The Negritos are a dark skinned people that are ethnically different from other people in the Philippines that are mostly Malay in origins. The are believed to be the original inhabitants of the Philippines. Their origins are obscure. Some anthologist believe they are descendant of wandering people that "formed an ancient human bridge between Africa and Australia.
The Negritos of the Philippines, along with the Semang Negritos of peninsular Malaysia, are believed to survivors of the original hunter gathers that inhabited Southeast Asia and the Pacific before the arrival of the Chinese and Malays. Some Negritos adopted the Chinese language. They are regarded as the ancestors of the hunter-gatherers that live on New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and other Pacific islands.
The Negritos live in the mountains of Luzon and on the Philippine islands of Palawan, Panay, Negros, Cebu and Mindanao. Also known as the Aeta, Atta, Baluga, Batak, Dumagat, Mamanwa, Pugut, they are divided into approximately 25 widely scattered ethno linguistic groups totally about 15,000 people. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]
Negritos have dark skin, kinky “peppercorn” hair and little body hair and are small in size. Among the Agta groups men average 153 centimeters (60 inches) and 45 kilograms (99 pounds) and women average 144 centimeters (56 inches) and 38 kilograms (84 pounds). Although they are linked more closely genetically to Asians than Africans, their appearance and traditional lifestyles are similar to that of the Pygmies of Africa.
Negritos get almost all they need from the rain forest and never evolved agriculture. Negrito girls and boys of Northern Camarines and part of Quezon blacken their teeth to look attractive. Also in the Northern Camarines and throughout the former Tayabas, boys and girls had their noses bored before marriage and wore a nose-stick after that. [Source: Teresita R. Infante, kasal.com]
History of Negritos
The Malay peninsula and Southeast Asia were settled in prehistoric times. Archeological remains were found in several caves, some used for dwellings, and other as burial sites in present-day Malaysia. The oldest remains were found in Lang Rongrien cave dating 38,000 to 27,000 years before present, and in the contemporary Moh Khiew cave. The indigenous groups on the peninsula can be divided into three ethnicities, the Negritos, the Senois, and the proto-Malays. The first inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were most probably Negritos. These Mesolithic hunters were probably the ancestors of the Semang, an ethnic Negrito group who have a long history in the Malay Peninsula. It is plausible that Negritos of the Philippines could have descended from them. [Source: Wikipedia]
Negritos resemble other dark skinned people from Africa and Australia, but it turns their genetic affinities are much more similar to the people around them. This suggests that Negritos and Asians had the same ancestors but that Negritos developed feature similar to Africans independently or that Asians were much darker and developed lighter skin and Asian features, or both.
Scholars almost universally reject the theory that their ancestors came form Africa. Rather it is believed they are descendants of an ancient group of humans who migrated to the Philippines from mainland Southeast Asia around 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, in the Upper Pleistocene period when an Ice Age caused the sea levels to drop and made the Philippines easier to get to. They developed their physical characteristics where they lived through a process of microeveolution that began around 25,000 years ago. Later they began mixing with Austronesian-speaking people that began arriving around 3000 B.C., most likely from Taiwan.
The population of Negritos has declined since the arrival of the Spanish around 1600. Their population continues to decline as a result of high death rates caused by encroachment of outsiders, deforestation, depletion of traditional game and food sources, poverty, disease and volcanic eruptions. In some cases they have been herded onto small reservations by the government and their culture is under sharp attack.
Negrito Culture and Life
Negritos are mostly animists but some have been converted to Christianity. Those that are animists have incorporated into their beliefs. All Negrito groups speak Austronesian languages. All the native languages of the Philippines are Austronesian languages. The languages the Negritos speak are usually more closely related to the languages of people that live around them than they are to the languages of other Negrito groups. Most are bilingual, speaking their own language and the language of their non-Negrito neighbors.
Negritos have traditionally lived on of hunting, gathering, fishing, marginal cultivation and symbiotic relationships with neighboring non-Negrito people. Some live in the forest lean-tos made from sticks and grasses and make clothes from the inner bark of trees. Most live in villages.
As is also true with the pygmies in Africa, Negritos often trade forest products for cash or starch foods like rice or corn. They also serve as guides and work as laborers on nearby farms. This symbiotic elation has been going for some time. Based largely on linguistic similarities between Negritos and non-Negritos, it is estimated that many Negrito groups gave up complete hunting and gathering around 1000 B.C. and have been trading and interacting with non-Negritos since then.
