The Ati, Negrito people of Panay

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November 24th 2008
Published: December 25th 2008
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"The Negritos in Panay are called Ati and have lived here for around 25,000 years," Daisy tells us, "and there are lots of theories as to where they originated from but one of the latest is that they came in a wave of migration from Ethiopia that originated around 60,000 years ago." She pauses and takes a breathe of air before plunging back into her monologue.
"Another theory is that they are descended from African pygmies because they look so similar - short, black, frizzly hair, you know. Yet another theory says that they are descendants of New Guineans or Australian Aborigines.
"Over the years, new, ethnically different settlers arrived from China, Taiwan, South East Asia, that sort of area, until they formed the majority of the population, the South-East-Asian-looking Filipinos that you see all around you today."
"So the Bukidnon are descendants of them?" I asked.
"Well, there's another story about how the Bukidnon arrived in Panay. Back in the 13th Century AD, some datus, or leaders, from Borneo set sail for the Philippines with their families and followers. When they arrived they effectively bought the island from the Ati, exchanging several items of gold and jewelry for its ownership in an event that is now referred to as the Barter of Panay. Anyway, they agreed that the Borneans would live in the lowland coastal plains and the Ati would have the interior mountains. The Bukidnon are the descendants of those Borneans."
"But the funny thing is," Roli cuts in, "that Bukidnon actually means 'people of the mountains', because now that's where they live. Personally I don't believe the story of the Barter of Panay."
Daisy shrugs but does not say anything.
"So have you guys visited the Bukidnon before?" I enquire.
"Oh yes," replies Daisy, "back when I was a student of anthropology and collecting material for my thesis. Roli's been there lots of times too - he's one of the keenest members of the mountaineering club. He knows all the locals in the mountainous areas, you'll be safe with him as your guide."
"Yeh, so Daisy's husband will take you to the Ati and afterwards I'll take you on the trek through the Bukidnon area. It's really unfortunate but we can't go to Delacsaan, the area I originally wanted to take you to. It's so culturally rich but there's a tribal war going on there at the moment. Loads of vendettas, blood feuds and so on. Still, I can take you to another area that's really great too."
This was a great disappointment, especially seeing as it was the second trem in Panay that we had had to abandon. Originally we had intended to visit a group in yet another area but then had received news of a medical mission that had just been held hosage there for a week by a group of rebel insurgents. These rebels, Daisy had told us, had originally been Communists seeking to overthrow the government and backed by China. Over the years though they had lost China's backing and had been forced to resort to banditry to support themselves, gradually degenerating from idealists into criminals who did nothing actively to pursue their original aims.
Despite the first two setbacks to our goal of meeting the Bukidnon, Roli managed to find us an area that he assured us would be safe and there was never any problem with our Ati trip. And that was how it began, our partial exploration of the interior of this island in the Western Visayas and introduction to the buyers and sellers from the Barter of Panay.

