Four Versions of the Negrito
What made this web site necessary was the short shrift with which the black Pilipinos are treated in general readings on the Philippines. In histories, encyclopedias and travel books, the Negritos are seldom given more than a paragraph here and there. On the other hand, focused studies of Philippine blacks have never ceased to spark strong opinion and conjecture. All in all, these writings on the Negritos, including my own here, provide as telling an insight into the writers as the Agta themselves. Of course, this is never the intention of scholars but we, like the Negritos, often adopt those methods and techniques taught to us by our forbears. Our thinking and our voices are also determined by our history and environment and whatever we make, has an indelible sign of ourselves upon it.
In researching sources for this web site, I came across several texts, some more dependable than others. I discovered shocking ignorance of (or at least depraved indifference to) the Agta from authors I expected to be quite knowledgeable on the subject and found surprising amounts of information in texts that were not even about the Negritos per se. I was encouraged in discovering that there had been a lot of research done but disappointed in how rudimentary it all still was compared to, say, African Pygmy research or the majority of Pre-Columbian studies.
I searched both in the Philippines and American libraries for the most ancient sources and mostly came up with lists of books that were not available to me in those libraries but which are cited in the books I did find. The books I could locate illustrated to me right away that there are several, somewhat contradictory approaches to accounting for the Negritos and that these disparate approaches are partially responsible for the omission of Philippine blacks from the general history, anthropology and art history reading on the region. In short, the Negritos are at once too simple and too complicated to command fair treatment in the Philippine textbooks.
The Negritos appear in some of the earliest written records of the Philippines and were part of Philippine legend long before that. Existing written records of the ancient Philippines reach back to twelfth and thirteenth century accounts like the 1178 Ling-wai Tai-ta (Answers to questions about places beyond Kwangtung) of Chou Ch'u-fei and the 1225 Chu Fan Chih (An account of the various barbarians) by Chao Ju-kua to Henry Otley Beyer's and Fay Cooper-Cole's invaluable works on Philippine anthropology published in the first half of the twentieth century.
Old and even ancient texts exist on the Philippines and provide either direct data (but terribly sparse) on the Agta or valuable information about their environment and immediate neighbors:
The Agta as Background in Philippine Origin Myths
Negritos often appear in the traditional myths as having been created alongside the Malays and then for one reason or another, depart. Very often, these myths do not reflect a positive image of blacks or even the brown people who are the protagonists in them. People end up black out of divine punishment or some other mishap. A Sulod myth makes blacks wandering beggars for having offended a divine ancestor who tested his children's respect. Even the Sulod failed the test and so both the itim (black) and brown people are cursed to beg or toil and only the maputi (fair-skinned/Europeans) are blessed with wealth for doing little. Likewise, in several Visayan myths, an ancient ancestor goes into a rage over his lazy children and the children flee to different parts of the house to escape his wrath. The cultural traits of the children's descendants are then set for posterity based on the part of the house in which they hid: fat children having hid in the pantry; the handicapped having descended from clumsy children who had accidents in the scramble; powerful descendants issuing from children who hid in high places like the rafters; and interestingly, blacks descending from children who hid in the kitchen. In an interesting Bukidnon tale, both blacks and whites are descendants of children who defied God's order to intermarry, one black with one white, and ran away with mates of their own color. But some obedient children stayed and married as divine mandate required and they became the Bukidnon and other brown peoples (Eugenio 2001, pp.84, 288, 335, 336).
Seldom are there myths in which brown people came to the islands and discovered them already inhabited. But there are just a few myths that treat the Agta as unusual strangers encountered upon some ancient Malay arrival. As for myths of the Agta by the Agta themselves, serious efforts seem to have only just commenced in the past two decades, led by Japanese linguists especially, to record and transcribe the myths of the Negritos. This site can be updated once I complete a survey of these publications (see Shimizu and Constantino on the Reference page).
