The Island With an Ancient History That Explains the World
Alberto Buzzola/GettyIn July 1997, I was fortunate to spend a few days among the Paiwan, an Aboriginal people in the south central highlands of Taiwan. I was in the country for typically academic reasons, attending a conference at a Taipei research center, but had been invited by a couple of anthropology students who were undertaking fieldwork in the mountainous interior to visit the village in which they were staying. It was an exhilarating, bewildering, and absurdly short trip: I took a crammed local flight from Taipei, arriving late at night in a dimly lit but frenetically busy local airport. After a long drive in the dark—I had no notion of our route or direction—we entered a village. I was aware of a big church and tin-roofed houses interspersed with gardens. We were welcomed by an elderly female shaman who kept sacred venomous snakes in an alarmingly insecure cage in the middle of her living room. Well into the night, we drank beer and watched her videos of local rituals; as well as being the principal local healer, she was a kind of auto-anthropologist. Early the following morning, in front of an imposing wooden god bearing a double-headed snake, we drank millet wine with the ancestors to mark a harvest ceremony. That evening, I was back at the hectic airport. Uncannily, the shaman and others I met around the village bore wrist and arm tattoos that were strikingly similar to those I had seen on the bodies of many Polynesians during trips to Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawai‘i, and elsewhere. Yet Tahiti was almost seven thousand miles away. On returning to Taipei, I visited a small museum dedicated to the Indigenous cultures of the island. (It stands, as if in humble protest, across the road from the National Palace Museum, an awesome, Louvre-like complex dedicated to traditional art from China.) Here were canoes, architectural forms, figure sculptures, and other works and artifacts that again bore motifs remarkably close to those featured on boats, houses, and ceremonial objects in various parts of the Pacific Islands. Having been a student of Pacific archaeology, I had been taught that Oceanic cultures could be traced back to the island known historically as Formosa, today as Taiwan. Yet the links were ancient; I had no expectation that I would see them exemplified on the bodies of living people or on recently made artifacts. But my excitement—sparked by cultural affinities between peoples separated by successive migrations over millennia and, in the present, by vast distances—made me a little uncomfortable. In making connections, I felt I was indulging in the kinds of comparisons enthusiastically but arbitrarily made by nineteenth-century philologists. I worried that I had somehow ventured into Fornander-land, the Pacific counterpart to Casaubon’s realm of daft speculation. Read more at The Daily Beast.