We set off early from Iloilo, Panay's capital, and arrived in the small, fairly nondescript town of Barotac Viejo by about eleven o'clock. After some discussion with locals we found a motorbike taxi driver willing to take us as close as possible to the Ati village of Nagpana in the foothills of the mountains. We set off and very soon were on a bumpy, unpaved road leading steadily uphill and overhung by palm trees and other exotic plants. The concrete of the houses of Baotac Viejo disappeared and was replaced by bamboo and thatch. Motorbikes, cows, horses and pedestrians took the place of cars. Our motorbike's engine spluttered and struggled with five people sitting in or clinging to the passenger compartment attached to its side. Several times the road was so rough and steep that everyone had to get out and walk while the motorbike chugged up a hill on its own.
After about an hour the driver declared that this was as far as he could go and we would have to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately it was only about fifteen minutes and we soon found ourselves standing in the central square of Nagpana, quickly attracting a crowd of whispering, giggling children and teenagers. The square was small, dusty and surrounded by small bamboo huts, one of which was a shop stocked with a very few Western goods such as sweets and crisps. Slightly above, on the slopes of a hill, was one of the only concrete buildings around.
"That's a health care centre built by missionaries," explained Reuel, Daisy's husband, as if following my gaze.
"Do they mainly use modern medecine or do they have some sort of traditional doctor too?"
After a quick discussion with a local, Reuel replied, "They don't have their traditional doctor any more. If someone's ill they go over there and pick their own herbs to try to cure themselves." He was pointing to a gap in a wooden fence enclosing a garden. Above the gap hung a sign on which were painted the words "Nagpana herbal garden."
Looking around, many people did not look as short and dark as I had expected. I had seen bands of Ati roaming the streets of Iloilo, begging for money, the adults dressed in rags and the children naked. They had all been really dark skinned, as black as Africans. I had assumed that the begging, city Ati were the ones who had abandoned their traditions and accepted assimilation into the very bottom of mainstream society while the ones still living in mountain villages would be purer and more traditional. However, although some people here were very clearly pure Negritos, looking around me I also saw many who were indistinguishable from ordinary Filipinos. As we were led up a hill to the house we were to be staying in, I questioned Reuel about this.
"The thing is, the Ati used to be nomads but they were forced to abandon this lifestyle due to deforestation and destruction of their original environment. The ones who settled in villages, converted to Christianity and intermarried with ordinary Filipinos and Bukidnon became paler-skinned and in fact it's them who abandoned more of their traditions. The ones who you see begging in towns are the ones who refused to convert, settle down and intermarry. They didn't want to abandon their old lifestyle so they move from town to town like nomads, begging for money and sleeping on the streets. It's also them who know most of the old chants about Ati history, legends and culture."
Arriving at the top of the hill we set up camp in the village meeting house. Many people came to look at us and we used it as an opportunity to ask them questions through Reuel as an interpreter.
"When were they first converted to Christianity?"
"They don't know exactly when, but at some point under Spanish rule they became Catholic. Then when the Americans arrived they were converted to Protestantism in the 1950s and 60s. My father was the priest who did it!" Reuel said proudly. An old, hunched, pure Negrito woman in a long pink dress and her white hair tied back in a bun began speaking and he listened before reporting back to us.
"She says she remembers the first ever Protestant sermons. People were really annoyed because they had to walk for two days to get there - there were no roads back then - and they were expecting some really long service but in fact it was only an hour or two!"
"Can they tell us any stories or legends about the Ati people?" we asked. No one was able to answer this one.
"What about their animist or spiritual beliefs, does anyone still believe in those?"
"No, because we are all Protestant now," came the answer, through Reuel.
"Does anyone still believe in any spirits, or demons, or aswam?" Aswam were the black, legless, winged bodies that flew through the night and that people had told us about everywhere we had been in the Philippines.
Only the hunched old lady spoke up this time: "Once my father was out hunting and he got attacked and wrestled by a feathered giant." That was the extent of any information we could get out of then on any spirits or demons they might believe in.
"Do the children go to school?"
"They go to primary school because it's free. It's a two-hour walk away. But not many go on to secondary school because the parents can't afford the fees. It's 500 pesos (US$10) per year."
"And how do they live mainly?"
"Hunting, growing crops, some of the women make little things from natural products like rings and bracelets and bags and sell them in the town."
Another man chirped up: "Some of us work on other people's farms, harvesting rice for them. If eight of us work very hard all day we can get 1000 pesos to share between us."