One such story is the mythologized Maragtas history. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, several versions of this heretofore memorized epic have suddenly emerged in writing, causing both great excitement and suspicion. Pedro Monteclaro's 1901 version is one of the earliest published renditions and is the one cited here. In Maragtas and similarly apocryphal origin myths the Negritos can be benevolent or petty, proud or shameless, naïve and honest or brutal and treacherous. In Monteclaros's version of the Maragtas legend, the first chapter describes the customs and ways of the Aetas, or Negritos of Panay. Some of these behaviors are described in the Lifestyles and Beliefs page.
An Aeta named Marikudo, son of Chief Polpulan appears in this first chapter of Maragtas as a future ambassador for his people. In the second chapter, ten datus (chiefs) arrive from Borneo, fleeing persecution from a wicked Datu Makatunaw. The itinerant datus purchase the island of Panay from Marikudo for a solid gold hat and basin. But Marikudo's wife, Maniwantiwan, also demands an ankle length necklace from the wife of one of the datus and Marikudo's people offer a bushel of crabs, a long-tusked boar and a white deer with antlers to offset the added request.
In those early portions of Maragtas (Carreon 1943, pp.1-10), Negritos are established as a people living on the island of Panay long before the arrival of Malays. They seem set in their ways and customs and seem to have some rudimentary notion of land as saleable property. Either that or the gold hat, basin and necklace (probably pearls) are seen as fair trade only by the Bornean datus who themselves introduce this idea of owning land (to their, the newcomers', advantage) in a kind of Manhattan Purchase, perhaps to the ultimate and un-reported dissatisfaction of the Agta.
There are sharp criticisms of the historicity of the Maragtas legend. Authors such as Pedro Gagelonia reject the legend outright as a fanciful dupe lying in wait for gullible scholars seeking ancient histories of the Filipinos in those indigenous writings systems like baybayin (see 2). William Henry Scott, an ethnologist, cartographer, historian and Episcopalian lay minister offers a more temperate critique (Scott 1968, ch.4). Citing several inconsistencies in the language of the epic, including cases where Hispanic-era terms are used for ancient pre-Hispanic places and objects, he points out that it is impossible to fix a date for the original version of the epic. The count of generations contradicts other details in the story thus confounding any calculation. Different versions of the spoken epic told by either Malays or Negritos also contradict the one that Pedro Monteclaro put down in his curious Hilagaynon/Kin-iraya language version of 1901. He reported then that he had been bequeathed two earlier written versions in crumbling, almost illegible condition and had pieced the story together.
With these doubts, the details we gather from the Maragtas on the Negritos may be some one thousand years old or just one hundred, depending on how much we chose to trust Pedro Monteclaro's embellishments.
While he thinks that the dependence on Maragtas for pre-Hispanic history is reckless, Scott also consoles that "There is no reason to doubt that this legend preserves the memory of an actual event" in some way. While the Negritos of the Maragtas are partly beings of legend, the Aeta of Panay often corroborate major points of the legend, give or take a few cosmetic changes. For instance, Aeta confirm the Panay encounter but retort that the first of their people to encounter the legendary Borneans was named Salakot, not Marikudo; that the sale of Panay did not take place on the coast but in central Iloilo; and that the sale did not include rights to the river banks (Scott 1968, pp.93, 94).
We can surmise that the written Maragtas is the problematic one in that its inherent contradictions are a matter of embarrassing, published record and that the author of that version is suspect in his research and editing. A spoken version would not be considered by historians in the same way. Scott's criticism that the Maragtas's "style is characterized by the repetitions, abrupt changes of subject, incomplete plot development and lack of planning which are the earmarks of amateur history" (Scott 1968, p.95) applies just as thoroughly to the Old Testament, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Qur'an (not to mention the Hadith), the Popol Vuh, the Hindu purana and the Buddhist Mahayana canon. This is simply the nature of any "history" that serves an ethnic and/or religious need. And it is particularly the case with any such history that was once recited and/or sung, which now finds itself pinned down by stone cuneiforms, papyrus hieroglyphs, or alphabets and syllabaries on paper, palm and bamboo.
