Negrito Religions: An Overview

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The term Negrito (Spanish for "little Negro") has been used by some Western scholars to indicate those inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, the Philippine Islands, and the Andaman Islands (off the coast of Myanmar) who are characterized by small stature, dark skin, curly hair, and generally "negroid" facial features. Scholars disagree regarding a possible genetic connection between these small and widely separated populations. The traditional view is that they are all remnants of a single ancient race that was once widespread in Southeast Asia but has now been largely exterminated or absorbed by more powerful and populous immigrant groups. A second view, put forward by some biological anthropologists, is that the distinctive features of the Negritos are examples of "parallel evolution," similar physical changes among unrelated local populations resulting from their common adaptation to the tropical rain forest. Although plausible hypotheses have been advanced as to why that environment might favor "negritoid" characteristics, it is still not clear why such features have not arisen in similar environments elsewhere, such as the Amazon Basin of South America. The genetic relationship between the Asiatic Negritos, then, remains an open question.

The cultures of the various Negrito groups have many similarities, but whether these are due to a common ancestral culture, to contact between the different groups, or to parallel adaptations to similar environments is often unclear. Before 1900 almost all Negritos lived by hunting and gathering, supplemented in some places by small-scale trade in forest products. Their hunting-gathering economy produced such social consequences as small living groups, a lack of wealth accumulation, and informal leadership. Most groups were also nomadic, although the rich environment of the Andaman coast permitted its inhabitants to become partially sedentary.

The religions of the Andamanese, the Semang (Malayan Negritos), and the Philippine Negritos have many features in common, some very general but others highly specific and undoubtedly due to contact or common origin. The similarities are most striking with respect to deity conceptions and the corresponding prohibitions and rituals. The most personified and individualized deities are those associated with weather, especially destructive storms. Most groups have deities responsible for making thunder, and even some of the names given them are similar: Karei in the Malay Peninsula, Kayai and Kadai in the Philippines, and Tarai in the Andamans. These beings are thought to bring thunderstorms as punishment for breaking prohibitions against such diverse acts as incest and burning leeches. The Semang and some of the Philippine groups attempt to avert the storms by offering their own blood to the thunder god. Such common features are striking, but they form only part of each group's religion. In other respects their beliefs and rituals diverge, sometimes so radically as to place even the common features in different lights. For this reason it is best to treat the religions of the Andamanese, Semang, and Philippine Negritos as separate entities, although certain similarities will be apparent.


The most complete survey and comparison of the cultures of the Asiatic Negritos is Paul Schebesta's three-volume work Die Negrito Asiens (Vienna, 19521957). Comprising volumes 6, 12, and 13 of "Studia Instituti Anthropos," Schebesta's work has been partially translated into English by Frieda Schütze for the Human Relations Area Files (New Haven, Conn., 1962). The great bulk of this material is based on Schebesta's extensive fieldwork among the Semang. A similar, although much briefer, comparison can be found in Marcelino N. Maceda's The Culture of the Mamanua (Northeast Mindanao) as Compared with That of the Other Negritos of Southeast Asia, 2d ed. (Cebu City, Philippines, 1975), which takes the Philippine Negritos as its point of departure. A valuable article pointing out the religious similarities among the three divisions of Negritos is John M. Cooper's "Andamanese-Semang-Eta Cultural Relations," Primitive Man (now Anthropological Quarterly ) 13 (April 1940): 2947. William C. Boyd's "Four Achievements of the Genetical Method in Physical Anthropology," American Anthropologist 65 (April 1962): 243252, provides a useful introduction to the opinion on the question of whether the Asiatic Negritos constitute a single race or represent parallel adaptations to similar environments.

Kirk Endicott (1987 and 2005)