Back in February, at the Taipei International Book Fair, something amazing happened.
Over the last ten or so years, geneticists have confirmed what linguists and archaeologists have been guessing for more than fifty -- that there is a clear link between modern day Polynesians, including New Zealand Maori, and the people who lived on the east coast of Taiwan five thousand years ago.
Taiwan is where the great migration that discovered and settled every island of the Pacific began.
Their aboriginal people -- the original Formosans -- are the ultimate ancestors of the people of the Pacific. As Dr Geoff Chambers, biologist at Victoria University and an expert on the great migration, says, it started 5,000 years ago, when people now known as the Austronesians set out from their homeland, spreading first into the area about Mindanao in modern Indonesia, then to the Philippines, and beyond.
After about 2,000 years of exploring, island-hopping, and settling, they moved into another major area, now known as Papua-New Guinea, where they settled and intermarried with the locals. this genetic mix produced the ancestors of the modern Polynesians, These were the people who ventured out in their outrigger canoes, and gradually explored the entire Pacific, from Samoa and Tonga to Tahiti and the Marquesas, and as far as Rapanui (Easter Island), Hawaii, and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
And, at the book fair, a New Zealand Maori party and indigenous Taiwanese, like the delightful girls at the Council of Indigenous People pavilion, right next-door to the New Zealand pavilion, met and interacted.
Most modern Taiwanese are of Han Chinese origin (like the youngsters with the Maori performers, at the top of this post), but about half a million Taiwan people (like the girls in their colorful dress) belong to one of the two dozen indigenous tribes. And, when they got together with the Polynesian party, they called each other cousins.
"I feel at home here," quipped iconic Maori writer Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), "because someone asked me for directions in Mandarin."
The similarities were indeed striking. Not only do they look much the same as the girls, boys, men and women -- Samoan, Tahitian, Tokelauan, Cook Island and Tongan, as well as Maori -- that we encounter every day, but they share a lot of words. In New Zealand, we say, "Tahi, rua, toru, wha, rima" (one, two, three, four, five), while in Taiwan, they say, "Cecay, toso, tolo, sepal, lima."
And they have the same challenges in preserving their culture.
Two people allied by their genes and their ancient past. No wonder this was such a deeply significant occasion.