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By: Dominick Wee  

    "Aeta," "Ayta," "Agta," "Atta (Ata)," "Ati," and "Ita"- these probably derive from the root word "it," which in various Philippine languages means "black" as inferred from the Tagalog term itim and the Visayan term itom. "Negrito" or "little black one" is a Spanish term coined from the word "negro." The Aeta are a mountain people who are dark skinned, short, small of frame, kinky haired, snub nosed, and with big black eyes.  

    The Aeta have different names which may refer to their history, their geographical situation, or their relationship with their neighbors. Various Aeta groups have been differentiated in curious ways. For example, one group in northern Luzon is known  as "Pugut" or "Pugot," a name designated by their Ilocano-speaking neighbors, and which is the colloquial term for anyone with dark skin. In Ilocano, the word also means "goblin" or "forest spirit."  

    An Aeta group may resent a name designated by non-Aeta groups or neighbors, especially when they consider the given names deprecating. Because the majority of Filipinos look down on their dark color, some groups resent being called "Ita."  

    On the other hand, the term "baluga" is acceptable to some Aeta groups since it means "hybrid," akin to the positive connotation of "mestizo" for lowlanders. But relativity, it seems, is the rule of thumb. The word "Baluga", for instance, is also considered insulting by other Aeta groups since it means "brackish, half-salt and half-fresh."  


    The history of the Aeta continues to confound anthropologists and archaeologists. One theory suggests that the Aeta are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines who arrived through land bridges that linked the country with the Asian  mainland some 30,000 years ago. These migrations may have occurred when the Malay peninsula was still connected with Sumatra and other Sunda Islands. At that time, the islands of what is now the Philippines may have been connected, making probable the dispersal of the Aeta throughout what is now an archipelago.  

    Artifacts found in areas where the Aeta live provide archaeological evidence that in prehistoric times, the Aeta lived in the lowlands but gradually retreated into the hills and mountains when subsequent immigrants and conquerors, like the Spaniards, pushed them into the forests.  

    The Aeta have shown resistance to change. The attempts of the Spaniards to settle them in reservations all throughout Spanish rule failed. During the early American colonization of the Philippines, the political structure of the Aeta was not disturbed, except when neighboring lowlanders organized artificial government structures headed by a captain, consejal or policia (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:123).  

    While resisting change from the outside for hundreds of years, the Aeta have adjusted to social, economic, cultural, and political pressures with remarkable resilience; they have created systems and structures within their culture to cushion the sudden impact of change. Since the latter half of the 20th century, however, the Aeta have been declining in number. Their very existence has been threatened by 
problems brought about by other people and by nature. Poverty-stricken lowlanders, seeking food, have encroached on forest lands, displacing the Aeta. The flora and fauna needed for Aeta survival are no longer available due to forest depletion. Disasters like the Pinatubo eruption destroyed and buried Aeta ancestral lands in tons of ashfall and lahar. All these, aggravated by government negligence and public 
apathy, have marginalized the Aeta, some towards possible extinction.  

    Expulsion, relocation, serfdom, and mendicancy have plagued their lives. For example, in Negros, the Ati have become  agricultural laborers on tenants working in ancestral lands that were formerly their own. Lowlanders hire their services to plow fields, gather coconuts, or cut bamboo for fishtraps. Women are hired to weed fields or serve as maids in Christian families. In Iloilo, a few go begging in the streets.  

    It is not surprising then that some Aeta, notably among the Dumagat, turn to drink. Alcoholism, previously unknown in Dumagat culture, was probably introduced by lowlanders and reinforced by unscrupulous merchants, who supply alcoholic beverages, often as payment for Aeta labor (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979).  

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Religious Beliefs and Practices  

    There are divergent views on the dominant character of the Aeta religion. Those who believe they are monotheistic argue that various Aeta tribes believe in a supreme being who rule over lesser spirits or deities. The Mamanua believe in the supreme Magbabaya while the Pinatubo Aeta worship Apo Namalyari. According to anthropologist E. Arsenio Manuel, the Agta  believe in a supreme being named  Gutugutumakkan. Manuel notes other lesser deities of the Agta; Kedes, the god of hunting; Pawi, the god of the forest; and Sedsed, the god of the sea.  

