Manuvu' (Upland Bagobo)

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Manuvu' (Upland Bagobo)

LOCATION: Philippines (island of Mindanao)
POPULATION: About 30,000
LANGUAGE: Manuvu'/Bagobo
RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Filipinos


The Manuvu' are one of the many Mindanao groups to whom Visayans, Spanish, and Moros apply the name Bagobo (anthropologists specify the Manuvu' as the "Upland Bagobo"). The term is a contraction of bago, "new," and obo, "man." Originally, the term Bagobo referred to the peoples of coastal southwestern Mindanao who converted to Islam. However, its scope was extended to include unconverted hill tribes such as the Manuvu', whose name means "native people." They are themselves not a homogeneous group, displaying dialectal differences and occupational and artistic specializations.

The Manuvu' Tuwaang epic locates their origin in the valley of the Kuaman river (a tributary of the Pulangi). This region's present population speaks a dialect that Manuvu' can understand, and who are otherwise culturally similar. Little Islamic influence (or, rather, the culture of the Islamized lowlanders such as the Maguindanao) can be found in Manuvu' culture. In the 19th century, Moro warriors struck into the uplands, compelling the Manuvu' to ally with their traditional enemies, the Matigsalug, in order to mount a resistance. At the same time, by the middle of that century, external trade was making an impact on Manuvu' life. The Manuvu' received woven clothing from the coastal Attaw in exchange for boar and deer meat. The Attaw also delivered gongs, horses, and water buffalo to the Manuvu' who in turn "reexported" them to the Matigsalug in exchange for long-bladed knives. Another lucrative business for the Manuvu' was the sale of Matigsalug slaves to the Attaw.

Seeking to end the warfare endemic to the region, the American colonial administration (fully imposed on Mindanao only in the 1910s) discouraged the Manuvu' from carrying arms. The Manuvu' gradually abandoned ambush weapons such as the blowgun and the bow and arrow; only individuals willing to pay a special tax were issued with licenses to carry the palihumas long-blades (after World War II, one still brought a spear on trips but otherwise left spears stacked in the house). Having adopted the crops from Japanese and American planters, the Attaw introduced abaca and coffee to the Manuvu', many of whom came to rely on them, especially after World War II. During that war, hoping to flush out Filipino guerrillas taking refuge among the Manuvu', the Japanese built the first roads into the uplands. In later years, on these roads and those cut by logging companies, Visayan settlers poured in, displacing Manuvu' from more and more of their ancestral lands.


The Manuvu' (population estimated at about 30,000) inhabit an extensive region between the Pulangi and Davao rivers in central Mindanao (southern Bukidnon, northeast Cotabato, and northwest Davao provinces). This territory begins as rugged, mountainous terrain in the east, then flattens into gentler slopes and wider valleys towards the west. Although the soil in the western valleys is more suitable for rice, the Manuvu' prefer the eastern hillsides where swidden (shifting-cultivation) farming strains the back less.


The Manuvu'/Bagobo language belongs to the Manobo subgroup of the Southern Philippine branch of the Austronesian family; as such, its closest relatives are other indigenous languages of Mindanao.

Relatives select a name for a child that refers to natural phenomena or memorable events accompanying the birth (e.g., an earthquake or a visitor's arrival); physical peculiarities of the child; or persons known to the relatives personally or by reputation (including Christians such as the Filipino president). Manuvu' do not have surnames, adding their father's name for further identification if necessary.


Consisting of 100 sung episodes, the Tuwaang epic recounts the adventures of the hero of that name. Tuwaang is a bahani', one of whose marks of distinction is the possession of 200 wives. The epic provides the Manuvu' with their mythology as well as behavioral ideals, such as the characteristics of the proper leader; Manuvu' even see in it predictions of the future, e.g., airplanes are believed to have been prefigured in the sinalimba boat that carries Tuwaang and his followers into heaven. The Manuvu' believe there is a creature in the mountains named the busao/buso that eats their children.


