history · Taiwan

Taitung: Journey to Prehistoric Taiwan

This past month, I spent eight days in the counties of Hualien and Taitung. There, I saw a different side of Taiwan–these counties are on the east coast and since childhood, I have spent most of my time in Taiwan on the west coast. My eyes were also opened to a new layer of the island’s history: its prehistoric past.

Before I delve into that though, I want to mention that for five of those days, I was with my friend Chad and two of his high school friends. The result was good memories galore! We rafted to sea along the 秀姑巒溪 river. We climbed through the open-air forest museum run by the Bunun tribe. We ate and ate and ate. And as Allex (the only one brave enough to drive) drove, the rest of us wimps admired the Pacific Ocean on one side and the coastal mountain range on the other.

Sanxiantai 三仙台

This trip reminded me of last year when a bunch of my high school friends and I gathered in Hawaii for a wedding. We drove around, went scuba diving, and “surfed”– definitely not activities I think to do when traveling alone. Plus, high school friends just have a special dynamic.

Anyways, I decided to stay for three extra days to “work-holiday”; i.e. explore in the afternoon and work mornings and evenings. I wanted to visit a friend from Yale (who is from Taitung, much to my surprise!) and to check out some prehistoric sites.

I had heard of a prehistory-themed museum in Tamsui (near Taipei), but had never been interested in “prehistory”, let alone Taiwan’s prehistory. The sites in Taitung made this very distant past accessible and introduced me to an aspect of Taiwan I had never thought about before. Things I learned…

1. Cavemen were here.

I got my first taste of the island’s prehistoric past when we visited 八仙洞 Baxian caves, a collection of coastal caves that were inhabited during the Paleolithic Age — easily the oldest site of human habitation on the island.

The biggest cave Lingyan Cave 靈岩洞

I must admit that terms like “Paleolithic” meant next to nothing to me before this trip. The tour guide at the National Museum of Prehistory explained that a big difference between the Paleolithic Age (Old Stone Age 舊石器時代) and the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age 新石器時代) was that Neolithic humans figured out how to grind and polish stones to make them into sharp tools whereas Paleolithic humans used rougher stone tools, as their main technique was hammering/chiseling. (Are we modern-day humans in the “Plastic Age” then?)

Polished Neolithic stone tools (NPM)

Artifacts from both of Neolithic and Paleolithic cultures were found in the Baxian caves, with the oldest relic dating back to 27,000 years. The Paleolithic people were here until 5,000 years ago when they disappeared for reasons still unknown to us (perhaps they moved?). At any rate, I was pretty surprised at how long this era was, and after some online reading, I realized that this is a good example of how the Paleolithic period is still the longest in human history.

2. Neolithic Humans got pretty sophisticated.

Most visitors to Taiwan ogle over the cabbage and braised pork (翠玉白菜、肉形石) in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. I learned recently that these intricately-carved pieces of jade are even featured in Japanese school textbooks. Interestingly though, they are not classified as “National Treasures” 國寶, at least not by the law. They are a level below, in a category known as “Significant Antiquities” 重要古物.*

The neolithic era jade earrings showcased at the National Museum of Prehistory (NMP) however are National Treasures. Because crazily enough, people thousands of years ago already had the technique to turn this stubborn material into art:

The museum’s most prized treasure 人獸形玉器

The above artifact is most likely an earring or some sort of ear piece 耳飾, featuring two people with an animal on their heads.There are a lot more jade artifacts displayed in the museum, though this was by far the coolest. See here for a list of the National Treasures and Significant Antiquities in the NMP.

According to the NMP website, earrings of the same shape have been discovered in Neolithic era coffins around Taiwan, revealing that they were probably a trendy burial good 陪葬品 back in the day. There are a few interpretations of what this earring means. The two people probably symbolize cooperation and teamwork. But what about the animal on top? One explanation is that the two figures have successfully hunted down the animal and are proudly it bringing back to the tribe. If that is the case though, why is the animal standing with its ears and tail perked up? Another explanation is that the animal might symbolize a source of vitality for the people. Or maybe people believed that they descended from the animal.

Anyways, I don’t want to give the false impression that the prehistory museum has National Treasures while the palace museum doesn’t. The Palace Museum is still home to the majority of national treasures; the committee of experts just didn’t consider the jade cabbage & pork the most important.

However, I do think it’s a pity that the National Palace Museum tends to be the only museum tourists visit. A lot of people in the West (including very educated people) already buy into the myth that Taiwan didn’t exist before the Republic of China, and the fact that most visitors only go to the National Palace Museum, which exclusively features artifacts brought over by the ROC, doesn’t help. Plus, seeing these Neolithic jade artifacts in juxtaposition with the cabbage and pork jade would be really cool.