    There are four manifestations of the "great creator" who rules the world: Tigbalog is the source of life and action; Lueve takes care of production and growth; Amas moves people to pity, love, unity, and peace of heart; while Binangewan is responsible for change, sickness, and death. These spirits inhabit the balete tree (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:77-78)  

    The Aeta are also animists. For example, the Pinatubo Aeta believe in environmental spirits such as anito and kamana. They believe that good and evil spirits inhabit the environment, such as the spirits of the river, the sea, the sky, the mountain, the hill, the valley, and other places. The Ati of Negros island call their environmental spirits taglugar or tagapuyo, which literally means "from/inhabiting a place." They also believe in spirits of disease and comfort (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:79-80).  

    No special occasion is needed for the Aeta to pray, although there is a clear link between prayer and economic activities. The Aeta dance before and after a pig hunt. The night before Aeta women gather shellfish, they perform a dance which is half an apology to the fish and half a charm to ensure the catch. Similarly, the men hold a bee dance before and after the expeditions for honey.  

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Visual Arts and Crafts  

    The most common form of Aeta visual art is the etching found in their daily tools and implements. This is done on the outer surfaces of various household containers/utensils and ornaments. Bamboo combs are decorated with incised angular patterns. Geometric designs are etched on arrow shafts (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:115).  

    They are also skillful in weaving and plaiting. For example, the Mamanua, like other Aeta groups, produce excellent nego or winnowing baskets, duyan or rattan hammocks, and other household containers (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:29-31).  

    Women exclusively weave winnows and mats. Only men make armlets. They also produce raincoats made of palm leaves whose bases surround the neck of the wearer, and whose topmost part spreads like a fan all around the body, except in front, at the height of the waistline (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:31).  

    The traditional clothing of the Negrito is very simple. Cloth wraparound skirts are worn by the women when young. Elder women wear bark cloth, and the elder men loincloths. The old women of the Agta wear a bark cloth strip which passes between the legs, and is attached to a string around the waist. Today most Aeta who have been in contact with lowlanders have adopted the T-shirts, pants and rubber sandals commonly used by the latter.  

    A traditional form of visual art is body scarification. The Aeta cause wounds on the skin of the back, arms, breast, legs, hands, calves and abdomen, and then irritate the wounds with fire, lime and other means to form scars, which are arranged  

    Other "decorative disfigurements" include the chipping of the teeth. With the use of a file, the Dumagat mutilate their teeth during late puberty; the purpose is to saw and flatten to the gums the top six incisors and canines. The teeth are dyed black for a few years afterwards (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:117).  

    The Aeta generally use ornaments typical of peoples living in subsistence economies. Flowers and leaves are used as earplugs, usually for certain occasions and discarded when the need lapses. Girdles, necklaces, and neckbands of braided rattan are worn frequently, often incorporated with wild pig bristles.  

    Aeta ornamentation is best exemplified by the comb, which is made from a section of bamboo. At one end, the teeth of the comb are meticulously carved. The outer convex surface is profusely etched with varied geometric designs or decorated with curvilinear incisions. The end opposite the teeth has attachments like plumes of long tail feathers of mountain cocks and other birds, or other attachments like fibers and strings (Peralta 1977:536-538).  

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Performing Arts  

    Some of the musical instruments found (Kroeber 1919) among the Aeta are the flute, jew's harp 
made of a silver of slit bamboo, a traded bronze gong, and the bamboo violin (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:109).  

    Instruments were documented in 1931 by Norberto Romualdez (1973) among the Aeta groups. The kullibaw of the Aeta is a jew's harp made of bamboo. The bansik of the Aeta of Zambales is a four-hole flute made of mountain cane. The kabungbung of the Aeta of Bataan is a guitar made of one closed node of bamboo, from which two cords are slit loose from the outer skin of the bamboo and given tension by brides. A hole is cut into the bamboo under the two cords for resonance. The gurimbaw of the Aeta of Tayabas has a bow called gaka made from fibers of the lukmong vine, and a coconut resonator called kuhitan. The aydluing of the Mamanua is a long guitar with several strings, similar to the kudyapi of other Mindanao groups.  

Reference: CCP Encyclopedia 

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