The Aetas or Negritos are the aborigines of the Philippines who were called negritos by the Spaniards at the time of their reign in the Philippines because of their darker skin color. It is the tribe inhabiting the eastern parts of Luzon and called in different names: Agta, Ita, Ati, or Aeta. About 20,000 of them are spread throughout the country. Their majority can be seen in Pampanga and Zambales while others inhabit the coastal fringes of Northern Luzon, and the mountains of Negros, Samar, Panay and Leyte. As a result of their nomadic life, they live in houses built out of grass and tree branches to easily vacate upon scarcity of surrounding food. They don’t have social rules and live according to their ancient customs , which is most evidently shown in the way they dress.
Their distinguishing features are shorter stature, darker skin and curly hair. And because of their strong adaptation to tropical jungles, they are compared with the pygmies in the equatorial jungles of Africa.
Aeta or negritos according to anthropologists and archeologists, are descendants of the earliest settlers of the Philippines. They were predicted to migrate in the country through land bridges that connects the country to Asian mainland 30,000 years ago. It may have occurred when the Malay Peninsula was still connected with Sumatra and other Sunda Islands. Their boundless journey around the Malay Peninsula that spread as far as The Philippines resulted to their widespread existence in the country. This is evident from the failed attempt of the Spaniards to settle them in one area.
Several groups of Aetas have been recorded present in many parts of the archipelago. In Ilocos, they are called Pugot or pugut, a name designated by Ilocanos for anyone with dark skin. In their dialect, it also means “goblin” or “forest spirit”. In some areas of Mindanao, groups of Aetas are called Dumagat and in Bicol Region, they are named Agta.
Environmental changes and industrial developments have severely declined their existence. Depressed lowlanders have exploited the forests for food causing these tribes to migrate from places to places for survival. Major forest depletion displaced them to big cities as beggars and scavengers. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, a volcano known to have been sleeping for 150 years, and the area where most Aetas’ ancestral habitat, caused for many of this group to migrate to many places and eventually lost their homes. Early groups of Aetas showed resistance to any form of social modification, however, through years of irresistible forces of change, Aetas, then gradually adjusted to the country’s social, economic and political development.
Several groups of Aetas believe in supreme beings who rule over minor spirits. Mamanua has Supreme Magbabaya while the Aetas from the forest of Mt Pinatubo worship Apo Namalyari. Aside from Animism, Aetas also believe in environmental spirits such as what they call “anito or Kamana”. They believe that these spirits are the inhabitants of the rivers, sky, mountains, valleys and other places. The Ati of Negros island call their God of nature as “Taglugar or Tagapuyo” that plainly means “the inhabitant of the place”. They also consider spirits of disease and comfort.
Aside from a dance after a pig hunt, they don’t have special occasion for praying and ritual activities. Some of their dances are performed to apologize for their catch and to inspire their future hunt. The Aetas are naturally skilled in weaving and plaiting. They produce excellent winnowing baskets, rattan hammocks, and other household containers like those works of Mamanuas. They also produce raincoats made of palm leaves with its bases surrounding the neck of the wearer, and whose topmost part spreads like a fan all around the body. However, only women exclusively weave winnows and mats and only men make armlets.
Aetas traditional clothing adapts to their simple life. Young women wear wrap around skirts, elder women wear bark cloth while elder men covers themselves with loincloths. The old women of the Agta group wear their bark cloth strip which passes between legs, and is attached to a string around the waist. Nowadays, however, due to inevitable influence of the lowlanders, most Aetas who have been in contact with them have adopted the casual clothing which are T-shirts, pants and rubber sandals.
Decorative disfigurement is a traditional art most Aeta groups practice to decorate their bodies. Scarification or intentionally wounding the skin to form a scar is a common visual art. They wound their skins on their backs, arms, legs, hands, calves, abdomen, and then irritating the wounds with fire, lime or other ways to create a visible scar. The Dumagats, another group who belong to the Aeta family, disfigure their teeth during late puberty and dye it black after a few years. Like other tribes, Aetas also decorate themselves with ornaments such as girdles, necklaces and neckbands of braided rattan fitted with pig bristles. Although in a quite different way, they use flowers and leaves as earplugs on some occasions.
Masters of life in tropical rainforests, some of them were employed by the US army during their occupation in the counrty to teach their soldiers how to survive in the jungle. Kalibo, their once inhabited island, showcases their existence and cultural practices in the world-famous Ati-atihan Festival.