Later, as dusk was coming on, we went for a walk down through the village. In the square children were running around and rolling bicycle tyres before them, screaming with laughter, while some women had set up tables to display some hand made products they had woven from abaca, fibre from the leaves of a type of banana plant. They were selling them at pitifully low prices, between five and fifteen pesos a piece, depending on the size.
Descending further through the village we arrived at the house of some people who had been friends with Reuel's father. We sat down for a drink of water outside in their small yard and in doing so noticed a large white sack a few feet away from us. Something quite large was inside it and wriggling around.
"There's a big lizard inside," Reuel informed us. "They're going to take it to the town and sell it for 150 pesos. It's a real delicacy."
"Is it tasty?" I asked the father of the family, using some of my extremely basic Tagalog. Although Tagaolog is not their language it is taught in schools throughout the Philippines and they seemed to be able to understand it.
"Yes, delicious," he replied. "Lizard's our favourite dish. If we don't have lizard, we don't have energy." I had to ask for Reuel's help in interpreting that one.
After quickly conferring with Lizz we decided we would like to try lizard and handed our money in exchange for the sack.
Back at the meeting room we tipped the poor lizard, whose arms and legs were bound behind its three-foot body, out onto the floor and watched it writhe. However, pity for the beast was outdone by curiosity and we sentenced it to death the next morning.

After waking we took a quick bath in the river before assembling to watch the lizard be put to death and cooked. First its neck was snapped and I was relieved that it wouldn't suffer too much, remembering with guilt my purchase, a few years previously, of a live turtle in the Amazon and the subsequent tearing out of all its limbs and organs, its heart continuing beating right until the very end. As it happened, my conscience was not going to get off too lightly today either because the snapping of the lizard's neck had apparently not killed it and they placed the poor thing on a fire to roast alive. At first it moved from side to side quite slowly and I saw that the purpose of snapping its head had not been to kill it but to stop it from being able to move fast or escape while on the fire. Gradually its movements became slower and slower until after a few minutes of what must have been agony they stopped altogether. The green skin of its back and the yellow of its underbelly began to blacken and were scraped off with a machete.
"Ok, it's going to take a while," Reuel said cheerily, "so who wants to come on a trek with me?"
We left the roasting lizard behind and headed off up into the mountains, accompanied by several men from the village.
"Are they not working today then?" I asked.
Reuel asked them then told me, "No, one of their relatives has died and they're mourning for a week. The funeral's on Saturday."
"I'm sorry to hear that. What are they going to do for the funeral?"
"They all sit round the fire in a circle. THey say that if the fire makes a crackling noise, this means there are some bad spirits around and they have to will them away. When it stops crackling, the spirits have gone."
So evidently some of their slightly more animistic beliefs did still linger. I had thought that it seemed strange that no one believed in the spirits any longer, that these beliefs that had previously been strong had all of a sudden died out with the advent of Christianity. Perhaps they had just been shy, embarrassed by our questioning or eager to demonstrate the firmness of their faith in God.

After an hour of upward trekking we stopped outside a couple of huts to catch our breathe. The inhabitants, much lighter-skinned than those of Nagpana were working in their garden and came over for a break and a chat with us. They, and everyone who lived further inland from here, were apparently Bukidnon. One woman held out a hand full of small, hard, dark nuts and offered them to me.
"What are they?"
"Betel," came the reply. I was surprised because the Betel nuts I had been used to chewing in Micronesia had been large, fresh, soft, green things. Nevertheless, I accepted the offer and saw that the ritual here was identical to that in Micronesia: the nut, along with some lime powder to burn the mouth and facilitate absorption of the nut's drug into the bloodstream, were wrapped in the leaf of a certain plant that had the effect of turning your saliva red and were popped into the mouth. However, whereas in Micronesia the nut did not disintegrate no matter how long you chewed it, here it crumbled almost immediately, necessitating strong clenching of the teeth when spitting out the gallons of red saliva that the habit produced, in order to prevent loss of the small pieces of the nut. However, unlike in Micronesia, I found that the chewing of just one Filipino Betel nut could produce quite a strong high.
After another hour of hiking through woods we arrived at a mountain ridge and the land dropped away both behind us, in the direction we had come from, and in front, leading down to flat, green plains that stretched for some distance before rising back up into mountains further into the interior. The slopes of the mountain we were standing on were dotted with the occasional lone hut belonging to families of Bukidnon hunters and farmers. We sat down on top of a hillock that rose up out of the top of the mountain. It was tall, thin and looked unnatural, almost as if it was man-made. One of the Ati men pointed towards a large pile of sticks lying on top and said something.
"What did he say?" I asked Reuel.
"Come over and look," he replied.
We walked over and say through the sticks that they were covering a deep, wide hole that had been dug into the hillock and was deep enough to disappear out of sight below. "Some people dug this hole because they thought that the Japanese buried gold here before they were driven out of the Philippines by the Americans during World War Two," he told us. "Many people say that a Japanese general called Tomoyuki Yamashita ordered the burial of huge amounts of gold which had been stolen from other countries in East and South East Asia but other people question why the Japanese would have brought the gold to the Philippines in the first place. Anyway, lots of people come here on, well, let's say professional treasure hunts! Most go back empty-handed but apparently President Marcos used the army to dig up some of the gold. Then again, maybe he's just spreading rumours to hide his stealing from government funds!"

