The Philippine Negrito

The Philippine aborigines commonly referred to as Negritos are the direct descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines that settled the islands more than 30,000 years ago. Crossing via land bridges, which then connected the islands to the rest of the Asian mainland, they have since spread throughout the country.

Spaniards coined the name “negrito” or “little black one” from the Spanish word “negro” which means “black” referring to their dark skin. Physically they are characterized by their small frame, kinky hair, pug nose, thick lips and big round black eyes.

The different groups of negritos are called Aeta, Abian, Agta and Ati depending on their specific geographical location. The Aeta are found in the provinces of Zambales, Bataan, Tarlac and Nueva Ecija, the Abian in Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur, the Agta in Bicol and Iriga, and the Ati in the Panay islands. These groups are further broken into local references such as “Mamanua” and “Pugot“.

According to ancient artifacts, the negritos once settled in the lowlands but retreated into the mountains with the arrival of early Malay settlers (lowlanders) and subsequently the Spaniards. Mostly living off the land by hunting, fishing and gathering fruits and root crops they live a nomadic life and use temporary shelters made of branches, grass and leaves. When resources have become scarce they move to a new location.

Unlike the lowlanders, the negritos’ relative isolation and strong resistance to acculturation have helped retain much of their ancient customs and traditions. They refused Spanish subjugation and were known as noncoquestados (unconquered). The intrusion into their territory by the “christianized” lowlanders was often met with antagonism and they often raided encroaching settlements. In retaliation, lowlanders sent expeditionary forces into the mountains. The Spanish enforcement of a resettlement plan in the late 19th century had limited effect. Isolated conflicts continued well into the American occupation.

Negritos believe in spirits and deities. Some believe in a supreme being such as “Apo na Malyari” (Aeta) and ” Magbabaya” (Mamanua). They are also animist and believe in environmental spirits such as “anitos” (good) and “kamana” (malevolent). It is through these beliefs in respecting and revering environmental spirits that negritos have manage to live in harmony with nature. They also believe in the existence of the soul known as the “kaelwa” or “kalola“. They perform ritual dances before and after a hunt and offer gifts and sacrifices to appease spirits. They have no formal marriage rites but practice polygamy with their chosen partners. Couples can live together as early as 14 years old.

They are skilled weavers and produce excellent baskets, hammocks and mats from rattan and bamboo. They can even make raincoats entirely made from palm leaves that is attached at the neck and covering the entire back. They use coconut shells and bamboo as household utensils and they decorate their tools and weapons by incising and etching angular and geometric patterns onto its surface.

Their traditional clothing reflects their adherence to a simple life. The women wear either wrap around skirts or bark cloths leaving the breast exposed. Men wear loin cloths and armlets and “tagudi” (neck bands) which they make. Male and female adorn themselves with beads and necklaces made out of either shell or animal bone. Decorative disfigurement is done by intentionally wounding the skin and further irritation with fire or lime to produce a visible scar. “Dumagats“, another group of negritos, also practice the chipping of teeth with a “bolo” (knife) during puberty. They consider this as a mark of beauty and maturity. The teeth are died black after a few years.

The declining population of present day negritos is cause for alarm. Forest depletion and exploitation, intrusion of industrial developments into once secluded or ancestral lands and environmental changes (such as the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991) have forced them to move to different areas for their survival. Often they are the marginalized and neglected victims of government land-use policies and public apathy.

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