became accustomed to a new way of life. From the example of Koromakawa, I was able to observe that bringing the tourism industry into the village brought another advantage: that young people were gradually returning to the village to help in the development of tourism there.

The University of the South Pacific is one of the most important universities in the Pacific region, concentrating talented young people from all the different islands in one place. Several professors from the region made time in their busy schedules to hold a forum with us, sharing with us their research and their own experiences. What made the deepest impression on me was the response that we got after our dance performance, and the opportunity afforded us to attend Professor Morgan Tuimalealiifano’s class, and get to know his students who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. I was really moved when we got a rare opportunity to share the similarities between our languages, it was as if a family that had been separated by circumstance had been reconciled. Perhaps our life experiences were very different, but the links between us could be felt in a multitude of little similarities. I felt that the way Professor Tuimalealiifano brought the backgrounds and experiences of the students and the teacher into the discussion was different from the usual model of the teacher just feeding the students a string of impersonal professional knowledge, which really resonated with me and provided a lot of food for thought. When Professor Tumalealiifano was sharing his thoughts about Fijian identity he got quite emotional at times, which just went to show how much of himself he invested in each class, and led me to the discovery that the classroom can be quite an emotional place.

In the course of this trip, I was charged with observing of the legal and political system, in an attempt to understand what channels of communication there were between the government and the villages, how ideas were exchanged between them, and how the implementation of policy concerning indigenous people could effectively incorporate the opinions of the villages, enabling the compatibility of government activities and the expectations and demands of the indigenous people. What struck me most was the extent to which Fiji’s chiefly system was still so intact. This traditional leadership structure of the villages was developed by the British colonists and became the structure of governance for Fiji. The British even set up the Great Council of Chiefs, with the aim of more effectively governing the colony, although it later became an important safeguard ensuring the rights and protecting the interests of indigenous people. Each chief is like an elder of the village, dealing with everything within the village, and collecting together opinions from villagers; he acts as a spokesperson to the outside world for the village, the decisions he makes are a result of consensus amongst the entire village, encouraging close relationships between villagers, and good communication between a chief and his villagers. This interactive model functions within the Fijian government structure in the way the Great Council of Chiefs incorporates the opinions of all the villages represented by each of the chiefs who form its ranks, and through discussion and cooperation work towards a consensus, to influence government policy, and oversee the implementation of policy, creating closer links between the government and the villages, as well as clear channels of communication between the two. The application of the traditional chiefly system into the modern system is an accumulation of long-term experience, even though there have been several political upheavals in Fiji in recent years, the importance of the chiefs in the politics of Fiji cannot be overlooked, which left us with the impression that traditional knowledge and the modern system were not necessarily in conflict. With enough communication and discussion, the two can integrate with one another. Perhaps Taiwan’s situation is a little more complicated, but this makes a good reference point for us. We discovered that the sense of autonomy and initiative among the villages was very strong, although many young people leave the villages to work, you could still feel the presence of traditional culture in the villages was being preserved. Some of the mountain villages had preserved the traditional architectural style, elders and youths in the village took the initiative to teach the traditional building skills to the children in their spare time, hoping to pass on these skills to future generations.

The coastal villages continue to fish using traditional canoes, not only making use of traditional wisdom, but also preserving a sustainable balance in the ecology. The cultural similarities, are essentially that they are both engaged in a Fijian way of life, traditional culture is inseparable from their daily lives, which preserves it, and this again is a very good example for us to reference. To have just such an opportunity to get to know Fiji is, without doubt an invaluable experience, and we were burdened with an important mission, we were most likely a group of young people amongst Taiwanese aborigines who most understood Fiji, and we have a duty to maintain this important link between Taiwan and Fiji, and to share the things we had learned in Fiji with our tribes, this latter is one of the most important objectives for our group. We both belong to the Austronesian ethnic group, we were very excited about discovering the common features between us, using this to try improve our relationship, although the vast Pacific lies between us, but it is this very stretch of ocean that is what connects us, the ocean is not an obstacle, but rather it is a connecting bridge, connecting our languages, culture and even our history.

I haven’t lived in Hualian since I was a little girl, I was brought up in the city and received a modern style education, and was always in search of an identity of my own, but I had forgotten to turn my gaze to the world’s many aboriginal peoples who have never forgotten their own roots, living on with all their efforts for their selves and for their tribe, they told me that having heart is always important, going with one’s heart will always lead you to where you belong. This Pacific connection was not the end of the story, but rather it was an important beginning.

