Press Enter to the main content


  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • line icon
  • plurk icon
  • Print
  • Back to previous page


Weaving and face tattoos are distinctive to the Atayal who follow the ancestral preaching (gaga) and consider the ancestral spirit ceremony the most important ritual. With the rise of indigenous awareness and indigenous culture revitalization in recent years, the Truku and Sediq ethnic group branches of the Atayal declared independence from the Atayal in 2004 and 2008 respectively. Currently, the Atayal population is about 92,084 people (as of Januray 2020).

Geographic Distribution

As the most widespread ethnic group in Taiwan, the Atayal are distributed in the mountainous areas in central and northern Taiwan, including the mountain townships and towns in the following seven counties and cities: New Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Taichung City, Nantou County, and Yilan County. According to the Atayal language, “Atayal” means people, real people, or kinspeople, including the Seqoleq and Tseole subgroups. The former mainly settle in Wulai (Ulay) District of New Taipei City, Fuxing (Pyasan) District of Taoyuan City, Jianshi Township of Hsinchu County, and Heping District of Taichung City. The latter mostly settle in Wufeng and Jianshi Townships in Hsinchu County, Tai’an Township of Miaoli County, Heping District in Taichung City, Ren’ai Township of Nantou County, and Datong and Nan’ao Townships of Yilan County.

According to the Atayal legend, the Atayal originated from a rock cracking where their ancestors (a male and a female) were born. Then, they migrated to the places where different tribes settle. In fact, the two Atayal subgroups have different views about this rock cracking legend. The Seqoleq believe that Ruiyan (Piasebukan) in Faxiang Village, Ren’ai Township, Nantou County, was the origin, while the Tseole reckon that the Dabajian Mountain (Papakwaqa) in Wufeng Township, Hsinchu County was the origin of the ethnicity.

In the 18th century, as the Han people developed toward the shallow mountain area in the western plain, and migrated to Puli in Nantou of the plains indigenous peoples (Taukat, Pazeh, Papora, and Babuza) in western Taiwan, the Atayal moved from the upstream Beigang River in Ren’ai Township of Nantou County toward the Dajia River to the mountain areas in Miaoli, Hsinchu, Taoyuan, Yilan, and New Taipei City to search for hunting grounds and farmlands. The Atayal cultivation and migration in the 18th century continued until the late 19th century, and they settled in different areas forming different types of communities at the middle and upper courses of rivers in mountain areas in central and northern Taiwan.

During Japanese colonization in the early 20th century, the colonial government implemented the “Indigenous Peoples Management 5-Year Plan” to colonize indigenous communities aggressively. The colonial government even induced indigenous peoples living in deep mountains to migrate to shallow mountain areas with the “mass migration” policy. As the Japanese government forced the Atayal to accept Japanese rule, confrontations and clashes between them never ended. Resistance against Japanese colonial rule included the “Ncaq Incident”, “Takoham Incident”, and “Sijakaro Incident”. Suppressed by the colonial government’s superior military and police power and policies, the Atayal were forced to leave their hometowns and centralize in designated locations or areas easy for management. At the beginning of ROC rule in the mid-20th century, Atayal intellectuals including Lin, Jui-Chang (Losin Watan, a medical doctor and a provincial councilor) and Kao, Tse-Chao proposed the idea of ethnic autonomy. As this idea conflicted with the government policy, they were arrested in 1952 for “communist espionage”. Historically, this incident is called the “Mountain Indigenous Peoples Communist Espionage Incident”.

In addition, Lin, Zhao-Ming, nephew of Losin Watan and a student of the normal school, was arrested in 1949 for involvement in the “Formosan Peoples Self-Salvation Youth Alliance”. The Atayal faced drastic adjustments and turns with the external ruling power in the first half of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, the government implemented the “settled agriculture”, “cultivation and reforestation”, and “life improvement” movements of the Atayal people for them to adjust to and adapt to the living habits, economic activities, industrial activities, and cultural activities of other ethnic groups. This was how the Atayal people started and increased contact with the outside world.


1. Industry

Farming and hunting are the major economic activities of the Atayal. They grow foxtail millet, upland rice, and common millet, and hunt animals for protein. After economic contact with the external market, the variety of crops has increased. In the mid-20th century, they began to grow cash crops including rice, peaches (qznux), apple pears, high-mountain cold-area vegetables (yasay), alfalfa mushrooms, and ginger.

