By: Dominick Wee
"Aeta," "Ayta," "Agta," "Atta (Ata)," "Ati," and "Ita"- these probably derive from the root word "it," which in various Philippine languages means "black" as inferred from the Tagalog term itim and the Visayan term itom. "Negrito" or "little black one" is a Spanish term coined from the word "negro." The Aeta are a mountain people who are dark skinned, short, small of frame, kinky haired, snub nosed, and with big black eyes.
The Aeta have different names which may refer to their history, their geographical situation, or their relationship with their neighbors. Various Aeta groups have been differentiated in curious ways. For example, one group in northern Luzon is known as "Pugut" or "Pugot," a name designated by their Ilocano-speaking neighbors, and which is the colloquial term for anyone with dark skin. In Ilocano, the word also means "goblin" or "forest spirit."
An Aeta group may resent a name designated by non-Aeta groups or neighbors, especially when they consider the given names deprecating. Because the majority of Filipinos look down on their dark color, some groups resent being called "Ita."
On the other hand, the term "baluga" is acceptable to some Aeta groups since it means "hybrid," akin to the positive connotation of "mestizo" for lowlanders. But relativity, it seems, is the rule of thumb. The word "Baluga", for instance, is also considered insulting by other Aeta groups since it means "brackish, half-salt and half-fresh."
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 arrived through land bridges that linked the country with the Asian mainland some 30,000 years ago. These migrations may have occurred when the Malay peninsula was still connected with Sumatra and other Sunda Islands. At that time, the islands of what is now the Philippines may have been connected, making probable the dispersal of the Aeta throughout what is now an archipelago.
Artifacts found in areas where the Aeta live provide archaeological evidence that in prehistoric times, the Aeta lived in the lowlands but gradually retreated into the hills and mountains when subsequent immigrants and conquerors, like the Spaniards, pushed them into the forests.
The Aeta have shown resistance to change. The attempts of the Spaniards to settle them in reservations all throughout Spanish rule failed. During the early American colonization of the Philippines, the political structure of the Aeta was not disturbed, except when neighboring lowlanders organized artificial government structures headed by a captain, consejal or policia (Noval-Morales and Monan 1979:123).
While resisting change from the outside for hundreds of years, the Aeta have adjusted to social, economic, cultural, and political pressures with remarkable resilience; they have created systems and structures within their culture to cushion the sudden impact of change. Since the latter half of the 20th century, however, the Aeta have been declining in number. Their very existence has been threatened by problems brought about by other people and by nature. Poverty-stricken lowlanders, seeking food, have encroached on forest lands, displacing the Aeta. The flora and fauna needed for Aeta survival are no longer available due to forest depletion. Disasters like the Pinatubo eruption destroyed and buried Aeta ancestral lands in tons of ashfall and lahar. All these, aggravated by government negligence and public apathy, have marginalized the Aeta, some towards possible extinction.
Expulsion, relocation, serfdom, and mendicancy have plagued their lives. For example, in Negros, the Ati have become agricultural laborers on tenants working in ancestral lands that were formerly their own. Lowlanders hire their services to plow fields, gather...