Translated from the chinese by Conor Stuart

Thursday, 24 March 2011 21:54

The role of the Inbetweeners

The young scholars session at the Mapping and Unmapping the Pacific conference held at the National Central Library, Taiwan gave three promising young scholars the chance to present their work. Nakao, a PhD candidate in history at Leiden University, is one of these young scholars trying to break the academic boundaries, to produce experimental writing of Eastern Taiwan history from a new historical narrative, an Amis perspective and in doing this foster real cross-cultural dialogue. In her speech she presented the foundations of her groundbreaking research:

Alternative (for readers in China)

Working on Eastern Taiwan history, I found interesting similarity and difference between the historical writing of Eastern Taiwan and that of the Pacific world: Both have to do with the writing of the indigenous past; both face the dominant Western historical tradition which per se is a specific value system that is often incommensurable with the local ones. Today, many Pacific writers insist on their traditional way of writing about their Self, more or less at the price of isolating their writing from the rest of the world. In contrast, many Taiwanese historians (Han Taiwanese or Austronesian alike) attempting to write Eastern Taiwan history work within the Western historical tradition, with or without a clear awareness of the underlying cultural differences and conflicts that may eventually affect the written presentation of “history.”

As an Austronesian (Amis) yet Western-trained historian, I'm most concerned with the possibility of bridging the incommensurable: Is it possible to go beyond the debates of academic Westernism and Indigenism, decolonization and postcolonialism etc. and bring up something that is not conflictive in nature but that emphasizes mutual acknowledgement and respect in practice? It requires, I believe, a certain kind of “inbetweenness,” born (usually but not exclusively) by the “cultural inbetweeners.” At the first glance this “inbetween” position seems academically unpopular and disadvantageous, yet eventually it may prove to be promising in creating a real cross-cultural dialogue, which, amidst cultural confrontations, deconstructs none of the participating cultural traditions and remains constructive to all parties.

Photo: Cathy Chuang

Wednesday, 23 March 2011 10:09

Music as a Marker of Human Migrations

Debate on the question of how and why music varies cross-culturally was recently reawakened by the provocative claim that traces of the ancient migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa can be heard in contemporary songs (Grauer 2006). Grauer‟s claim drew on data from the landmark Cantometrics Project (Lomax 1968), which remains the only global scientific study of human song. At the time, Lomax‟s causal interpretation of the correlation between culture and music – for example, male dominance causing nasal singing – was highly criticized even by other members of the Cantometrics Project (e.g., Erickson 1976).

While Grauer‟s recent migratory interpretation avoids Lomax‟s pitfall, many of the original criticisms of the Cantometrics Project resurfaced in skepticism about music‟s time-depth as a migration marker (e.g., Stock 2006). Could the acoustic surface of music really reflect ancient connections between cultures? If so, are these reflected in performance features (“singing”) or in the structural features (“song”) traditionally emphasized in Western musicology?

Lomax himself was highly critical of the use of Western musical notation in ethnomusicology, which he saw as emphasizing surface structural features at the expense of deeper performance features. He spent his life developing a performance-oriented approach that was concerned “not with songs abstracted from the stream of vocalizing we encountered on the tapes, but with the stream itself, with „singing‟” (Lomax 1980). Nevertheless, the Cantometric classification scheme that Lomax and Grauer (1968) developed contained roughly equal numbers of features devoted to “songs” and “singing”.

Our own view differs from both Lomax‟s and his critics‟ in that we propose that the structural features of song should have the greatest time-depth to track migrations, especially when applied to group performance in choral songs. Our reasoning is that structural features such as melody, texture and form require greater consensus among singers than the more idiosyncratic variation that goes into performance, such as timbre or ornamentation. Hence, features like scales and rhythms should be more stable over time than features like nasality or rubato.

These claims are testable. As a case-study to examine music‟s time-depth in the context of human migrations , we have examined the traditional choral music of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, who have been well-studied in terms of music, genetics, and migrations. (Loh 1982; Trejaut et al. 2005; Diamond 2000). Our primary aim, therefore, was to use existing information about the relative patterns of genetic and musical similarity among the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes to empirically test for the first time whether song structure or singing style has the time-depth required for studying human migrations. Our basic method was to compare music – a marker of unknown time-depth – against the best available marker with a well-established time-depth, namely mitochondrial DNA (Oppenheimer 2004).



Of the 14 officially recognized tribes of Taiwan, eight had a sufficient number of both genetic and musical samples to permit comparative analysis: Amis, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Tao (Yami), and Tsou.