2. Food

Foxtail millet, common millet, rice, and sweet potatoes are the staple foods of the Atayal. They eat vegetables including the cucumber, pumpkin, wild edible plants, and beans, and have meat, fish, and shrimp only on festivals. Apart from millet wine, glutinous rice wine, and cured meat, maqaw (Litsea cubeba) chicken soap and wild boar sausage are specialty foods with a strong ethnic flavor.

3. Clothing

The Atayal make clothes mainly with linen. They began to use cotton and wool in the 20th century. Blue, yellow, red, black, and white are the common colors. Male Atayal wear the forehead band, headgear, bosom, sleeveless chest covering (vest), or sleeved long chest covering, loincloth, and baldric. Female Atayal wear the forehead band, headgear, long-sleeved short chest covering with buttons down the front, panel skirt, and leggings. Patterns on clothes include checkers on the front and complex patterns on the back. It is said that the checker is the symbol of the eye, representing the blessing of the ancestral spirit. Traditional Atayal Clothing: Shell clothes (lukkus-kaxa) are an important bride price of marriage. Before marriage, the groom must send one piece to dozens of shell clothes to the bride. The shell clothes are a long vest with white shells running horizontally or vertically as decorations. As a kind of treasure, the shell clothes are worn by the chief, kin elders, and warriors on important occasions.

4. Arts

◎ Weaving Tradition: In Atayal society, the social status and talent of women are rated by weaving. Females begin to weave when they are girls. The Atayal mainly weave with linen. They make colored cloth with stripes of different colors, including red, yellow, black, and blue. There is also white cloth with brown stripes. In recent years, traditional weaving patterns and techniques have been turned into cultural and creative products that help revitalize the Atayal tribal culture.

◎ Face Tattoo (ptasan): The face tattoo is a symbol of being an adult in the Atayal tradition. It is nice-looking and can expel evil, representing a traditional cultural value. Men tattoo their faces after hunting a head or hunting. Women must acquire weaving skills before they can tattoo their faces. Atayal people believe that when a person dies and his sprit leaves the world to the home of the ancestral spirits, ancestors will judge if he is an Atayal descendant by their facial tattoos. Therefore, face tattoos also carry a religious meaning. The locations of tattoos include the face, the chest, the abdomen, the hands, the legs, and the face tattoo is the most important. Both males and females can tattoo their foreheads mainly with 3-5 overlapping horizonal patterns composed of vertical lines. In addition to the forehead, males will tattoo their chins with vertical patterns, while females will tattoo their cheeks with oblique parallel or cross lines. The face tattoo was banned by the Japanese government during the colonial period at the turn of 20th century. A long, historical tradition and part of culture were thus disrupted. In recent years, face tattoo patterns are used on various cultural and creative products to symbolize this ethnic token.

5. Architecture

The Atayal are widespread and have developed multifaceted construction materials and architectural forms. Their buildings can be divided by function into the family house, auxiliary buildings, and the public building (watchtower). Bamboo traditional family houses and elevated barns keep moisture and rodents away.

◎ Traditional Family House: The Atayal are widespread and have developed different types of family houses in different places. These family houses include the subterranean wooden house and the flatland bamboo house. The subterranean wooden house uses a wooden structure covering a subterranean section (cave), i.e. half of the building is in the ground. The flatland bamboo house is built mainly with bamboo with a grass roof. It is built from the ground to the roof. The bamboo house was developed after migration for its easy erection. The interior layout of both types of houses is similar. The site is mostly square or rectangular. There are two stoves in the house, one for cooking and one for heating. Auxiliary buildings include the barn and farming hut. The barn is supported by wood and enclosed with woven Yushan cane (Yushania niitakayamensis), Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis), silver grass stems (Miscanthus floridulus), and hard wooden stems. The partition wall is made with log bark, and the roof with white cogon grass. The barn is a place for storing foxtail millet, common millet, corn, sweet potatoes, and taro. Most barns are elevated to keep moisture and rodents away. As the barn is the family’s food storage, it is very rude to watch people open up and take food from the barn. The farming hut is built by at the center of the upland rice field to facilitate taking water and watching crops. It is also storage for crops and faming tools. The scale of the farming hut is usually smaller than that of the family house.

◎ Watchtower: The watchtower is an elevated wooden public facility built at the entrance of the tribe to watch the environment. In the evening, young people are stationed there. In early times, the watchtower was a defensive facility. Later, it became a center for gatherings, communication, and recreation.


1. Marriage

Traditional Atayal families are built upon patrilineality, i.e. patrilocal residence and a patriarchic society. Monogamy is practiced for marriage, and males and females with lineal relations can marry one another only after five generations.