3. More cool stuff that’s been chilling here for the past 2,000+ years

If you’ve ever been around Taitung Station, you’ve probably notice the cows:

Other than grazing cows and many guesthouses (including the one I stayed in), there isn’t much going on.

The fact that the station is located in a fairly undeveloped area probably seems strange. What happened was that it was moved from its location downtown to its current spot in the 1980s. A happy coincidence of this move was the unearthing of a Neolithic burial site, which has since been turned into the Beinan Cultural Park.

“Beinan Culture” refers to the civilization that inhabited this area 2,000-3,500 years ago. Culture here doesn’t mean customs or the social behavior of a society; it’s used in the archaeological sense referring to “a recurring assemblage of artifacts from a specific time and place that may constitute the material culture remains of a particular past human society.” (Wiki)

The coolest thing you’ll see in this park are these two stone slabs 月形石柱 that’ve been here for the past couple thousand years:



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The records of Japanese scholars who studied these slabs during the colonial era (1895-1945) reveal that the area was filled with them. What I find pretty amazing is that by 1896 (just one year of colonial rule), there was already a Japanese anthropologist studying this area. The records of Kano Tadao (pictured) reveal that there were countless slabs standing in this area in the 1920s. Unfortunately, most of these are now lost, because farmers wanted to cultivate the land. (Makes you appreciate stone henge– I wonder how difficult it must have been to preserve a whole collection of “useless” stone slabs.)

At any rate, scholars speculated that these were pillars for housing, which leads to the next cool thing you’ll see in the park: house foundations! Courtesy of sandstone gathered from the surrounding area.

Archaeological site at the Beinan Culture Park 卑南文化遺址考古現場

20,000+ artifacts were found among the ruins, including pottery and stone tools, such as knives 石刀, axes 石斧, and sickles 石鐮. The knives were most likely used to pluck ears of millet 摘取小米穗 and the sickles were most likely used to cut rice/millet (stalks?) 割稻. I’m not familiar with the process of harvesting grains, so these terms don’t mean that much to me, but basically they tell us about agriculture back in the day. Neolithic cultures had agricultural know-how that allowed them to settle down.

You’ll also find slate tombs. Many are found in the museum on the grounds, but these three were left in their original spot:

under the observation deck 卑南文化公園景觀台底下的棺材

Now imagine 1,500 of these coffins, with the feet all pointed toward the nearby Dulan mountain. They were different sizes depending on the height of the person/people entombed (some had multiple people entombed at different times), and about 30% of them entombed children. Some 4,000 burial goods were found in these tombs, including the aforementioned jade earrings.


Thanks to Taitung, I learned about this layer of Taiwan’s past, again not something I’d ever heard of despite being exposed to Taiwan my entire life. Which is pretty crazy, considering the island is filled with (past) archaeological sites:

(National Museum of Prehistory)

This trip also made me realize how diverse this past was– look at all these cultures that have been unearthed:

(National Museum of Prehistory, Beinan Branch)

There are even cultures in Taipei, but you wouldn’t hear about that here, as it’s so saturated in ROC-centric monuments and museums. I’ll definitely want to check out the 十三行 Shisanhang Museum of Archaeology in Tamsui next time I go. Now 圓山 Yuanshan means more to me than just that big red hotel. And… I can’t believe there were neolithic artifacts unearthed in the 植物園 botanical garden, aka right under my nose. Thanks to Taitung for enlightening me.

Visiting the Sites

Baxian Caves

Located at the northern tip of Taitung County, so takes 1.5hr ride from both Hualien and Taitung city. If you visit the Baxian caves, you basically just need to see the biggest one, Lingyan Cave 靈岩洞. It’s conveniently located at the bottom, so no need to hike up. There’s not much to see in the other caves and you may be attacked by monkeys (we almost were). We drove there, but if you don’t have a car you can take buses from both Hualien (花蓮客運) and Taitung (鼎東客運) to get there.

Beinan Cultural Site

It’s right around the corner from Taitung Station. Huge expanse of grass with a museum and some tribal structures. You can also check out the 南王部落 Puyuma Tribe nearby, home of award-winning aboriginal singers 金曲歌手的搖藍. The “father” of famous music here would be 陸森寶, who combined jazz and tribal music.  Lots of other famous singers from here include 陳建年、紀曉君、昊恩、家家、南王三姊妹 (Being uncultured, I only recognize 家家)

National Museum of Prehistory

This is actually located one train station away: Kangle Train Station 康樂車站. There are extremely few trains that go there from Taitung every day so don’t count on getting there by train (I tried and failed). It’s better to take the 8115 bus from the bus station 台東轉運站. You can get updated times on the Bus+ app.

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