The Aeta are Negritos that live in the jungles and mountains of Luzon. They have traditionally lived by hunting and gathering food in the highlands and avoided mixing with people in the valleys and cities, where most Filipinos live, which they regard as a land of corruption. Many Aeta are illiterate and have few skills of any value to lowlanders.
Most Aeta live in villages in thatch roof huts and keep livestock such as water buffalo, pigs and chickens. In the past and maybe to some degree now they hunted wild boar, deer, mountain cats and a variety of birds, collected fish, electric eels and fresh-water shrimp from streams, and grew mountain rice, sweet potatoes, bananas, beans and other root crops.
Men used to wear loincloths and sarongs. Many hunted with bows and arrows, with arrows that had different points depending on which kind of animal they were pursuing. There were ones for bird, ones for lizards and elaborate one for wild boars. One unusual thing they liked to do was smoke cigarettes with the lighted ends in their mouths.
The Aeta still regard wild animals as delicacies, with flying fox considered a choice delicacy. When preparing the one kilogram bats Negritos first singe the hair, which also gets rid of a musky oil that permeates the hair, and then they roast the animals whole on a stick. Negritos like the intestines. One writer who tried a breast quarter said it "proved delicious—lean, dry and flavorful." Flying foxes in the Philippines are easily disturbed. Negritos approach them with banana leaves on their heads which seems to make the animals feel relaxed.
There are thought to be about 60,000 Aeta. During the Vietnam War, Negritos taught Navy pilots jungle survival in the forest. Today they demonstrate jungle survival techniques at Subic Bay rainforest center.
Aeta and Mt, Pinatubo
Many Aeta—a Negrito tribe— live or lived around Mt. Pinatubo, the volcano that erupted violently in 1991. Traditionally, the Aeta sacrificed a pig with a bottle of gin into the volcano’s crater to placate Apo Malyari, the mountain god of Mt, Pinatubo and keep who live and work around the volcano safe. Apo Malyari is regarded as a combination of smoke, fire and earthquakes. According to legend he was unjustly trapped by lava under Pinatubo and escapes ever 400 or 500 years with great eruption.
Hundreds of Aeta died during and after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Some of them died in the eruption itself. Others starved from a lack a food. Some of those who resettled in evacuation camps died of measles and other lowland diseases for which they had no immunity. Most of those that remained or were left behind in the villages died. Many who chose to hide out in caves rather than evacuate also died. The survivors were mainly those who evacuated far enough to get out of harms way.
The way of life of Aeta was dramatically changed after the eruption. The villages where they used to live are under meters of ash; trees that provided shade from the hot sun are gone; and their hunting grounds were closed. Many moved back to the mountain and grew what crops they could. The sandy soil made that difficult. Mountain rice turned yellow and withered when planted in the ash. Banana trees were about the only food sources that did well. But the Aeta complained they couldn’t live on bananas alone.
Many Aeta remained in evacuation centers that looked like refugee camps. In the 1990s they wore Western cloths, worked as laborers, collected banana blossoms and bartered the for rice, and attended classes that aimed to teach them how to make handicrafts.
The Agta are a group of Negritos that live in a widely scattered areas of eastern Luzon. Also known as the Alta, Arta, Bauga, Dumagat, Negritos, Pugut, they are divided into eight ethnolinguistic groups with a total membership of around 7,000 people. They have traditionally been hunters and gatherers. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]
They areas were they live were once primarily covered by dipterocarp tropical lowland forest. These areas have now largely been deforested. The number of Agta gas dropped while the numbers of non-Agta in the area have risen sharply. The Agta have traditionally had a high fertility rate. Women have traditionally given birth to six or more children.
The Agta population declines have been attributed mostly to disease, with tuberculosis being the No. 1 killer, followed by pneumonia and gastrointestinal illnesses and leprosy. They also suffer from malnutrition, malaria, intestinal parasites, alcoholism and unsanitary living conditions. They have had a high homicide rate: in the 1980s 21 percent of all adult males died from murder. This is one of the highest rates of any group ever recorded. Suicide is rare. About 12 percent of women die from complications related to childbirth.
Agta Language and Religion
The Agta speak eight distinct languages. They are Austronesian languages like those of their neighbors but they are regarded as separate and distinct languages that are unintelligible to non-Agta.