2. Tribe (galang/alang)

The tribe is the basic unit in an Atayal society. In the Atayal language, a tribe is referred to as a galang or alang. Traditional Atayal tribes lived in deep mountains before the 20th century. After Japanese colonization at the beginning of the 20th century, mountain tribes migrated to the shallow mountain areas to form a community-based village with separate tribes. Traditionally, a tribe is a group of people sharing the same blood relation and living in the same area, and with groups formed upon ritual, hunting, discipline sharing, and labor. A tribe has a chief, the council of elders, and land ownership. Internally, a tribe is obliged to protect the tribal members. Externally, the tribe maintains contact with other tribes of the same kin and form alliances to defend enemies. The tribal alliance within the territory is called the mulaxen galang. It is formed to resist external enemies.

3. Maraho

Maraho means the chief in the Seqoleq language and posiyn or radan in the Tseole language. After having contact with the Qing dynasty, the Han term for chief has since been used by the Atayal. Internally, a chief administers the public affairs within the tribe. Externally, the chief represents the tribe to maintain communication with other tribes and communities. A chief can be succeeded or elected. In the former case, the first son or a son of the same family will succeed the chief status, including the father to the son or the big brother to the little brother. Succession is common in family-based tribes. An election will be held when the chief is killed in war or by disease or is too weak to carry out the chief’s duty, if is either decided by the original chief or through the council of elders.

4. Ritual Group (gutux gaga)

In the Seqoleq language, gutux gaga is the most important group in a ritual practicing the gaga. The gaga covers the regular sowing festival and harvest festival, and the irregular head-hunting ritual, sunshine ritual, and ancestral spirit ritual. The gutux gaga is held by the chief familiar with the calendar and ritual, known as maraho gaga in the Seqoleq language. If the tribal organization is the same as the gutux gaga, the tribal chief can take up this duty. If there are different gutux gaga in a tribe, the gaga leader (maraho gaga) of each kin will lead the gutux gaga of the own kin. Each member of the gutux gaga will practice the ritual according to the inherited procedures and follow all restrictions.

5. Hunting Group (inhoyan qutux linntan/inltan)

Inhoyan qutux linntan means the hunting group in the Seqoleq language and is inltan in the Tseole language. A hunting group is formed by the males of a tribe or gaga and will become a combat group in wartime. Hunting areas outside of the tribe hunting group’s range of activity cannot be trespassed upon by the group, as well as the hunting areas of other groups. A hunting event usually lasts for days. In terms of restrictions, if a hunting group checks on the animal traps near the tribe, it is considered a recreation activity and the gaga’s rules and restrictions will not apply. If it is a festival or a wedding within the same gaga or the hunting group of the whole tribe, related rules and restrictions must be observed. Although women are prohibited in the hunting group, they need to follow the related restrictions when the hunting group goes on a hunt. The hunting group began to decline during Japanese colonization in the 20th century, because there was too much labor work. In addition, hunting has declined since the rise of agricultural and economic activities.

6. Sharing (offerings/responsibility/meat) Group (qutux niqan)

According to literature, the food sharing group is called qutux niqan in the Seqoleq language. It means sharing food among people with blood relations, i.e. the meat sharing group. In terms of function and nature, there are two types of sharing groups: the discipline sharing group and the food sharing group. The discipline sharing group is related to religious rituals. If someone the same blood tribe commits theft or adultery as stated in the gaga they must stand out and confess, in order to not offend the spirits that will bring disasters. At the confession, the redemption ritual is practiced. The gaga offender and the people of the same blood relation will exchange a pig with pearl skirts and pearl clothes and sacrifice the pig to worship the spirits before sharing the pig. Today, the redemption is mostly practiced at the church or a resolution is made through political or legal settlements. The food sharing group is related to weddings and hunting. In food sharing at weddings, when the groom marries a bride, the groom will provide meat for the bride to share it. Today, food sharing is still practiced in daily life. In hunting, food sharing means to share the catch with all hunters participating in the hunt and then with relatives by consanguinity and by affinity who did not join the hunting.

7. Labor Group (gutux kenuexgan).

The labor group is called gutux kenuexgan in the Seqoleq language. It means exchanging service between individuals or groups, and service collaboration as well. The labor group is not a standing organization with regular members. It depends on the subject and quantity of service and the location of members. In general, a labor group is formed with relatives by consanguinity and by affinity. If the workload is heavy, a group may recruit members in the same gaga or relatives outside of the tribe. The labor support requires service exchange in terms of the subject of work or the days of work. Therefore, it is called obayox (workday exchange system) in the Seqoleq language. Before the service begins, parents will invite members from different households to exchange tools and prepare implements, materials, and food. During the service, parents will supply food and refreshments. After the service ends, parents will kill a pig or a lamb to treat the group members. If the service involves building a house or harvest, a ritual will be held before the service, and there are restrictions to follow during the service.


