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ETHNONYMS: Alta, Arta, Baluga, Dumagat, Negritos, Pugut


Identification. The Agta consist of eight ethnolinguistic groups, numbering in total about 7,000 people. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers scattered widely over several thousand square kilometers of dense rain forest in eastern Luzon in the Philippines. They appear phenotypically different from other Filipinos because of their Negroid features: dark skin, kinky hair, and small size. The height and weight averages for men are 153 centimeters (60 inches) and 45 kilograms (99 pounds). Women's averages are 144 centimeters (56 inches) and 38 kilograms (84 pounds). They are generally referred to as "Negritos."

Location. The Agta groups are located all along the eastern side of Luzon Island between 14° and 19° N and 121° and 123° E in the provinces of Cagayan, Isabela, Aurora, Quirino, Quezon, Camarines Norte, and Camarines Sur. In the previous century this whole area was at least 90 percent covered by dipterocarp tropical lowland forest. By the 1980s the area covered by primary forest was about 40 percent, with another 20 percent covered by secondary forest. The rest of the area was (in the early 1980s) grassland (about 13 percent), brushland (11 percent), or farms (16 percent). The fast-accelerating deforestation in recent years is the result of commercial logging and the high influx of colonist farmers from other areas of Luzon. The area is classed as true rain forest, with an average yearly rainfall of from 361.8 centimeters per year in the deforested flatlands, to 712.5 centimeters per year in the mountainous forests. Mean annual temperature is 26° C. Mean relative humidity is 87 percent. There is no pronounced dry season.

Demography. In the 700-square-kilometer Casiguran area of northern Aurora Province, in 1900, the non-Agta farmers numbered 2,067 and the Casiguran Agta numbered 1,000. By 1984 the Casiguran Agta population had declined to only 609 and the non-Agta peoples numbered 35,000. Thus, the Agta population density in 1984 was one Agta per square kilometer, but the overall population density was 59 persons per square kilometer. The Agta are suffering such a severe population decline not as the result of out-migration or a low birth rate, but solely because of an exceptionally high death rate. (For the rest of this essay, the numerical figures refer to the Casiguran Agta population of northern Aurora; these figures may be accepted as roughly general for most other Agta groups.) The Agta crude death rate (45/1,000 per year) is higher than their crude birth rate (43/1,000 per year). Average Agta life expectancy at birth is only 21.5 years. The infant mortality rate is 342 (per 1,000 live births), and 49 percent of the children die before the age of 15. The total fertility rate is high, with women who live to the age of 45 having an average of 6.3 live births each. What are the causes of the high Agta death rates? The main killer is disease, with 80 percent of the deaths attributed to that cause. The biggest killer disease is tuberculosis (12 percent of the adult deaths), followed by pneumonia and gastrointestinal illnesses. Five percent of the adult deaths are from leprosy. The morbidity of the population is high as well, with Agta suffering chronically from malnutrition, malaria, intestinal parasites, alcoholism, and unsanitary living conditions. Homicide is frequent; 21 percent of the adult males die from that cause. The homicide rate is one of the highest on record for any population (326/100,000 per year). Twelve percent of the female deaths result from complications from childbirth. Suicide is extremely rare, and the Agta do not practice infanticide. Three percent of the deaths are from accidents.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Agta groups speak eight distinct languages that, like those of their non-Negrito neighbors, belong to the Austronesian Language Family. Most of these Agta languages are unintelligible to their agricultural neighbors; thus they are not simply dialects of those neighbors' languages, as has frequently been suggested, but separate languages.

History and Cultural Relations

An important historical fact concerning these nomadic Negrito foragers is that they have not lived isolated from, nor independently of, other peoples, as was assumed and taught until the 1980s. Recent research has established that the Agta peoples have carried on intense symbiotic interaction with farming peoples not only for centuries, but for millennia. The ancestors of today's Agta, and of all Philippine Negritos, are assumed to be the aboriginals of that archipelago, having migrated into those islands 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Much later, around 3000 b.c., Austronesian-speaking peoples began migrating into the Philippines, probably from Taiwan. Gradually the Negritos switched from their isolated and independent hunting and gathering lifestyle as they increasingly developed symbiotic relationships with Austronesian farmers. For most Agta groups, this switch occurred by around 1000 b.c. From this time on, Agta traded and interacted heavily with farming populations. The more recent twentieth-century history of the Agta is another story. After thousands of years of living a relatively stable and adaptive life in the rain forest, they are today undergoing severe deculturation; their forest is being cut back, immigrants are depleting their game and fish resources, they are being herded onto small reservations by the government, and change is being imposed on them by various development agencies.