We might ask ourselves if we are not writing the same kinds of ethnocentric, 'credo-centric' histories today.
Scott's criticisms of these "spurious" Maragtas histories are valid. They are in fact criticisms of a colonial-era version of the Maragtas story put out in print. They are not criticisms of the Negritos within the epic. On the other hand, we can depend more on Maragtas to address the Agta squarely than we can on Scott's writings themselves, which sideline the Agta like so many other texts. I am left to wonder what Scott told students at University of Santo Tomas when they became curious about these black Filipinos. There is little evidence in his books of any fully-fledged thoughts on the Negritos except the definitive statement on page 15 of the 1984 update of his 1968 Prehispanic Source Materials text that the 24,000-year old "Tabon Man was not a Negrito."
For all its troubling credibility issues and sometimes disturbing typos, the written Maragtas texts are among the most sympathetic treatments of the Agta in turn of the century print.
The Agta without Value
Kroeber speculates that the "Negrito of the dim pre-Malaysian days" must have had some rudimentary culture of their own before the arrival of the Southeast Asians, as "simple and savage" as that culture might have been. Kroeber describes the Negritos as "weak and backward" in the face of the "overwhelming preponderance of the Malaysian" which has relegated him (the Negrito) to a "position of cultural dependence and parasitism towards the brown man." If we compare this claim of "parasitism" to Turnbull's descriptions of the Mbuti Pygmies of Central Africa (who find themselves in the same position of being deluged by historically recent invaders) we see that these mountain dwelling, hunter-gathering people trade with the outsiders as much to keep them at bay and away from their pristine forest territory as to acquire the few items they may want to supplement their self-sufficient lifestyle. In fact, Negritos who follow a very traditional lifestyle do not need anything from the "brown man."
Also, like the African Pygmies, is the stark reality of language loss related by Kroeber. But Kroeber further interprets that "practically everything" in the Negrito's "meager" culture is "only a simplified imitation of what the Filipino proper possesses" (Kroeber 1928/1974, p.19). The author coldly surmises that the Negrito has only been able to hold on to his race, his blood, and his appearance, with some mixture along the borders of his territory, but not much else. Now if the Negritos have lost even their language, their deluge by the Malays must have been intensive and prolonged. So then why would so many "inland" Negritos still exist (40,000 by Kroeber's own estimate), provided that Kroeber is correct in his suggestion that the Negrito deliberately imitates the "Filipino proper"? What accident of nature has preserved quite so many "savage" Negritos despite their total emersion in a Malaysian milieu for millennia and their presumed desire to be Malays?
Could his preservation, despite all he has lost, be a persistence of the Negrito's own choosing? Might he subscribe to some notion of selfhood, or even nationhood? Might he have some pride in who and what he is? What right would he have to feel pride in his 'primitive' culture in the face of forest-devouring, river-despoiling, air polluting, alienating, industrialized civilization?
It seems that almost every one of Kroeber's descriptions of the Agta is peppered with denigrating adjectives like "inferior" and tilted comparisons between what he feels are the lesser and "more advanced" cultures. Kroeber openly admires the Malays for their agriculture and developed social structure as he would the noble savages of his American plains and pueblos or the majestic Peruvians, with whom he also dabbled.
Kroeber's notations here on Negrito proportions are particularly indicative of his nineteenth century methods, wherein anthropologists often whipped out their calipers to make, what they thought were telling measurements that might indicate everything from relative intelligence to personality to social tendencies. Kroeber's teacher, Franz Boas, was from a time when some scientists believed the shape of a woman's head might predict sexual promiscuity or the shape of a man's chin or ears might indicate criminal tendencies. In an added note, Kroeber reports that the Negrito's head is not disproportionately large and that his body is by and large "neatly and cleanly symmetrical." This may be high praise from Kroeber.
