Atayal people

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This article is about an ethnic group in Taiwan. For their language, see Atayal language.
"Tayan" redirects here. For the town in Kyrgyzstan, see Tayan, Kyrgyzstan.
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Total population
85,888 (2014)
Regions with significant populations
Atayal, Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien
Animism, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Seediq, Truku, Kavalan, Taiwanese Aborigines

The Atayal (Chinese: 泰雅; pinyin: Tàiyǎ), also known as the Tayal and the Tayan,[1] are one tribe of Taiwanese aborigines. In 2014, the Atayal tribe numbered 85,888. This was approximately 15.9% of Taiwan's total indigenous population, making them the third-largest tribal group.[2][3]


The meaning of Atayal is "genuine person" or "brave man".[citation needed]


Atayal sculpture in Wulai.

The first record of Atayal inhabitance is found near the upper reaches of the Zhuoshui River. However, during the late 17th century they crossed the Central Mountain Ranges into the wilderness of the east. They then settled in the Liwu River valley. Seventy-nine Atayal villages can be found here.[citation needed]


Taiwan is home of a number of Austronesian tribal groups since before 4,000 BC.[4] Genetic analysis however suggests that the different tribes may have different ancestral source populations originating in mainland Asia, and developed in isolation from each other. The Atayal people are believed to have migrated to Taiwan from Southern China or Southeast Asia.[5] Genetic studies have also found similarities between the Atayal and other people in the Philippines and Thailand, and to a lesser extent with south China and Vietnam.[6] The Atayal are genetically distinct from the Amis people who are the largest tribal group in Taiwan, as well as from the Han people, suggesting little mingling between these people.[7] Studies on Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) polymorphisms suggest ancient migrations of two lineages of the various tribes into Taiwan approximately 11,000-26,000 years ago.[8]


According to stories told by their elders, the first Atayal ancestors appeared when a stone, Pinspkan, cracked apart. There were three people, but one decided to go back into the stone. One man and one woman who lived together for a very long time and loved each other very much. But the boy was shy and wouldn't dare approach her. Whereupon, the girl came up with an idea. She left her home and found some coal with which to blacken her face so she could pose as a different girl.

After several days, she crept back into their home and the boy mistook her for another girl and they lived happily ever after. Not long after, the couple bore children, fulfilling their mission of procreating the next generation. The Atayal custom of face tattooing may have come from the girl blackening her face in the story.



Traditional aboriginal designs are often found on modern buildings in Taiwan in places where aborigines traditionally live. Here is an Atayal-inspired community center in rural Ilan County.

The Atayal Tribe has a well-developed culture. They originally lived by fishing, hunting, gathering, and growing crops on burned-off mountain fields. The tribe also practices crafts such as weaving, net knotting, and woodworking. They also have traditional musical instruments and dances.

The Atayal are known as great[citation needed] warriors. In a practice illegal since the Japanese Colonial Era (1895 –1945), to earn his facial tattoo a man had to bring back at least one human head; these heads, or skulls, were highly honored, given food and drink, and expected to bring good harvests to the fields. (See Headhunting.) The Atayal were known to be fierce fighters as observed in the case of the Wushe Incident, in which the Atayal fought the Japanese.

Traditional dress[edit]

The Atayal are good weavers as well and symbolic patterns and design can be found on Atayal traditional dress. The features are mainly of geometric style, and the colors are bright and dazzling. Most of the designs are argyles and horizontal lines. In Atayal culture, the horizontal lines represent the rainbow bridge which leads the dead to where the ancestors' spirits live. Argyles, on the other hand, represent ancestors' eyes protecting the Atayal. The favorite color of this culture is red because it represents blood and power.

Facial tattoos[edit]

An Atayal tribal woman with tattoo on her face as a symbol of maturity, which was a tradition for both males and females. The custom was prohibited during Japanese rule.