Genetics: Partial mtDNA sequences for 531 individuals from these eight tribes were taken from the dataset of Trejaut et al. (2005).

Music: YW and SB obtained 364 traditional songs from these eight tribes from commercial and archival ethnomusicological recordings. Restricting our sample to adult, choral songs left 222 songs for analysis. Sample sizes were: Amis=56, Bunun=31, Paiwan=28, Puyuma=32, Rukai=33, Saisiyat=14, Tao=13, Tsou=15.


Distances between samples: Pairwise distances between individual a) genetic, and b) musical samples were calculated based on the number of pair-wise differences between a) mtDNA nucleotide sequences, and b) Cantometric classifications. This is the simplest possible distance measurement, as it makes no evolutionary assumptions about how those differences arose. We reserve more complicated methods that incorporate models of musical and genetic evolution for future studies.

Cantometric classification of the songs was done by VG. Two separate musical distance-matrices were calculated: one using the 15 song-structure characters from Cantometrics, the other using the 14 singing-style characters (see Figure 1 for details about these features). Eight Cantometric characters related to instruments alone were excluded from this analysis.

Distances between populations: For both genetics and music, the 28 possible pairwise distances among the 8 tribes were calculated using an Analysis of Molecular Variance (AMOVA) framework (Excoffier, Smouse, and Quattro 1992). These distances were measured using a statistic called FST, which represents the proportion of variability among individual samples that is due to among-population differences. Thus, it explicitly incorporates within-population heterogeneity, avoiding the assumptions of within-

population homogeneity that plagued Lomax‟s original statistical methodology (e.g., Henry 1968; Leroi and Swire 2006).

Figure 1. Organization of the 15 song-structure (red) and 14 singing-style (blue) Cantometric classification features used in this analysis. Note that our method focuses on the vocal component of the music and therefore ignores 8 classification features related to instruments.

Correlations: The statistical significance of the correlations between musical and genetic distances was tested using the permutation-based Mantel test (Mantel 1967) using 10,000 permutations, with the threshold for significance set at p < 0.05 (one-tailed). This test controls for the fact that the 28 pairwise distances among the eight tribes are not independent of one another.


Correlations between genetic and musical distances were highly significant (see Figure 2), suggesting that patterns of genetic similarity among the 8 tribes were matched by corresponding patterns of musical similarity. This observation makes a strong case for music having an ancient time-depth in analyses of human migrations.

To examine the “song” vs. “singing” comparison, the two panels of Figure 2 show the correlations between genetics and either song structure (Panel A) or singing style (panel B). Both correlations were significant. However, features of song structure accounted for twice as much variance in genetic distance as did features of singing style (song structure: r2=0.27, singing style: r2=0.13).

Figure 2. Scatterplots of the 28 pairwise genetic and musical distances among 8 Taiwanese aboriginal tribes. Genetic distances (y-axis) are based on an Analysis of Molecular Variance (AMOVA) of 531 mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. Analagous musical distances (x-axis) were calculated from 222 traditional choral songs using Cantometric characters of either A) song structure or B) singing style (i.e., performance). Statistical significance of distance-matrix correlations is based on Mantel‟s (1967) test.


Our main finding was that musical similarities among the 8 tribes were significantly correlated with genetic similarities. This provides the first empirical support for Grauer‟s (2006) claim that music has the time-depth required for use as a marker in studying prehistoric human migrations. Consistent with our predictions, the correlations with genetics were stronger when calculated using features of song structure compared to singing style, contrary to Lomax. However, the differences between these features were not nearly as striking as we had predicted. The simplest interpretation is that both singing and songs are useful as migration markers, which makes the overall case for using music as a marker even more persuasive. It allows for a pluralism of musical features that Lomax discounted, most especially with regard to structural features.

Our findings in Taiwan lend strong provisional support for music‟s time-depth in the case of a relatively recent (~6,000 years ago) migration. Whether music‟s time-depth reaches as far back as Grauer‟s Out-of-Africa claim, however, remains an open empirical question.



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Patrick Savage(1), Tom Rzeszutek(1), Victor Grauer(2), Ying-fen Wang(3), Jean Trejaut(4), Marie Lin(4), and Steven Brown(1)

(1) Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Canada
(2) Independent scholar, Pittsburgh, USA
(3) Graduate Institute of Musicology, National Taiwan University, Taiwan
(4) Transfusion Medicine Laboratory, Mackay Memorial Hospital, Taiwan

Photo: Cathy Chuang

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