These people are considered to be Negritos, whose skin ranges from dark to very dark brown, and possessing features such as a small stature and frame; hair of a curly to kinky texture and a higher frequency of naturally lighter colour (blondism) relative to the general population; small nose; and dark brown eyes. They are thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines, preceding the Austronesian migrations.
The Aeta were included in the group of people termed "Negrito" during Spanish Era. Various Aeta groups in northern Luzon are known as Pugut or Pugot, an Ilocano term that also means "goblin" or "forest spirit", and is the colloquial term for people with darker complexions. These names are mostly considered inappropriate or derogatory by fellow Negritos of northern Luzon.
The Aeta people in the Philippines are Australo-Melanesians, which includes other groups such as Aborigines in Australia; Papuans; and the Melanesians of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the French overseas special collectivity of New Caledonia.
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, contrary to their seafaring Austronesian neighbors, arrived through land bridges that linked the islands with the Asian mainland. Unlike many of their Austronesian counterparts, the Aetas have shown resistance to change. The attempts of the Spaniards to settle them in reducciones or reservations all throughout Spanish rule failed.
According to Spanish observers like Miguel López de Legazpi, Negritos possessed iron tools and weapons. Their speed and accuracy with a bow and arrow were proverbial and they were fearsome warriors. Unwary travelers or field workers were often easy targets. Despite their martial prowess, however the Aeta's small numbers, primitive economy and lack of organization often made them easy prey for better organized groups. Zambals seeking slaves would often take advantage of their internal feuding. They were often sold as slaves to Borneo and China, and unlike the debt-slavery imposed on other Filipinos, there was little chance of manumission.
The Aeta are an indigenous people who live in scattered, isolated mountainous parts of the Philippines. They are nomadic and build only temporary shelters made of sticks driven to the ground and covered with the palm of banana leaves. The well-situated and more modernized Aetas have moved to villages and areas of cleared mountains. They live in houses made of bamboo and cogon grass. Aetas are found in Zambales, Tarlac, Pampanga, Panay, Bataan and Nueva Ecija, but were forced to move to resettlement areas in Pampanga and Tarlac following the devastating Mount Pinatubo eruption in June 1991.
Mining, deforestation, illegal logging, and slash-and-burn farming has caused the indigenous population in the country to steadily decrease to the point where they number only in the thousands today. The Philippine government affords them little or no protection, and the Aeta have become extremely nomadic due to social and economic strain on their culture and way of life that had previously remained unchanged for thousands of years.
The life expectancy at birth of the Aeta is just 16.5 years, with only a third of children surviving to adulthood at 15 years – at which point life expectancy is still only 27.3 years. Young women reach full adult height (average 140 cm (4 ft 7 in)) at age 12 or 13. The most thorough longitudinal study done of any Aeta group (or any ethnic community) is available on the Web.
All Aeta communities have adopted the language of their Austronesian Filipino neighbors, which have sometimes diverged over time to become different languages. These include, in order of number of speakers, Mag-indi, Mag-antsi, Abellen, Ambala, and Mariveleño.
There are different 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 rules over lesser spirits or deities, with the Aeta of Mt. Pinatubo worshipping "Apo Na". The Aetas 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, sea, sky, mountain, hill, valley and other places.
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 partly an apology to the fish and partly a charm to ensure the catch. Similarly, the men hold a bee dance before and after the expeditions for honey.
In the mid-60s missionaries of the American-based Evangelical Protestant mission group New Tribes Mission, in their effort to reach every Philippine tribal group with the Christian Gospel reached out to the Agtas/Aetas. The mission agency provided education including pastoral training for natives to reach members of their own tribe. Today, a large percentage of Agtas/Aetas of Zambales and Pampanga are Evangelicals. Jehovah's Witnesses also have members of the Aeta people. (See 1993 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses)
Their traditional clothing is very plain. The young women wear wrap around skirts. Elder women wear bark cloth, while elder men wear loin cloths. 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.
The Aetas are skillful in weaving and plaiting.
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.
Aeta women are known around the country as experts of the herbal medicines.
A traditional form of visual art is body scarification. The Aetas intentionally wound the skin on their back, arms, breast, legs, hands, calves and abdomen, and then they irritate the wounds with fire, lime and other means to form scars.
Other "decorative disfigurements" include the chipping of the teeth. With the use of a file, the Dumagat modify their teeth during late puberty. The teeth are dyed black a few years afterwards.
The Aetas generally use ornaments typical of people living in subsistence economies. Flowers and leaves are used as earplugs for certain occasions. Girdles, necklaces, and neckbands of braided rattan incorporated with wild pig bristles are frequently worn.
The Aeta have a musical heritage consisting of various types of agung ensembles – ensembles composed of large hanging, suspended or held, bossed/knobbed gongs which act as drone without any accompanying melodic instrument.
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- Thomas N. Headland, John D. Early, (Mar 1, 1998). Population Dynamics of a Philippine Rain Forest People: The San Ildefonso Agta. University Press of Florida. p. 208.
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- Highfield, Roger (10 December 2007). "Pygmies life expectancy is between 16 and 24". The Telegraph.
- Aeta demographic database http://www.sil.org/silepubs/abstract.asp?id=49227
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- "37 NEW AETA BELIEVERS BAPTIZED IN THE PHILIPPINES". Asia Harvest. 11 November 2008.
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