The Atayal tribe is also known for using facial tattooing and teeth filing in coming-of-age initiation rituals. The facial tattoo, in Squliq Tayal, is called ptasan. In the past both men and women had to show they can performed a major task association with an adult before they can tattoo their faces. For a man, he had to take the head of an enemy, showing his valor as a hunter to protect and provide for his people, while the women had to be able to weave cloth. A girl would learn to weave when she was about ten or twelve, and she had to master the skill in order to earn her tattoo. Only those with tattoos could marry, and, after death, only those with tattoos could cross the hongu utux, or spirit bridge (the rainbow) to the hereafter.

Male tattooing is relatively simple, with just two bands down the forehead and chin. Once a male has come of age he will have his forehead tattooed. As soon as he fathers a child, his bottom chin is tattooed. For the female, tattooing is done on the cheek, typically from the ears across both cheeks to the lips forming a V shape. Tattooing on a man is relatively quick, on a female it may take ten hours.[5]

In the past the tattooing was performed only by female tattooists. The tattooing was performed using a group of needles lashed to a stick called atok tapped into the skin using a hammer called totsin. Black ash would then be rubbed into the skin to create the tattoo. The healing may take up to a month.[5]

The Japanese banned the practice of tattooing in 1930 because of its association with headhunting. With the introduction of Christianity, the practice has declined and it is now rarely seen except on old people even though it is no longer banned. However some young people in recent years have attempted to revive the practice.[5]

Atayal in modern times[edit]

The Atayal people reside in central and northern Taiwan, along the Hsuehshan mountains. The image depicts the two major dialect groups of the Atayal language.

The Atayal tribe in Taiwan resides in central and northern Taiwan. The northernmost village is Ulay (Wulai in Chinese), about 25 kilometers south of central Taipei. The name Ulay is derived from /qilux/, hot, because of the hot springs on the riverbank. [1] The Wulai Atayal Museum in the town is a place to learn about the history and culture of the Atayal.

In recent years the mainly Christian community of Smangus has become well known as a tourist destination, as well as an experiment in tribal communalism.[9]

Many Atayal are bilingual, but the Atayal language still remains in active use.

Notable Atayal people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Atayal, Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples.
  2. ^ Hsieh Chia-chen and Jeffrey Wu (February 15, 2014). "Amis remains Taiwan's biggest aboriginal tribe at 37.1% of total". Focus Taiwan. 
  3. ^ Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Executive Yuan, R.O.C. (DGBAS). National Statistics, Republic of China (Taiwan). Preliminary statistical analysis report of 2000 Population and Housing Census. Excerpted from Table 28:Indigenous population distribution in Taiwan-Fukien Area. Accessed PM 8/30/06
  4. ^ Merritt Ruhlen (1994). The origin of language: tracing the origin of the mother tongue. Wiley, New York. pp. 177–180. 
  5. ^ a b c d Margo DeMello (30 May 2014). Inked: Tattoos and Body Art around the World. ABC-CLIO. pp. 34–36. ISBN 978-1610690751. 
  6. ^ Chen KH, Cann H, Chen TC, Van West B, Cavalli-Sforza L (1985). "Genetic markers of an aboriginal Taiwanese population". Am J Phys Anthropol 66: 327–337. PMID 3857010. 
  7. ^ Rachel A. Chow, Jose L. Caeiro, Shu-Juo Chen, Ralph L. Garcia-Bertrand, Rene J. Herrera (2005). "Genetic characterization of four Austronesian-speaking populations" (PDF). Journal of Human Genetics 50: 550–559. doi:10.1007/s10038-005-0294-0. PMID 16208426. 
  8. ^ Tajima A1, Sun CS, Pan IH, Ishida T, Saitou N, Horai S. (2003). "Mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms in nine aboriginal groups of Taiwan: implications for the population history of aboriginal Taiwanese". Human Genetics 113 (1): 24–33. PMID 12687351. 
  9. ^ "Returning to the land of the ancestors." Taipei Times, Aug 10 2003. Accessed 10/21/06.