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.
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.
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.
◎ 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.
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.