If we compare the photographs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with descriptions like the one above, we will see a similarly taxonomic approach to the material classification of Negritos, with very little attempt to portray or record their humanity, religious beliefs or traditions with any accuracy. Needless to say, during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the period in which the Philippines as a colony was acquired by the United States in a purchase from Spain, historians were not interested in a Negrito as a person, but rather as a type. And the Negrito was an extreme type in a spectrum of types that defined the Philippines as a colony.
On page 39, Kroeber provides valuable information about Agta territories across the Philippine nation. He designates the Negrito habitat as being in isolated bands but uniformly in forested mountains with "four or five of these regions in Luzon, one in Mindanao and one in Palawan." In Palawan, they are called Batak, in Mindanao, Mamanua. Across the Philippines, however, the Negrito group is often called Aeta in the Tagalog tongue. Yet, even this name reflects, says Kroeber, the Tagalog unfamiliarity with the whole Negrito group. At the time of publishing, Kroeber estimates the Aeta population as somewhere between thirty and forty thousand (a slightly liberal estimate but not entirely off base), (see 3) making them far less than one percent of the general population of the Philippines.
It is commonly held, in Kroeber's time and now that the Aeta were all over the islands until the Malay arrival, since which they have been steadily out-competed for territory. With tragic humor, Kroeber notes that there are more Chinese in the Philippines than Negritos. The Island of Negros (Buglas), says Kroeber, derived its name (in Spanish times) from the fact that it was populated by Negritos who have since been displaced, or perhaps relocated. In Samar and Panay (the legendary first meeting point between Borneo Malays and Negritos) are said by Kroeber to still be partially inhabited by "uncivilized people" sometimes described as Negritos "while other observers have classified them as rude Malaysians."
Mr. Kroeber has a view of 'usefulness' that would surely be peculiar to the Negrito mind. Admittedly, scrap iron makes for a durable point on a projectile, so Negritos have been seen trading for that with some gusto.
It is not that the Negritos and other "tribals" have been waiting millennia in the jungle for someone to come and accouter them properly, but rather that social pressure, especially during trade when they mingle with others, can cause them to make certain adjustments.
Basically, Kroeber asserts that the Negritos trade with the Malays because they are incapable of producing many of the foods, tools and implements that they need for their survival. He states that Negritos practice cicatrix scarification (an African practice they have not abandoned in 22,000 years) because their dark skins cannot show the color of tattoos like the Malays. He declares that Negritos are hunter-gatherers because they cannot handle farming, especially the exacting process of rice farming. So for Kroeber, Negritos are genetic throwbacks, unable to embrace the inevitable advances of human civilization towards agrarian industrialization.
Since neither Kroeber, nor myself have spent time sitting by a river, singing Negrito bride-capture epics while eating wild meat and yams roasted over an open fire, my criticisms of his views on the Negrito only addresses the obvious manifestations of his cultural myopia. I am certain that there are other oversights, omissions and prejudices that would be clear to someone fresh from the forests of Zambales!
Kroeber's work is not entirely without merit, however. His observations have partly informed this website, so the value of his research is acknowledged, but his many errors and "editorializations" are precisely what inspired this page. It was an exhausting experience to read and pick through his research as a result of the cultural parallaxes that riddle his text.
It is ironic that this American Indian specialist furnishes us with more descriptions of the physiognomy, habits and territory of the Negrito peoples than resident Philippine historians like William Henry Scott. We can glean from Kroeber some key names, places, times, events and, with caution, some physical descriptions too, taking care all the while to expunge the culture-bound 'interpretations.' As we wade through his minefield of biases, we can hope that Kroeber was, at least, a reliable observer and that we can gather at least some facts. Hopefully we can trust Kroeber as far as we can throw his spyglasses.
