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,]

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 Families

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.

Agta Life

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.

Image Sources:

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.

Last updated June 2015

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