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Posted on June 3rd, 2014

Back to School – Philippine Negrito Groups

An ethnographic map of the Philippines in the 1890s.
Provincial negrito presence circa 1903 according to the maps from the Census of that period.

The Philippine “negrito groups” comprise a diverse amalgamation of people speaking over 30 different languages who are spread across the archipelago, mostly in the areas near the Luzon Island in the north and the Visayas and Mindanao in the south. The negritos have very dark skin and are often attributed the “pygmy” moniker due to their size and stature. A favorite group of people studied by anthropological ethnographers, past scholarly works have painted what has become known as the “negrito myth:” small in size, kinky hair, wearing a thong, living in bands and roaming the forest for food. Even the term ‘negrito’ is scoffed at as being culturally insensitive. This study looked at in this article uses the term not in defiance of respect to the group, but because there lacks an appropriate name to give them otherwise.

The study examined here set out to use GIS to map the displacement of negrito groups throughout the Philippines using historic data and more recent figures from the 2000 Philippines census. Negrito populations have been on the decline since the early 1900s, so the study’s purpose was to map migration and settlement patterns; as well as look for clues why some areas hosted stable numbers.

The negrito people have been studied, or at least marveled at, for centuries. A Spanish explorer who accompanied Magellan made note of them in the early 1500s, and further Spanish expeditions in the area led crusaders to be mystified by their existence. European scholars in the late 1800s studied the people and their culture, many of the anthropologists believing they had found one of the more primitive and indigenous people on our planet.

Contemporary negrito research has come to show that the early academic studies, while by some accounts were reductive, actually were very accurate in terms of their renditions of habits, interactions and livelihoods. This study’s author spent significant time on the ground, documenting observations and surveying the lands while referencing historic maps. These historic maps helped the author understand dispersal patterns and were combined with remote sensing and GIS analysis to fill in the gaps of past research and correct inconsistencies.

This study showed that the distribution of negritos has changed very little in the years since the earliest maps were made. It was found that the negritos occupy seven regions, consistent with the maps made a century ago. However, there was some migration to highlight caused by the encroachment of settlers, hunting ranges and forest tracts expanded by the government. This actually led to contention between the negritos (and other indigenous groups) and the new settlers over available resources. Due to state interference, negritos have in some cases abandoned their traditional lands to move deeper into the forest. In addition, a number have been moved to state reservations. As one can imagine, the negritos yearn for their old autonomous lands;  hopefully this study, and others like it, will bring relief to their plight.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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