agta- Beliefs

the negritos

african asians,
asian africans

lifestyle and

adornment and

the negritos in
literature and legend

the negritos in




© Lawrence Waldron
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Lifestyle and Beliefs

In their broad distribution across the Philippine archipelago and with the widely varied circumstances under which they live, it is impossible to make definitive statements about the lifestyle and beliefs of the Negritos. They are too diverse for that.


At a glance, their original animist beliefs are obvious. Many aspects of that foundation remain, even when divested of their original significance by colonial or modern influences. The ancient customs are held to more closely in some groups than in others and yet vestigial traits of the ancient ways unite most of these black Pilipinos.

Colonial and even pre-colonial accounts describe the Ati as having no God or gods, but a series of spirits, called talunanon which they placate to ensure an easy existence (Carreon, 1943: pp.6, 8). Talunanon are believed to inhabit sacred trees, springs and other significant features of the natural environment, all of which are treated with the utmost respect. Behaviors of speech, thought and action are restricted in such holy places in order to honor or pacify the talunanon, and to maintain balance between the Ati world and that of the spirits.

Talunanon are not necessarily benevolent and can be the cause of physical and psychological/psychic diseases. A person who falls ill is asked by the healers to retrace her steps to the place where she began to feel unlike herself or to recount her actions to a similar point in time. The talunanon of that place is then given food and other ritual offerings to release the sick person's affliction. These forest spirits are also honored by Ati who practice agriculture beyond the forest. These farmers make seasonal offerings to the talunanon at the end of the harvest.

The funerary customs of the Negritos vary widely and range from Malay-type burials borrowed from neighboring groups to a traditional standing burial performed in several phases. The Maragtas describes a standing burial in which the body is buried with the head exposed but under a large hat (salakut) for three days. Then the head is finally covered under a mound (Carreon, 1943: p.7). Traditionally, the dead are buried with their favorite belongings lest they return to haunt the new owners.

Today, we see the value of animist beliefs about the environment and its sustenance, but it was less than a century ago that authors who prided themselves on scientific objectivity, saw the traditional beliefs of the Agta and other native populations as primitive and based on fear. But in his 1960's Pygmy exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, C.M. Turnbull's museum labels commented that Pygmies often make fun of lowlanders whose religions seem to them based on fear, a fear of the natural forces of the forest, which they either avoid or cut down.



Although the Agta occupy a somewhat romantic-primitive place in the minds of Malay Pilipinos, even among those who live closest to them, it is not unusual for Negritos to be farmers. In fact flexibility characterizes the Agta approach to subsistence.


In many cases, they maintain the ancient hunter-gatherer approach of their ancestors. But it seems that the Agta have maintained a rotating, seasonal strategy that supplements hunting and foraging with fishing, planting and trade.

Generally, the Agta are not very interested in owning large tracts of agricultural land since the administration of that property would bind them to a sedentary existence, which in turn would deny them free access to the many foods and remedies they can only hunt or forage for over long periods in the forest. Many prefer to maintain a mobile lifestyle throughout the year, revisiting certain areas where they have either planted herbs and starches in small swiddens or left supplies on their way.

Hunting with bow and arrow

In their forest rambles, they construct temporary lean-to's of woven leaves and fronds, propped up by pared-down branches. In these lean-to's, they sleep or the women give birth. Otherwise, they are on the move.

While in the forest, the Agta women and men collect wild tubers of the yam and taro family (kalot, lubi lubi, kabuang, butot, bakalang (see 1). For protein, the Agta diet varies even more widely. From wild cats (lamidan or Zibet cats) to pigs to fish to insects, the men are often able to feed their families well. Scallops, shellfish, snails, frogs, prawns and honey are considered delicacies. Many of these foods are seasonally available so a working knowledge of the forest's yearly phases is part of the Agta subsistence strategy. A variety of fruits come into season at every point in the year and the Agta women anticipate and harvest them accordingly.

The Agta have a superior knowledge of not only the edible fauna and staples in the forest but over a hundred medicinal herbs and their applications.


Temporary community of lean-tos

Agta farmers live in houses much like their neighbors


Since one average Agta only gets to use a dozen or two of these natural remedies in a lifetime, it is obvious that the people take pains to memorize entire canons of local herbs, roots and barks and pass them on to their children. The Agta also take great pride in remembering the hunting and gathering techniques of their ancestors, retelling legendary tales of their pre-agriculture ancestors in song and chant.

When Agta come out of the forest, these hunter-gatherers transform into farmers and traders. They sell some of their swidden crops at market, alongside the tusks, pelts and horns of animals they have killed.
They are also sought after by lowlanders for the rare medicines they are able to gather in the mountains.

When Agta come out of the forest, these hunter-gatherers transform into farmers and traders. They sell some of their swidden crops at market, alongside the tusks, pelts and horns of animals they have killed.
They are also sought after by lowlanders for the rare medicines they are able to gather in the mountains.

