The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

The ecological adaptation of material culture in Taiwan and neighboring islands

Research period: April 2015 - March 2019 / Project for Database Establishment (project period: max. 4 years) Coordinator NOBAYASHI Atsushi

Reserch Theme List


The main goals of this project are to explore material culture in island environments from the perspective of ecological adaptation, to clarify the processes by which natural resources are selected, and to systemize the local knowledge and technical background used to effect practices. To affect this, we will examine tools and crafts created and used in Taiwan and neighboring islands, including the Ryukyu Islands. Basic information regarding the ecosystems in which tools are made and used, and their cultural relevance will be obtained through local studies and from literature research.
This information will be used (1) to establish a database that allows the correlation of above two main goals, and (2) facilitate the collection of local knowledge in a multi-layered manner by using the database to re-discover traditional knowledge and clarify new knowledge based on the information derived from field and literature studies.


The main goals of this project are to understand the material culture in island environments from the perspective of ecological adaptation, to clarify the process in which people select resources from the natural environment, and to systemize the local knowledge and technical backgrounds, which have been used to practice the above. In this approach, we take material culture to be a survival device created from by some sort of ecological adaptation strategy to establish a universal material culture model. On the other hand, it has been made clear through research on negotiation relationships and occupation castes, and the like among hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers that multiple groups of people living in both different and similar natural environments adopt different occupation strategies and establish complementary relationships among groups. It is also well-known that groups, with the same ecological adaptation in similar natural environments have established different ethnicities and made differences in details of the material culture. The overall goal of this project is to explore the kind of common aspects and differences such ecological environments and ethnicities have given to material culture, based on the Center’s abundant sample materials and relevant ethnographic, videos and audio and historical materials.
To achieve the above research objectives, this project will observe how material culture is positioned in ecological and cultural aspects by comprehensively collection and analysis of functions, including materials and uses, and information, such as manufacturing techniques, etc.,  by focusing on materials for neighboring island regions, mainly Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands. These regions were selected as the focus for study and research targets because their natural environments are similar, yet they present ethnic diversity.
The main focus is Taiwan, in which Nobayashi (the coordinator) specializes. In particular, materials for Tayal, in the north, the Paiwan, in he south, and Tao, who inhabit an island environment, will be the focus for verification of materials. First we will promote local and case studies to conduct cross-verification of material information by local people and domestic and overseas researchers. After verifying the effectiveness of these methods, we will initiate the material studies for the Ryukyu Islands and other areas surrounding Taiwan. In this way we, aim to promote an efficient and effective project. Using the above process we will collect local knowledge in a multi-layered manner, with the aim of re-discovering traditional knowledge and clarifying new knowledge.

Expected results

The expected results of this project can be summarized by the following 5 points:

  1. Systematize the local knowledge and technical background related to material culture in the island environment and establish the methodology.
  2. Clarify common aspects and differences in the material cultures in Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands and the neighboring area, to clarify the ecological and cultural contexts in which they were formed.
  3. Provide to the research community a multilingual environment that enables online information science analyses related to material cultures, by establishing a comprehensive database related to material cultures in Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands.
  4. In the course of establishing the organization required to promote this project, we will conclude academic agreements with domestic and overseas research facilities and also establish cooperative relationships with material source communities. In addition, the Center will become a core facility for material culture research on Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, This will enhance interoperability.
  5. Promote proactive participation of young researchers and main parties of source communities in studies and research required to promote this project, with the aim of developing the next generation researchers who conduct in local areas research.
Outcomes from 2016

1. The state of the implementation of this year’s research
After organizing the basic information on Formosan materials, we have completed preparation of a data book written in Japanese, Chinese and English. In addition, making full use of the internet and documentary records to conduct preliminary research we made a summary review of the storage condition of these materials at overseas museums, such as differences in specimen names according to museum.
After designing the interactive database platform with these basal data as its basic contents in Japanese, Chinese and English, a trial operation was begun in the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku). Since no serious problems emerged, an international workshop entitled “International Multilingual Exchange Platform for Formosan Materials” was held at the ”Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Center, the Council of Indigenous Peoples” in Pingtung County, Taiwan on November 26, 2016. This was done both for practical purposes and as a verification experiment. The multilingual database was used jointly by researchers in several areas (anthropology, museology, informatics and natural history) both at home and overseas, as well as persons in the source communities for verification of the interface and consideration of practical approaches for sharing knowledge.
At the end of the fiscal year, we will hold a plenary meeting for reporting the annual activities and sharing the formulated plan among the project members.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)
In this fiscal year we have achieved the following goals: 1) Field study to collect information on Formosan materials; 2) Organization of the Formosan-related materials accumulated so far and their “multilingualization” (Japanese, Chinese and English); and 3) Convening an international workshop related to trial production, use and design of the interactive multilingual database. For the Ryukyu Islands materials we are considering an organizational approach according to the operational status of the platform for Formosan materials. After establishing a platform model for Formosan materials, we will proceed with the plans step-by-step in the next year.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)
Exhibition of research outcomes entitled “Images of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples” in the Thematic Exhibition Hall, from August 4 through October 4, 2016.
International workshop entitled “International Multilingual Exchange Platform for Formosan Materials” at the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Center, the Council of Indigenous Peoples” in Pingtung County, Taiwan, on November 26, 2016.