The Agta are animists, with some Catholic and more recently Protestant influences. Religion is not systematized or given great importance. The Agta believe in spirits that are divided into two main groups: hayup (creatures) and belet (ghosts). The former are associated with things like trees, caves and headlands. The latter are mostly associated with the wandering, restless souls of some dead. Ghosts, particularly of recently deceased loved ones, are often blamed for disease and misfortune.
Agta shaman are involved primarily in healing and as far as is known do not practice black magic. They generally use herbs and prayers in treatments but occasionally go into trances to communicate with spirits or deceased family members as part of the healing process. A study of one Agta group found that eight percent of the adults qualified as shaman. Of these one out of five was a woman.
The Agta do not practice animal sacrifices but sometimes leave small offerings such as rice, honey or betel when they take something from the forest. The Agta fear death but not have a developed concept of the afterlife.
Agta Society and Arts
As is true with other hunter gatherers, Agta political organization is weak. There are no chiefs. Social organization revolves around the nuclear family and women and men participate equally in decision-making. Social control is also weak and individuals tend to do what they want as long as it doesn’t disrupt camp life. Conflicts are usually resolved by people moving away.
Kinship and personal relations are important to the Agta. Clans and lineages are not. Social organization is set up almost exclusively on kinship. The Agta language has 15 kinship terms of reference.
Women weave many kinds of baskets and mats. Men produce many kinds of arrows. Traditional body adornment has included teeth filing and deliberate scaring of the back and sometimes the chest. The Agta produce music with singing in a three-tone scale, strumming hunting bows and using simple stringed instruments, a bamboo Jew’s harp. They have no custom of dancing.
Agta marriages are monogamous and are generally outside the family but within an immediate group. Marriages to non-Agta and members of different Agta ethnolingusitic groups is rare. Couples may live with either the husband’s or the wife’s family. Divorce is rare, especially after children are born.
There is little division of labor among the sexes. Both sexes work in the gardens, collect forest products and take care of household duties. Women often accompany men on their hunting trips. The only activities that are exclusively female are weaving baskets and mats and washing clothes. The only activities that are exclusively male are spearfishing and climbing high trees to collect honey.
Many Agta still live in the forest in scattered camp groups. In the 1980s, about 60 percent of Agta clans were in the forest. The remainder were on coastal beaches, open brush land and coconut groves. Few camps are set up under tall tress because the Agta fear trees falling on them. They are usually set up camps comprised of three to seven kin related families in dry river beds or small gardens. The camps are moved often, generally between every two to five weeks.
Agta generally seek shelter in lean-tos or small huts with a thatch roof and no walls and sleep on the ground or on bamboo or palm wood floor about a meter off the ground. They have no concept of leadership and have traditionally regarded land as a free good.
Until the 1960s, Agta men spent much of their time hunting animals such as wild, pigs, monkeys and deer with bow and arrows or borrowed homemade shotguns and Agta groups traded meat from wild animal for starchy foods. As the amounts of game and forest declined, many Agta men became laborers and farm workers. Agta farms and gardens tend to be small and don’t produce enough food to feed their owners. Their primary economic activity is collecting forest products, namely rattan, which they trade for food as they used to do with wid meat.
The Tasadays are a cave dwelling tribe that lives on rugged rain-forest-covered mountains of central Mindanao. When they were "discovered" in 1971 they were labeled "the last stone-age tribe on earth." Just to reach them was a daunting feat, in some cases involving landing a helicopter on a flimsy platform on top of a tree, because the forest where the Tasadays lived was so dense and there was no flat land.
When they were discovered—during the final years of the Vietnam War—It was widely touted that the Tasaday language was unique and it contained no word for war. The Tasadays themselves were characterized as being non aggressive. They were listed with the Andaman Islanders of India, the Yahgan of Patagonia, and the Semai of Malaysia as an undeveloped cultures that reportedly have never waged war.
The Tasaday reportedly neither hunted or knew how to grow food. They used no weapons to kill or trap wild animals. All their food they collected from the forest. When they fished they used their hands. The staple of their diet was a wild yam. Their also ate wild fruits, roots, berries, grubs, tadpoles, crabs and frogs. Their favorite food—called ubud—came from the inside of a palm trunk and was never eaten near their caves for they feared eating there might bring bad weather.
The Tasaday group that was the focus of media attention was made up of 24 individuals: four married couples, a widower, a bachelor and 14 children aged one year to 18. When they were discovered the Tasadays wore skirts of grass and orchid leaves or else nothing at all. They said the only wore the leaves to protect the genitals from insects and thorns, Their children nursed until they were three years old. They were more men in the tribe than women. Despite this the men didn't share wives.
