The Atayal people (also Tayal or Tayan), of the mountains of north-central Taiwan, are an Austronesian people who have called the island home for thousands of years. The following is just one of several related and similar stories on the origin of the Atayal people.

A long, long time ago, in the rugged and densely forested central Taiwanese highlands, there was a large and formidable boulder. One day, as if it had been an egg, the great rock cracked open. Out of its crevices emerged a pair of human siblings—a girl and a boy. The siblings looked about their surroundings. They became enchanted by the birds, beasts and beautiful scenes all around them. The pair found the world very agreeable and full of wonder to them so they decided to settle down and called this world their home. They became the world’s first human inhabitants.

When the two siblings reached adulthood, the sister decided to propose marriage to her brother so that they may produce offspring and populate this as yet sparse virgin world. The brother, however, not wanting to commit taboo, said no.

The sister then set out to find some charcoal with which to paint her face black in order to disguise herself. This, she thought, would change her appearance so much that she would be unrecognizable to her brother. When this was done, she returned to her brother and again proposed to him. This time, not realizing that the woman with the painted face was his sister in disguise, the brother accepted the proposal. The pair became husband and wife and their descendants became the Atayal people of Taiwan.


The painting of the face in the above origin myth is said to be the reason why the Atayal, as well as the related Seediq and Truku peoples of northeastern Taiwan, have traditionally tattooed their faces with intricate designs and patterns. It is a practice that was not only seen as beautiful but also as a necessary prerequisite if an Atayal, especially a woman, wished to be married.

Traditional Atayal society valued ancient Formosan-Austronesian warrior and artistic skills like headhunting and weaving. Successful headhunters (men) and skilled weavers (women) earned the right to tattoo their faces as recognition of their valour, skill and competence. This also served as a rite of passage or coming-of-age ceremony, which indicated that the tattooed individual had become an adult and was eligible for marriage in Atayal society.

During the period of Japanese rule in Taiwan’s history (1895-1945), this ancient practice of tattooing one’s face was viewed as a barbaric one by the colonial authorities and a ban on the practice was issued by the regime. This tradition has since seen very rapid declined among the Atayal in the latter part of the 20th century. Most members of the Atayal community now opt for facial paintings in times of celebrations and festivals, instead of having permanent ink. These tattoos, however, can still be observed among respected tribal elders, who continue to wear, proudly, these marks of their distinct cultural and ethnic identity.

(Photo: Atayal elders, by Hayun Liu)