Between their seasonal hunting and gathering and their shifting cultivation, the Agta are among the most adaptable people in the Philippines, able to live in the highland forest, lowland foothills, plains and even on the seas and rivers. A lifestyle once denigrated for its transience has now been studied by anthropologists and the armed forces alike for its adaptability. By virtue of their ability to size up the environment and adjust to it, the black Pilipinos are not in immediate physical danger of extinction like so many other traditional societies around the world. Rather, the threat they face is more so cultural.
We must also consider that hunting-gathering is dependent upon an the existence of an environment in which to practice this lifestyle, and with industrial and real-estate development, many Agta find themselves displaced or running out of territory.



Gathering a honeycomb in the Forest


This old print illustrates one of the exotic materials (deer horn/pelt)
that the Agta trade for convenience
with their Malay neighbors


Mariveles Aeta
Agta are pictured here fishing with the distinctive bows
that they usually use for forest hunting



Negrito groups often seem to fit the old "acephalous" designation, meaning that they appear to have no "head man" or chief. But many sources have indicated the existence of datus among some local Negritos. "Datu" is the common, general, Pilipino term for a chief or even a minor king or sultan. The Negrito datus in the Visayas reportedly once came to power through a combination of heredity and election: the expectation was that one of the current datu's sons would take over from him and which son was decided by some manner of contest. The datu would have the power to sanction marriages, preside at funerals and recommend punishments for offences against the group. Most offences would regard ancestral rights and forms of property. Taking items without permission that are used by others is one of the most serious offences in traditional Agta societies. This idea extends to sexual infractions as well with adultery and philandering also greatly punishable. In previous centuries, theft and sexual predation were punishable by death, either hanging or drowning.

Agta datus often ruled in conjunction with several elders who advised him (Carreon, 1943: p.8) thus ensuring a reasonable decision and the general well-being of the society.
Visayan and Luzon Negritos sometimes live in large, agrarian communities for at least part of the year, necessitating some form of centralized (datu) leadership but increasingly, they find themselves living under the metropolitan law of the Filipino government.

On the other hand, smaller, forest-dwelling groups, generous with their catches and fair in their dealings would neither need such leadership nor would they fall under its supervision.

With regard to gender relations, Negrito men and women usually have clearly defined roles as established by tradition but with significantly more "gender equalit" than might be found among some of their Catholic and Muslim neighbors. Men and women usually share the responsibility of providing for the family, though in different ways. Men are hunters first and gatherers second.Women are planters and gatherers primarily.

Husbands take over their wives' gathering role during the end of a pregnancy and the early breast-feeding months, whereas the mother is expected to take complete care of the newborn.

The ancient marriage rituals involved a kind of ritualized bride capture in which a boy chose a girl he wanted to marry, announced his intentions to all relatives concerned and engaged in a mock pursuit of the maiden under the families' aegis. This is no longer a universal practice nor is the custom of bride price that was once also widespread.



Sharing the day's catch is an important part of Agta
society, ensuring that the group is content and
healthy and cementing social bonds

A young mother with her infant still accompanies her
husband as he gathers wild fruit




Studies among the indigenous black populations of the Philippines, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and even in the Congo itself has produced no linguistic evidence that all these groups are linked by an ancient common ancestor. It is the hard fact of genetic evidence that has proven that. Ironically, the same fate has befallen the languages of all these groups. They have been deluged by the languages of their neighbors over millennia, resulting in an adoption of foreign tongues as their own, albeit with sometimes peculiar accents and dialects. In most of the Asiatic cases, not a single word of the original languages remains. Even in the apparent Congo homeland, the Pygmies there retain only a small number of words from their mother-tongue.

The Negritos of the Philippines speak a series of languages in the Philippine-Taiwan group of the Hisperonesian/Indonesian language branch of the Austronesian language family (Tzunekazu Moriguchi in Constantino, 2003, p.ii). Since each Negrito group lives in relatively close proximity to a Malay group, they tend to reflect the precise linguistic family to which their neighbors belong, whether Visayan, Palawan , Mindanaoan, Ilocano, Pampango etc. The dialects of those languages spoken by the Negritos might serve to distinguish them (in the manner American Navajo are distinguishable from Anglo-Americans), but the derivation from the majority language is obvious even with the native inflections. Of course, the Agtas, Aetas and Atis have not had the means at their disposal over the past five millennia or so (see 2) to preserve their language and their esprit de corps as do twenty-first century Pueblo and Plains Indians.

Agta setting fire to a swidden after which the forest will reclaim the agricultural plot.


(1)In a strange case of adaptation, the northern Luzon Aeta have been swidden cultivating American starches, far more than their Malay neighbors who plant the traditional rice. Corn, potatoes and cassava are now a staple of these Aetas' lowland diet (Seitz, 2004, p.69).
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(2) Estimating from various sources (see Diamond, 1999, p. 341) the arrival of the first waves of Malays as five to ten thousand years ago with subsequent waves arriving up until the Common Era.
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