The Tasaday said only gathered food when they had to and a lot of their time was spent just sitting around. It was reported that the Tasadays stayed close to their caves but also moved around and slept in lean tos when they needed to gather food. When the were given sugar and jelly sandwiches they gagged. They said they practiced no medicine and left heir sick to die. Most communications was done at first with gestures and pictures.
Discovery of the Tasadays
The Tasadays were discovered by Manuel Elizalde, a Philippine politician who headed a government agency in charge of all Philippine tribal peoples. He “found” the group of 26 individuals and reported that they knew nothing of the outside world—even though they lived a three hour walk from a large village of farmers—used only stone and wood tools, wore leaves for clothing and survived completely off wild food.
The story gained worldwide attention thanks primarily to a 1972 National Geographic cover story and accompanying film shown repeatedly on television. According to the National Geographic reports the only technology the Tasaday reportedly had were stone axes and a fire drill which took ten long minutes to start a fire. They are said to have no pottery, cloth, metal, art, houses, dogs or domestic plants.
In 1972 and 1973, a dozen or so scientists were flown into Mindanao by helicopter to study the Tasaday but only one, the ethnobiologist Douglas Yen, was allowed to stay more than a few days (Yen stayed for 41 days). Most of the scientist published short articles in the Philippine press. Then, in 1974, all contact with the Tasaday was broken off, presumably to protect the Tasaday culture and their innocence. Nothing was heard of them again for 13 years.
In 1986, just a month after the fall of the Maroc regime, stories about the Tasaday resurfaced: this time stating the original story was a big hoax. In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Marcos government, a Swiss journalist named Oswald Iten slipped into the area of Mindanao where the Tasaday lived and found them living in houses, sleeping in beds and wearing regular clothes. They told them that Elizalde told them to pretend they were savages whenever outsiders were present.
This was followed up by a visit by a team from the German magazine Stern that photographed the Tasadays wearing leaves with underpants visible beneath them. This led to allegations that the whole Tasaday story was a complete fabrication and the Tasaday themselves were “paid performers.” Some say the whole thing was invented by the Marcos regime to declare the Tasaday region a reserve so the government could gain access to its resources.
A closer look at the Tasaday revealed that they were neither the “anthropological event” or the “hoax” of the century and anthropologists still argue the merits of the case. The general consensus is that when the Tasaday were discovered in 1971 they were a minority tribe people, with primitive technology, that lived where they were found. But they were not a Stone Age people that had no contact with the outside world as was claimed. There are still disagreements on issues like whether or not they used iron and the degree of contact with the outside world.
The generally accepted hypothesis of the Tasaday is that before 1971 and for most of the 20th century the Tasaday were foragers who lived a lifestyle similar to that of Negritos. Based on linguistic evidence its is believed that they once were members of the Cotabato Manobo, an agricultural ethnic group, and separated from them sometime in 19th century. At that time they moved deeper into the forest and took up a seminomadic foraging existence. After that they were never completely isolated—they traded forest products for food—and raised some food in gardens.
About 85 percent of the Tasaday words are identical with those of the Cotabato Manabo. Based on differences between the two languages, linguist estimated the two groups have lived apart for 100 to 150 years.
There was clearly a deliberate effort to mislead the public about the Tasaday. It was later revealed that Elizalde found them wearing normal cloth and told them to get rid of them and “wear their traditional” coverings. Afterwards they were filmed or photographed wearing orchid leaves. It was also revealed the Tasaday possessed trade good such as metal-tipped arrows, bows made from cultivated bamboo, iron bush knives, glass beads and tin cans. Farming people traded these goods for meat from wild animals killed and smoke-dried by the Tasaday.
The rain forest where the Tasaday live doesn’t have enough wild foods to support people living on them alone. No one ever observed the Tasaday subsisting on wild foods. Even when the scientists were observing them in the early 1970s, people with the Philippines government secretly fed them rice. When the scientists were not there they ate rice, sometimes two or three times a day.
The Tasaday stone tools shown in photographs were not genuine tools. They were made by somebody else. The tools they reportedly used mysteriously disappeared and were never photographed. The bamboo that the Tasaday used to cook their food was cultivated bamboo. It was not winl bamboo gathered from the rain forest.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015