According to Manuvu' belief, there are two parallel universes, one good and the other bad, each divided into a skyworld, an earthworld, and an underworld. While the bad universe is only vaguely delineated, the good universe's skyworld consists of nine layers, at the topmost of which resides Manama, the supreme deity. Manama is little involved in earthly affairs, although eventually he will take the souls of the good from the underworld to live with him. Lesser gods (diwata' and anitu) inhabit the lower layers of the skyworld. Some lesser gods are those to which a hunter prays before setting off on the chase: Timbaong, god of animals; Mahumanay, goddess of the mountains; and Tahamaling, goddess of the forest. Another is Anit, the deity who punishes incest and inflicts deformities on those who mock dogs, cats, and frogs.

Household heads, artisans, and hunters make offerings to ensure the success of their endeavors. The most common religious specialist is the walian, who leads agricultural and healing rituals. More prestigious is the tumanuron, who enjoys curative and predictive powers through the patronage of an anitu. Most revered of all is the pohohana', a diviner who can perform rainmaking and other miracles. Datus (chiefs) very often function also as ritual leaders.


There are no holidays as such, but there are regularly held ritual celebrations.


Nowadays regarded as too painful, tattooing and tooth filing no longer mark the transition to adulthood for boys and girls. Boys, however, still undergo circumcision.

In a young person's life, marriage is the most important rite of passage. The family of the groom is required to pay the bride's family a dowry, which may take years to accumulate. Before the bride-price negotiations, the sides reconstruct their genealogies in order to check whether the union might be incestuous. Once incest is ruled out, the boy's family sends an intermediary to negotiate the bride-price. This consists of the panamung, goods for the girl's parents and kin, plus the pantun, goods for the girl herself. She makes a great show of refusing the proposal, often holding out for a bigger pantun— if the boy's kin can't afford it, they have to withdraw.

The wedding celebration opens with the groom's parents presenting a spear to the bride's parents, an act to propitiate Dohanganna Karang, the god of marriage, so that the couple will prosper. The groom's parents then hand over a gong set and a palihuma' blade to the bride's parents to appease Kayag and Pamua', gods who will guarantee the success of the couple's farm work. Following is a tedious assessment of each item of the bride-price. After this is a ceremony in which the bride and groom simultaneously feed each other lumps of rice with chicken. Brothers or uncles then perform the rite of knocking the bride's and groom's heads together. Finally, relatives give the couple advice on how to have a happy marriage.

Tree burial was once common, but now the deceased's relatives leave the body in his or her house, then abandon the house. In abaca- and coffee-growing areas, burial is now in the house yard with a thatch hut raised over it (which the relatives leave to rot).


Traditional Manuvu' society knew no social classes because the obligation to contribute to the bridewealth and blood money needed by kinfolk prevented individuals' permanent accumulation of wealth. Moreover, the status of slave, acquired through being captured in a raid, was hardly a permanent one, being little more than a prelude to being married into the captor's village.

Nor was there any authority above the village chief or datu; larger villages would even have three or more datu, none of which was superior to the others. The datu's role is to arbitrate disputes within the community and to represent it in dealings with other communities. A datu must possess goro', the charisma that wins people's trust and obedience. More concretely, he must be skilled in negotiating, expert in customary law (batassan), and have wealth (rice, maize, cloth, gongs, blades, water buffalo, and horses) enough to provide hospitality to his followers who come calling and to underwrite the penalties they may incur. Datus train their sons to succeed them, but any individual fulfilling the above criteria can win the status. Since World War II, the threat posed by loggers and Visayan settlers has led the Manuvu' for the first time to recognize a single datu as spokesman for their entire ethnic group.

Preserving honor is of paramount concern. Even teasing (sollog) can lead to conflict and is permissible only among children and old people; parents can tease younger children but cannot tease adolescents. Feuds arise most often from verbal insults and disputes over bride-wealth. Datus judge cases that conflicting parties themselves cannot settle. He determines which side must compensate which side and by how much (even paying first what the fined party cannot immediately cover) and, in the most serious cases, holds a pagkitan (the sharing of ceremonial food by both sides) in his house. In the endemic feuding before World War II, villages sent raiding parties or commissioned a bahani', an independent warrior (and such companions as he might recruit), to exact revenge. Feuds could be concluded with a pakang, a peace-making ritual, in which a slave was killed to make the sides "even" in deaths.