The Atayal’s supernatural belief is called utux, and the ancestral spirit is the most important concept. According to the Atayal, the ancestral spirit is the guardian of luck, and the instructions and rules (gaga) left by ancestors can make people healthy and the harvest plentiful. If people violate ancestral preaching (gaga), bad luck will come. The Atayal are devout to the ancestral spirit and are faithful to ancestral preaching (gaga). Therefore, they worship the ancestral spirit in the sowing, mowing, and harvest festivals. In addition to traditional belief, the Atayal began to accept Western religions in the 1960s, and there are Catholic and Christian churches in every tribal community. However, farming and ancestral spirit rituals are still preserved in their cultural spirit.

1. Sowing Festival (smyatu)

Atayal people determine the smyatu time through discussion. At the meeting, each of the two families with the largest yields in the past year will send a representative to be the ritual master. During the ritual, the two ritual masters bring millet cakes and millet wine to the farmland and cannot talk to others on the way. After the two ritual masters worship at the farmland of one of the two ritual masters, they continue the worship at the other ritual master. At the ritual, the ritual master digs four holes in the farmland with a hoe and put seeds inside. When digging a hole, the ritual master will tell the name of a person with high millet yields or the name of the gaga showing them how to sow for the gaga good at growing millet to bless the plentiful harvest of the farmland.

Then, the ritual master will put the millet cakes on one side and pour the millet wine on the millet cake with the left hand. At the same time, the ritual master will say, “I wish there will be plentiful wine brewed with the millet harvested in the future to make me throw up.” Then, the ritual master will drink the millet wine and spit it on the millet rice cake. After the prayer, the ritual master will leave the offerings there and continue with the ritual at the next farm. After completing all rituals, the ritual masters will share the millet cakes and millet wine with each household, symbolizing the sharing of the gaga’s spiritual power to all families. Each household will worship with these millet cakes and millet wine the next day.

At the same time, males in the tribe gather together to share the cured meat and listen to the gaga preached by the elders. On the next day, each family will send one person bringing millet cakes and millet wine shared by the ritual masters to the farmland before dawn for the sowing ritual in the same way as the ritual masters practice it. A communion is held after the ritual for females and non-tribal people to join the ritual. During the sowing festival, every household must keep the fire glowing and may not borrow or lend fire from or to others. They will also avoid contact with linen, needles, or felling plants.

As the area of foxtail millet began to reduce in the 1960s as growing rice became more popular, the Atayal began to hold the sowing ritual in the rice field. Ginger became the major cash crop in the 2000s. As the place and yield of the ginger and millet are the same, some tribes hold rituals with offerings for growing ginger to replace the sowing festival.

2. Ancestral Spirit Ritual (maho)

Maho is held between August and October after the millet harvest. Every household will discuss the ritual time at the chief’s place. After determining the date, members will hunt animals to prepare cured meat for the ritual, and each household will make millet cakes and millet wine and send one person to make the large millet cake for the ritual. On the ritual day, males gather together before dawn. The descendants of each ancestor will send representatives holding bamboo on which offerings, such as animal meat and millet cake, are hung, others will walk behind the representatives. The chief and deputy chief will lead the parade to the ritual place. On the way, they will call the appellation of their decreased ancestors, such as grandparents and parents, to invite the ancestral spirits of the tribe on the way to the ritual.

The chief will be the master of the ritual. He will call the ancestral spirits to enjoy the offerings and pray for plentiful hunting yields. After the ritual, they will leave the offerings in place and step over a fire to symbolize the separation from the ancestral spirits. After young people return to the tribe, the chief and elders will stay there talking to the ancestral spirits (lyutux) and give ancestral spirits wine. Eventually, they will leave the wine there. On the way to the tribe, they will leave a larger millet cake outside the tribe for young people to separate for eating with a mountain knife before returning to the tribe. Due to interior burial, the ritual will take place at the outskirts of the tribe. Since the 20th century when ancestors were buried in the public cemetery, maho has been banned in the tribe. Therefore, the Atayal people began to hold the ritual in the public cemetery. In the ritual, they will present flowers and light up candles at the ancestor’s grave. Then, the offspring of each ancestors will put offerings under the tree. In recent years, the traditional maho has regained its importance and has been held again in the tribe.