On the way back down to the village, one of the Ati men seemed to overcome his shyness and we began various attempts at conversation. This was of course very limited considering I knew none of his language and he none of mine, but we each knew a small amount of Tagalog so this was what we used.
"How many brothers and sisters do you have?", "do you like my village?" and "when will you come back?" were all among the questions asked. Often it happened that even after many attempts we were unable to communicate and on these occasions his face would break into a broad, happy, genuine smile and he would burst out laughing, shaking his head. Despite the somewhat awkward nature of our attempts at conversation I found this man to be the only person I formed any sort of personal connection with on this trip. It goes to show the enormous benefits of being able to communicate normally with people in their language or a lingua franca. On every other trip I had done to indigenous communities I had been competent enough in the language to be able to have a decent conversation but here I was not and the effect it had on the overall experience was very great indeed: whereas in Vanuatu, Micronesia, New Guinea or Arctic Russia I had had plenty of one on one conversations leading to bonding and the formation of personal friendships, here that was just not possible. The effect, I found, was that most of the time here I felt like and was treated as an outside obderver, while in places where I had spoken the language I felt that I had really been accepted into the community for a short period of time.
None of this is to say that visiting Nagpana was not a worthwhile and pleasant experience. After we returned to our village from the trek we ate the lizard, which tasted similar to chicken and was nice but somewhat tough, perhaps due to the animal's captivity for a day before being killed. Afterwards we prepared to leave and as we did the man who I had spoken with on the trek insisted that we come and visit his house. Inside he brought out handfuls of bracelets, rings and bags that his wife had made and gave them to us as presents. Several other people from the village did the same and we were extremely touched by this gesture from people who could not even afford US$10 a year to send their children to school. Feeling guilty at depriving them of objects they could sell but not wanting to insult them by offering money in exchange for their gifts, we decided to buy a few extra items on top of those we had been given.
The hospitality of the people had been wonderful, learning about their lives and culture fascinating, the scenery on the trek stunning, but I could not help feeling the gap in the experience that had been left by not speaking some of the language, or at least enough Tagalog to communicate on a basic level.

Click here for advice on independent travel on Panay.


3rd January 2009

The detail of the origins and practices of the different cultures is fascinating. It is shocking that what to us is such a small sum is beyond people's means to educate their children. How do the people who can send children to secondary school manage to do this? Is it something that everyone would aspire to or is it not thought particularly worthwhile?
17th December 2009

ati people
you can clearly see the ati people are of african decent by there frizzy hair and facial features mixed with some asian if every one realy wanted to know where they came from stop with the myths and take dna i am sure they will trace there roots to afrira i am sure some one thought of this before me or is it that nobody want to knowledge them being from africa.
7th August 2010

my worst fears about the ati people is they will become extinct or invisible after a few generations.i mean we will eventually end up having either the egyptian scenario(where the original ancient egyptians who were black were displaced by light skinned asians/arabs) or the brazilian scenario where the descendents of the black african slaves have widely been replaced by mullatos.

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