The Heroic Aeta
In reading Stefan Seitz's The Aeta at the Mt. Pinatubo, Philippine, we see a surprisingly positive portrayal of the persisting Negrito. We are left wondering where are those primitive brutes from Kroeber, who beg for their every meal and stitch of clothing. We see a people reacting to a natural disaster that hit them in the heart of their territory, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s, with greater heroism and self reliance than many of their neighbors. We see a people who depended less on government aid after that disaster than some of those same neighbors. Equally interesting, we see a people who had been warning the government about the looming eruption for months (even years) before it happened and who were ignored until it was too late.
Here are Negritos proud of their culture, shrewd in trade, masters of agriculture when they need to be, and still in touch with natural environment and the deities that inhabit it (enough to detect an eruption before the seismic equipment did!). So dramatic is the contrast between Kroeber and Seitz, two Germanic gentlemen a century apart, that we are just as inclined to suspect Seitz, the latter, for editorial embellishments. Let us look further.
Until the work of late twentieth century anthropologists like Stefan Seitz, it did not seem like anyone had ever spoken to Aeta themselves when writing about their culture or history. Seitz acknowledges several Aetas in his book for their assistance in relating both historical and anecdotal information. It is also heartening to discover that Seitz has spent a long time researching the Central African Pygmies and several different Negrito groups from Palawan to Luzon to enable some sensible comparisons, where vital data might be missing.
From Seitz we also learn of many Negrito organizations conceived to protect and promote Negrito culture, like the Aeta Development Association (ADA) and the Central Luzon Aytas Association (CLAA). Besides his Aeta informants, Seitz depends on previous research sources, few of them from the generation I have spent this page critiquing. One discovers that there has been a wealth of grassroots Negrito research building since the 1980s.
The works of H. Shimizu seem to be a direct inspiration for Seitz in his Pinatubo research and this Pinatubo work on language, customs and survival tactics of the Aetas provides a framework that future scholars might want to adopt in similar research amongst the Batak of Palawan, the Mamanua of Mindanao, the Ati of Visayas and the Agta of eastern and southern Luzon. Much more research is still needed there.
Many of the most reliable facts on Negritos throughout this web site were discovered in Seitz and confirmed elsewhere so it is not necessary to repeat them here. But the general themes of Seitz treatment are noted here as an important counterpoint to earlier scholars.
Perhaps the most outstanding trait of the Aeta in Seitz's view is their amazing flexibility. An ability to adopt to a wide range of environments, both natural and man-made, is the key to their survival and what makes them, perhaps less fragile than even their Malay neighbors. Seitz describes the Aeta as hunter-gatherers, rice farmers for themselves and for hire, fishermen, part-time traders and community leaders as the occasions arise. Seitz actually admonishes the reader indirectly against comparing the Aeta too closely with other traditional, minority societies around the world who often find themselves dying a slow cultural and genetic death. "Despite their marginal position in Philippine society" say Seitz, the "widespread poverty so frequently seen in settings characterized by a lack of access to society's resources, means of production, and goods, as well as by economic conditions no longer allowing individuals and families to secure their existence on a long-term basis, did not exist for the Aeta" until after Pinatubo.
I would caution here that different anthropologists' counts may chose to take or not take the sizeable mixed populations into consideration thereby throwing off any estimate. I would also point out to the reader here that Seitz's optimistic view that the Negritos are actually increasing because of their successful adaptation to prevailing conditions takes their physical bodies into consideration far more than their culture.
Their traditional territory in western Luzon is mountainous, which is rough work for missionaries who might seek to not only convert them to Christianity but to Western dress and manners (G-strings are not allowed in most churches). So their environment is actually protecting them from some forms of acculturation. But in their constant displacement by commercial and other interests the very environment that sustains their unique culture is sometimes lost or shrinks around them. Thus, some Visayans and Luzonese know them only as destitute beggars.