Agta live in small and widely scattered camp groups throughout the forest. While 60 percent of Agta camps are in the forest (the other 40 percent are found on the coastal beaches of the Pacific Ocean, in open brushland, or in coconut groves), few camps are located directly under the forest canopy. Because of the Agta's fear of falling trees during storms, forest camps are usually situated in small open areas away from trees, such as on dry riverbeds or in small gardens. Camps are small, consisting of from three to seven kin-related nuclear households, with a mean average of six. A family will rarely reside in a camp of non-related kin. Agta move their camps often. In one study they were found to move, on average, every 18 days, and in another study every 29 days.

Housing. Agta may live in simple lean-tos, sleeping directly on the ground, or in small huts on stilts with a bamboo or palm wood floor about one meter above the ground, and with a thatch roof. Usually there are no side walls. Houses are very small, with an average floor size of only 3.9 square meters and a per capita floor space of only 1.2 square meters. Mean household size is 4.3 people. Most households (79 percent) are composed of simple nuclear families (parents and dependent children). Seventeen percent are of augmented nuclear families (e.g., with a cousin or grandparent present), and only 4 percent are composite (i.e., with two related couples sharing the same hearth).


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The most salient economic activity of the Casiguran Agta, until the 1960s, was hunting. Men spent a major part of their time hunting large game (wild pigs, deer, monkeys) with bow and arrow or borrowed homemade shotguns. Their economy for many hundreds of years has revolved around an institutionalized exchange relationship with non-Agta farmers. Until recently, the main feature of this exchange was the trade of wild meat for starch foods from farmers. As the game declined during the 1960s, the Agta gave more and more of their economic time to working as unskilled laborers for the growing farming population. In 1984 Agta men gave only 6 percent of their daily activity time to hunting. Agta are no strangers to agriculture. They have helped non-Agta farmers seasonally in their fields since prehistoric times, and they were cultivating small slash-and-burn fields of their own when first observed by Spaniards in the eighteenth century. Each year about 25 percent of Agta families make tiny desultory fields that average one-seventh of a hectare in size. In a good year these fields produce enough rice (their main starch food) to feed the population for only 15 days. Only 6 percent of the daily activity of all adults (both men and women) is given to working in these fields. The biggest single economic activity of the Agta is collecting forest products for trade. The main product was formerly wild meat. In the 1980s it was rattan. In 1984 men spent 25 percent of their daily activity in rattan collecting, and women, 17 percent. They also work frequently on nearby farms for wages (12 percent of the daily time of men, and 6 percent of women).

Division of Labor. There is a very weak division of labor between the sexes. Women participate with their husbands in hunting on about half of the hunting trips (in Cagayan some women even secure game with bow and arrow themselves). Both sexes contribute equal amounts of time to work in their own gardens. Both sexes collect forest products for trade, and both work as casual laborers for farmers. Both men and women collect firewood for their own hearths, and both engage in housebuilding, carrying water, etc. Only women weave baskets and mats, and only women wash clothes. Only men spear fish in deep water on coral reefs, and only men climb high trees to collect wild honey.

Land Tenure. Agta do not own land, nor usually show interest in doing so. Land tenure is a foreign concept to them. Instead, they see land as a free good.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is very important to the Agta, and their social organization is based almost exclusively on it. Descent is bilateral. They do not have lineages, clans, or cognatic descent groups. Rather, it is the personal kindred that is important to them.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms reflect an Eskimo classification, with lineal relatives distinguished from collaterals in the first ascending and descending generations from Ego, as well as in Ego's own generation. There is no distinction between cross and parallel cousins. Cousin terminology may be Eskimo or Hawaiian, depending on the context and the level of contrast required. The Agta language has a total of fifteen kinship terms of reference, six of which also serve as terms of address, plus seven more kinship terms used for address only.

Marriage. Agta marriages are monogamous. They practice strict kin exogamy, but manifest a preference for group endogamy. Marriages between distantly related consanguines are extremely rare, as are unions between affines. In 1984, 17 percent of the Casiguran Agta adults in northern Aurora were married to partners from other Agta ethnolinguistic groups, and 11 percent (two men and twenty-five women) were married to non-Agta farmers. Residence is bilocalthe couple may live with either the husband's or the wife's parents. In 1978, 48 percent of the households were virilocal, 35 percent were uxorilocal, 8 percent were neolocal, and 8 percent were ambiguous. Divorce is infrequent, with only 18 percent of the adults ever having been divorced. Most cases of divorce occur between couples who are newly married or who are still in a trial period of incipient marriage. It is quite uncommon for a couple with dependent children to divorce.

