A Brief History of Taiwan (Prehistory)

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A Brief History of Taiwan (Prehistory)

Taiwan is an isle of convergence in the western Pacific. It occupies a place where the Asian continent borders the Pacific Ocean. It is where the Kuroshio Current joins the Oyashio Current and it is where ships going north meet vessels headed south. Taiwan is also an island that accommodates extremely different ecosystems. Tall mountains stand adjacent to deep ocean waters. Frigid zone flora and tropical forests live side-by-side. Within half an hour, one can drive between mountains and the oceans or shuffle between tropical and frigid zones. Since ancient times, people of different ethnic groups and from various countries have been attracted to this island. This combination of different languages, cuisines and cultures has formed a dynamic natural and man-made landscape, engendering a plural and integrated story of Taiwan.

Taiwan is situated at the meeting of the Eurasian and the Philippines Sea tectonic plates. Over time the collision of these plates created a dramatic uplift in Taiwan’s terrain, producing the seacoasts, plains, hills, valleys, and mountains that make up the abundant topography of the island. Despite the limited area of this small island, totaling only 36,000 square kilometers, one can observe tropical coral reefs and frigid zone forests at the same time. Rare life forms that survived the Ice Age can still be found in the higher elevations today. Indeed, Taiwan is an ecological treasure-trove, a virtual microcosm of the ecosystems of the northern hemisphere of the earth.

Paleolithic Era in Taiwan

Twenty thousand years ago during the Ice Age and last stage of the Paleolithic era in Taiwan, the island was still connected to the continent of Asia. People living on the mainland tracked their game across the land which is now Taiwan and took up residence there. As the Ice Age came to an end, the ocean began to rise and Taiwan was separated from the Asian continent by the sea. Archaeologists have discovered that humans who remained in Taiwan were skilled at utilizing the resources of their environment. The majority lived in coastal caves, and made a living by fishing and hunting. These inhabitants continued the development of human civilization, leaving behind archaeological sites from this Paleolithic era, such as the “Changbin culture” site in present-day Taitung.


The Baxian Cave site in Taitung’s Changbin Township is considered part of the late period of the Paleolithic era; where the oldest known prehistoric culture in Taiwan has been excavated. Archaeologists have discovered Paleolithic era artifacts at this site dating from five to twenty thousand years ago. Objects discovered at this site include an ax, stone scrapers, bone needles, awls, and fishhooks, as well as other traces of their lifestyle, such as fireplaces and fish bones. Even though human remains were not found here, we can still conclude that humans of this period already used coastal caves as shelters against wind and rain. They also produced various tools from local resources, relied upon fishing and hunting for their livelihood, and knew how to make fire.

Neolithic Era

More than 6,000 years ago, inhabitants living on the southeast coast of the Asian continent successively crossed the Taiwan Strait and settled in Taiwan, bringing Taiwan into the Neolithic Era. The humans of this period already knew how to make various kinds of farming tools and pottery vessels and they had already developed farming and animal husbandry, and had formed sedentary communities. With advancements in agriculture, the human population increased the geographic range of human activities gradually expanded from the sea coast into the interior. Archaeological sites from the Neolithic era can be found throughout Taiwan.

Most archaeologists believe that the earliest Neolithic culture was brought to Taiwan by humans who came by boat from the southern coasts of the East Asian continent. This culture is now known as “Dapenkeng culture.” Dapenkeng culture, characterized by its corded pottery, spread throughout Taiwan and Penghu. These newcomers who sailed across the sea to Taiwan brought Taiwan into the Neolithic Age and initiated a sedentary agricultural society.

When people living in mainland Asia traveled across the sea to Taiwan, they brought Taiwan into the Neolithic Era and initiated a sedentary agricultural society. After Taiwan entered the Neolithic Era, the Taiwanese began to develop agriculture. Besides growing root stocks, such as taro and yam, they also began to cultivate cereal grains, such as millet and rice. This led to a steady increase in the source and quantity of foodstuffs, thereby enabling the development of complex and refined cultural elements, such as religion and crafts.

Iron Age

Taiwan entered the Iron Age more than 2,000 years ago. Some individuals already could produce iron implements, and as this ability to make tools advanced, the variety of utensils for daily use increased. Pottery and porcelain, copper coins, glass, and metal tools from the coastal areas and islands of Asia have even been found in these archaeological excavation sites, indicating the emergence of overseas trade across regions. Sites from this period can be found on the coastal plains throughout Taiwan. The famous Shisanhang site in Taipei is an important site from this era. Some scholars believe this may be the origin of the Ketagalan people in northern Taiwan.

One of the characteristics of the Iron Age is the production and use of iron implements. Convenient and durable ironware gradually replaced stone tools to become the implements used for daily activities. Ironware was obtained through trade during this period. However, the discoveries of iron tools at the Shisanhang site in Bali (north Taiwan) and copper tools at the Jiuxianglan site in Taitung suggest that early inhabitants in some areas of Taiwan were already able to manufacture their own iron or copper tools. They also had begun to expand into the mountainous regions in the middle elevations of the island.

In the Iron Age excavation sites across Taiwan, one can find an abundance of the pottery and porcelain, copper coins, glass, ornaments and metal products from Japan, Korea, China, Okinawa and Southeast Asia. The discovery of these objects indicates that trading was no longer limited to areas within the island. Long distant overseas trade had now emerged.


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