The Peoples of the World Foundation

Education for and about Indigenous Peoples

Ethnonyms: Ayta, Agta, Atta, Ata, Ati, Ita
Countries inhabited: The Philippines
Language family: Austronesian
Language branch: Malayo-Polynesian

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The Aeta are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: Southeast Asia.

The Aeta live in the northern part of the Philippines on the island of Luzon. Historians and anthropologists debate precisely when and how they migrated here, the consensus being that they crossed from the island of Borneo between 20 and 30 thousand years ago, using a land bridge that was partially covered by water around 5,000 years ago — the remaining part of which is now the island of Palawan. Whatever the migration path was, they are without doubt among the first — if not the first — inhabitants of the Philippines. One area of that country where the Aetas had lived for thousands of years was Mount Pinatubo. An active volcano, it erupted in June of 1991. The eruption was one of the worst in history and was devastating to the nearby Aeta population. Around a quarter million people lost their home — many of them Aetas. Although the Filipinos are still cleaning up the ash to this day, the Aetas have long since re-settled in urban areas of Luzon. It is doubtful they will ever return to their former homeland.

Traditionally a hunting/ gathering people, the Aetas are still among the most skilled anywhere on earth in jungle survival. This skill was not overlooked by the US military. During the American war in Vietnam, the US naval base at Subic Bay was conveniently located close to the Aeta village of Pastolan. Many Vietnam veterans were trained in jungle survival here before they ever went to Vietnam.

One man in particular, Manifacio De La Junta Florentino, photographed above, played such a large part in that training that the walls of his humble house are covered with accolades and letters of appreciation from high-ranking military personnel. Mr. Florentino was my host during my stay in his village.

These days Mr. Florentino lets the next generation practice jungle survival and demonstrate the techniques to visitors. His time is taken up by his duties as village headman, as well as the keeper of the karaoke machine. Children flock to his house most evenings to give their rendition of western songs. If you've traveled in Southeast Asia you'll know that karaoke is the single most common form of entertainment. Even so, it was strange to see how popular it was in this village.

It shouldn't have been so surprising, though. These days the Aetas have many outside influences on their traditional culture and lifestyle. One example is religion. Although the Spanish brought Catholicism to the Philippines, that conversion was largely restricted to the Malay population that had become the majority inhabitants. The Spanish had little contact with the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. Still Catholicism has reached many Aetas, including those I saw in Pastolan village.

Other "modern" influences on the Aetas include inter-marriage with Filipinos and the games of pool and basketball. That last one is a surprise when you realize that many Aetas are less that 5 feet tall!

Although the Aetas were among the first inhabitants of the Philippines, natural disasters and exploitation of their land for natural resources have acted over the years to displace many of them. However, the government has recently paid more attention and respect to their heritage and way of life through organizations such as The Indigenous People Development Plan. As recently as February 2nd, 2001 the Aetas in these pictures were granted Ancestral Domain Title to their land. The official certificate reads that this title was granted in virtue of their "having continuously occupied, possessed and utilized [the land] since time immimorial." Interestingly, it is written neither in Aeta Ambala, their tribal language (for which a writing system was developed only in the second half of the 20th Century, and which few Aetas speak any more), nor in Tagalog, the most widely spoken language in the Philippines, rather it is written in English.

Aeta children go to school these days. Here the curriculum is no different from that followed by their Filipino peers. The subjects taught include English, culture and good manners. The school in the village is desperately short of materials though. The children were very interested in my visit to their school. The photograph above shows them singing a "welcome" song for me — which they sang in both English and Tagalog.

They were just as welcoming after school when they saw me in their village. When the karaoke machine was turned on for the evening's entertainment, they insisted I sing them a song! After straining to complete My Way and handing back the microphone I grabbed my camera. The children then immediately grouped themselves for an impromptu shot.

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References and Further Reading

Web Links

The Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act
An Aeta bibliography

Books

Eder, J. F., (1988) On the Road to Tribal Extinction: Depopulation, Deculturation, and Maladaptation Among the Batak of the Philippines. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Brosius, J. P., (1990) After Duwagan: Deforestation, Succession, and Adaptation in Upland Luzon, Philippines. Michigan Studies of South and Southeast Asia Number 2. Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan Press.

Early, J. D. & Headland, T. N. (1998) Population Dynamics of a Philippine Rain Forest People: The San Ildefonso Agta. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

P. B. Griffin & A. Estioko-Griffin, eds. (1985) The Agta of Northeastern Luzon: Recent Studies. Cebu City, the Philippines: San Carlos Publications.

 

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