Sociopolitical Organization

Like other hunter-gatherer societies, Agta political organization is weak. There are no chiefs or formal group leaders of any kind beyond the nuclear household. Organized social life is controlled primarily by the nuclear family heads (i.e., the father and mother). Women participate equally with their husbands in decision making. Secondarily, social organization is based on the personal kindred. Social control is therefore quite weak. Individuals tend to do what they wish. If individuals go against the norms of the camp, or manifest disruptive deviant behavior, they will first be put in their place through oblique criticism, and then by ostracism. If that does not work, families will just move away. There are no laws or fines for keeping people in line, except ostracism. Conflicts are usually resolved by one of the families moving away and, in fact, moving is the primary mechanism for resolving interpersonal problems between families.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Agta are animists, although some of their beliefs have been modified by Roman Catholicism and, more recently, by Protestant missionaries. In contrast to most traditional animists, however, the Agta do not take their religion very seriously. There is a lack of systematic beliefs in their religion, and it takes a secondary place in their ideology, exerting less control over their daily lives than is usual among tribal peoples. Agta hold to a strong belief in a spirit world containing many classes of supernatural beings. Depending on the class of spirit, these beings are said to reside in trees, underground, on rocky headlands, or in caves. There are two general classes of these beings: hayup (creature) and belet or anito (ghost). The latter are always malignant. Ghosts are wandering disembodied souls of deceased humans. The ghosts of recently deceased adult relatives are especially feared, as they are prone to return to the abode of their family during the night, causing sickness and death. There are several types of hayup. These nonhumans are bipedal, and may appear in human form. Agta view these as having some influence over processes of nature, health, and the economic success or failure of humans. Most hayup are malignant, others are neutral, and a few can be called upon for help in curing disease.

Religious Practitioners. In northern Aurora, 8 percent of the Casiguran Agta adults are shamans, of whom one in five is a woman. These religious practitioners do only white magic. A shaman (bunogen ) is defined by the Agta as an individual who has a familiar spirit "friend" (bunog ) who aids him or her in diagnosing and treating disease. The primary role of shamans is curing. They do not practice sorcery.

Ceremonies. Shamans may treat their patients with herbal medicines and simple prayers to their spirit "friends." For difficult cases, they may conduct a séance. In such cases, shamans will enter into a trance state, chanting prayers over the patient until they are possessed by their familiar spirits. These chants are sung in a form of glossolalia, not in the normal Agta language. They do not have a sacrificial system, as do other Philippine animistic societies, but they do sometimes offer small gifts to the hayup spirits if they are taking something from the forest. These gifts may consist of a few grains of rice, a few drops of honey, or a piece of thread from a man's G-string. In some areas, when a new garden is cleared, a shaman may set up a small table with spirit offerings of betel quid and food. Herbal medicinal treatments, séances, and simple sacrifices are the only religious ceremonies.

Arts. Agta women weave baskets and sleeping mats, and men make many types of fine arrow. Permanent body decorations consist of designed scarring on the back (and sometimes the chest) and teeth filing. Their traditional music consists of singing solos, using a three-tone scale, and the use of three types of simple musical instruments: a simple stringed instrument, a bamboo Jew's harp, and hunting bows, which they sometimes strum. They have no custom of dancing.

Death and Afterlife. Agta have only a vague and casual interest in the afterlife, the realm of the dead, immortality, or the future; nor do they seek religious experiences. They do have a great fear of death, and it is the fear of sickness and death that activates Agta religious behavior.

See also Philippine Negritos


Griffin, P. Bion, and Agnes Estioko-Griffin (1985). The Agta of Northeastern Luzon: Recent Studies. Cebu City: San Carlos Publications.

Headland, Thomas N. (1986). Why Foragers Do Not Become Farmers: A Historical Study of a Changing Ecosystem and Its Effect on a Negrito Hunter-Gatherer Group in the Philippines. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International.

Headland, Thomas N. (1987). "Kinship and Social Behavior among Agta Negrito Hunter-Gatherers." Ethnology 26: 261-280.

Headland, Thomas N. (1988). "Ecosystemic Change in a Philippine Tropical Rainforest and Its Effect on a Negrito Foraging Society." Tropical Ecology 29:121-135.

Headland, Thomas N. (1989). "Population Decline in a Philippine Negrito Hunter-Gatherer Society." American journal of Human Biology 1:59-72.

Peterson, Jean T. (1978). The Ecology of Social Boundaries: Agta Foragers of the Philippines. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


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