The complex dynamics of Aeta identity among their neighbors is more fully explored by Seitz than other sources used for this site. Aeta who have adopted agrarian lifestyles sometimes insist they are still Aeta, while others disassociate themselves entirely from the ethnicity even while bearing obvious physical traits. The Pinatubo disaster created a crucial, though somewhat atypical, opportunity to observe Aeta interaction with others. Their neighbors during the Pinatubo disaster vacillated between identifying themselves truly and fictitiously as Aeta, depending on what government disaster aid they might get, aid put aside specifically for the Aeta who lived directly in the shadow of Pinatubo. The Aeta, for their part have been somewhat 'picky' about just which aid they accept, all the while stressing their self-reliance and "the marked individualism and strong spirit of independence so characteristic of the Aeta" (Seitz 2004, p.33).
Aeta have been known, says Seitz, to refer to the lowlanders as "conquistados" or "the conquered" in the conquerors' language no less, thus indicating their sense of themselves in relation/opposition to the brown Filipinos with Spanish surnames. The Pinatubo disaster, says Seitz, also has thrust several unrelated Philippine groups into a sudden coexistence (in resettlement camps, on the move etc.) and has served to intensify ethnic separation. Several of the Aeta cultural organizations have been formed in response to these conditions. Cultural differences and mutual chauvinism between the Aeta and the lowlanders can sometimes exacerbate Aeta troubles however, and the Aeta's own "lack of enthusiasm for collective action" may also render the culture unduly fragile. Still, Seitz reports that the Pinatubo Aeta have a good relationship with the neighboring Sambal (especially after the disaster) so that carefully chosen alliances ensure continued peace and measured cooperation.
As Seitz explores Aeta flexibility more closely, we learn to classify just what these people are doing for survival. Seitz asserts that this distinctive Aeta flexibility comes directly from their background as foragers, not from any skill they picked up in the farming lowlands. He refers to the Aeta as practicing a 'short-term, immediate-return procurement strategy' in which they do not stick around after they plant crops to wait on them to grow. Neither do they trade goods until some profit or surplus is reached. Rather, many Aeta move all year, gleaning immediate benefits from a succession of environments, eventually returning to whatever site they may have planted in time to reap. This may seem a fragile, "bunkalot" (wild) arrangement but it is the farmer with one rice crop that is participating in a fragile system. A diversified stock of foods over a wide area is almost certain to yield some kind of result at any given time.
In Seitz's interesting and refreshingly positive description of the Aeta, we are likely to come to a hazy conclusion that there is no major emergency facing these people after the Pinatubo disaster. But this is because Seitz has friends among the Aeta and, in a way, is speaking in their proud voice. Yet we are reminded every now and then that this book is about the world-famous Pinatubo disaster and that partially as a result of that event "the Aeta not only belong to a minority cultural ethnic group but they are also marginalized, impoverished and underprivileged outside their traditional habitat." Many of them are now "outside of their traditional habitat," which will be barren under tons of ash for many decades to come. We must also consider that just as the Aeta on different sides of Pinatubo's peak have marked cultural differences, the Agta, Ati, Mamanua and other groups far away in other islands are not likely to share all the advantages and disadvantages of the groups covered by Seitz.
We can thank Seitz for many factual reports but for also sensitizing us to the reality of Negrito diversity.
The Justified Agta
But young Filipinos should know a lot more about the Agta before they are even old enough to pick up Seitz's book at the U.P. library. The Negritos need to be better reflected in the general reading, from children's books to the family encyclopedia. It will take a generation or more for the work of Shimizu, Seitz and others to trickle down to the Philippine household. In the mean time, hardly anyone will hear of their self-reliance, their role in training American soldiers in survivalist techniques, their role amongst the Huqs, their refusal to be disarmed or have their movements restricted during Marcos' Martial Law.
This website is all I can do just now to interest such general readers in this vital indigenous group. I would also point out that the website is free as opposed to the hundreds of pesos for some of the volumes used to compile it.
Not being an anthropologist but rather an art historian whose specialty is not even in this area, I make this humble offering to the web-savvy Pinoys at home and here in the United States. I could not bear the injustice to the Negritos any longer.