The Aeta: The First Philippine People

Aeta tribe people in Santa Juliana, Capas, Central Luzon, Philippines
Aeta tribe people in Santa Juliana, Capas, Central Luzon, Philippines | © ARTYOORAN / Shutterstock
The Aetas, pronounced as “eye-tas,” are among the earliest known migrants or inhabitants of the Philippines. Over the years, the majority of their population managed to keep their cultural practices and traditions. But sadly, as one of the indigenous groups thriving in the country, they also face challenges such as displacement, marginalization, and poverty.

The history of the Aetas

According to historians, the Aetas (also known as Agtas) are Australo-Melanesians. Historical accounts suggest that they’re of the same group as those of Aborigines in Australia and Melanesians of Solomon Islands. While they closely resemble physical characteristics such as curly hair and dark colored skin, it is not clear as to how they arrived in the Philippines.

Aboriginal children, Capas, Philippines © Kim David / Shutterstock

Most historians point to the Bering Land Bridge Theory to explain the history of the Aetas. This theory suggests that the Aetas reached the Philippines because of the land bridges or narrow strait that connected all land masses in the world. According to this theory, hunters at the time crossed these land bridges but due to the movement of plates underneath the Earth’s surface, these migration paths eventually disappeared. Therefore, even those with no intent to colonize new lands, were unable to return to their original homes.

Their distinguishing characteristics and practices

Aetas are characterized by their skin color, height, and hair type. They mostly have dark to dark-brown skin, curly hair, and are usually below five-feet tall. Traditionally, Aetas are hunting and gathering indigenous people. They’re actually among the most skilled when it comes to jungle survival – they are even able to make use of plants as herbal medicine and possess tools and weapons. While they’re nomadic, they are able to build temporary houses made of sticks.

Aeta child, Capas, Philippines © Kim David / Shutterstock

Most Aetas practice monotheism and are animists. They worship a Supreme Being and at the same time, also believe in environmental spirits. They believe that various places in our environment are being governed by both good and evil spirits.

As for their clothing, they wear plain and simple attire. Traditional Aetas, who are skilled in weaving and plating, wear wrap around skirts or bark cloth (for women) and loin cloths for men. They are also into music and the arts – making use of ornaments as accessories and have ensembles of instruments to create melodious rhythms.

Colonial resistance and unfortunate displacement

Because they are usually scattered in mountainous areas, the Spaniards had a hard time introducing Catholicism to their population. They mostly resisted to change, which made it difficult for the Spanish to colonize their areas. This is also one of the reasons why they were able to preserve their cultural traditions and beliefs through to today.

Mt. Pinatubo crater lake, Capas , Philippines © Kim David / Shutterstock

Most Aetas can be found in the northern part of Luzon. According to historical accounts, they have lived near Mount Pinatubo in Zambales for thousands of years. But, when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it devastated the Aeta population. The majority lost their homes while some re-settled in urban areas. This gave way to Aetas being modernly influenced by prevailing Filipino culture and practices. Some Aetas have already married Filipinos. Most Aetas also go to school nowadays.

Challenges today

In the Philippines, Aetas as well as other indigenous groups, belong to the marginalized sector of the country. They’re often displaced because their homelands have been destroyed due to illegal logging, mining, and slash-and-burn farming. Thus, these situations have forced them to relocate and leave their ancestral lands.

While the Philippine government has implemented mandates and acts such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, it’s not enough to protect them and help them cope with matters such as access to jobs and livelihood support.