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Genetic Link Brings Indigenous Taiwanese and Maori Together

In May, government representatives of Taiwan and New Zealand established formal ties as a result of genetic research connecting the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and the Maori of New Zealand.

The New Zealand Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New Zealand signed a document entitled "Arrangement on Cooperation on Indigenous Issues," which will establish cultural and "people-to-people" connections between Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and New Zealand Maori in order to promote mutual understanding and friendly relations. Representative government agencies will host annual meetings and implement academic, cultural and business exchange programs.

Geoffrey Chambers, a biological scientist at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand, has researched the genetic link between indigenous Taiwanese and Maori for the last 15 years.

Many theories exist to explain the ancestry of modern-day Polynesians. Chambers believes that "All previous theories are sub-elements of one grand unifying theory." He views his research as a synthesis of competing ideas, "Like strands of fiber that can be woven together to make a strong rope accounting for evidence from all disciplines from linguistics, through archaeology and anthropology, via ethnobotany and genetics all the way to oral history."

The connection between these cultures can be traced back approximately 60,000 years. Chambers maintains that during this time people of the Papuan language group populated Australia and Papua New Guinea as well as various Bismarck Archipelago Islands. Thousands of years later (8,000 to 10,000 years ago) members of the Austronesian language group traveled south from Taiwan and passed through the Philippines and Indonesia. Along the way the Papuans and Austronesians intermarried, giving birth to contemporary Polynesians and ultimately settling in what is now New Zealand.

"The Maori are the ultimate end product of these voyage and colonization processes," said Chambers, adding that "a ‘genetic trail’ links New Zealand Maori back all the way to the indigenous people of Taiwan, as do Austronesian languages."

Chih-Tung Huang, a member of the Amis tribe in Taiwan, experienced this link first-hand when speaking with a Maori man from New Zealand. According to Huang, "we find when we want to count numbers from 1 to 10, it is almost the same in [both] languages."

But Huang points out that his tribe’s language faces extinction due to the introduction of Chinese and Japanese words. Therefore, a cultural exchange with people who share a similar language can provide a way to revive these lost words.

"To connect with Maori is effective not only in language protection but also in disease protection," Huang added. Since the indigenous peoples of Taiwan share a common ancestry with the Maori they also share common diseases such as high-blood pressure and diabetes. Solving the health problems of one indigenous group can benefit others.

Taiwan has 11 officially recognized indigenous tribes with many different sub-groupings. These groups share a similar culture and lifestyle, yet each has distinct traditions such as the renowned weaving techniques of the Atayal.

Tony Coolidge, founder and president of the indigenous rights organization ATAYAL, based in Orlando, Florida, echoed the importance of the cultural exchange embodied in the agreement between New Zealand and Taiwan.

"Indigenous people everywhere are losing their identity, including language and culture," said Coolidge, who noted a similar example of how members of the Yami tribe of Taiwan have collaborated with Yami living in the Philippines to collectively preserve their mutual linguistic and cultural traditions.

"Together indigenous people can fill in the gaps and become complete," Coolidge said. "I see any cultural exchange as beneficial."