Houses are raised on piles and have windowless walls of bark and a roof of bamboo, grass, or bark. Parents, children up to eight years old, and guests sleep on the lantawan, a raised portion of the floor. Unmarried daughters, however, occupy a separate bedroom, the sinavong, while boys and unmarried men sleep on boards suspended from and close to the ceiling. An extension may be added for a married daughter. Rice is stored in granaries, which are also raised structures but smaller than houses.

In more violent times, settlements grouped two or three tree houses linked by bamboo bridges. In the mountainous east, villages consist of a few widely scattered ground houses on hill spurs or on the edge of deep ravines; house floors are 6-8 m (20-26 ft) off the ground, beyond the reach of a spear-thrust from below.

Such settlements are impermanent, moving with the opening of new swidden fields (though within a fixed territory). In the broader valleys of the west, permanent villages of as many as 100 families living in low houses is the norm.


In raising bride-wealth or blood-money or forming a vengeance-taking party, an individual can rely on the assistance of kin from both paternal and maternal sides.

Strict enforcement of incest taboos (the deity Anit punishes perpetrators and their kin, e.g., by petrifaction) means that persons marry outside their village of birth, as fellow villagers are nearly always kin. Initially, a new husband lives in his in-laws' house before establishing his own—still within his wife's village. Surrounded by his wife's people, a husband is in effect a hostage, ensuring no feuding breaks out between the two kin groups. In such a position, a husband can never become too dominating a partner (he makes the decisions outside the home, such as for farming, while the wife makes decisions inside the home).

If one spouse dies, a same-sex cousin substitutes, preserving the intergroup relations established by the original union. A few men who can afford it take additional wives to demonstrate their sexual prowess, gain political influence, or even to provide the first wife (who must approve beforehand in any case) with assistance in her work. Either spouse can initiate a divorce by issuing a formal complaint (of infidelity, insult, abuse, nonsupport, etc.) to the datu for his judgment.

Manuvu' terminology equates fathers and uncles, mothers and aunts, and siblings and cousins. However, a person addresses a sibling or cousin of the same sex (suwod) differently from a sibling or cousin of the opposite sex (tabbay).

Aging parents move in with a married daughter, usually the one with the least children. The eldest son inherits the greatest part of the property (including the heirlooms), but he is obliged to support younger siblings to the extent of providing bride-wealth for his brothers (but he also receives part of the bride-wealth due for his sisters).

Manuvu' keep cats and dogs as pets, and limukon doves for predicting the future.


Manuvu's wore bark-cloth until the mid-19th century, when they adopted the costume of their Attaw trading partners. In addition, captured women and children from other groups brought the art of weaving. Traditional clothing consists of tight knee-length trousers and long-sleeved jackets for men, and tube skirts and blouses for women. Family members commonly borrow or exchange clothing and extra clothing is seen as communal property.


Manuvu's subsist on a basic diet of corn; salog, (an indigenous rice); vegetables, and cassavas. Seeds are derived from the farmer's own saved seeds from the previous season that have been dried and stored. Unhusked corn cobs are hung on clotheslines and corn cobs are hung above the cooking area ( abuhun ) after harvest until the following planting season. Threats to Manuvu' agricultural traditions include a rapidly changing environment, depletion of the soil, and the opening of the Manuvu' homelands to commercial markets.


Traditional Manuvu' education takes place in the home. From a young age Manuvu' children stay by their mother's side. Young girls are taught household chores and agricultural tasks reserved for females, while boys assisted their fathers in the fields. After puberty, girls are eligible for marriage. In the 1950s and 1960s government-operated public schools were established, but student enrollment remains low as students drop out of school at a young age.


Dance and music traditions (including gong-playing and the singing of the Tuwaang epic, a highlight of most social gatherings) resemble those of other Mindanao-Sulu peoples.

Traditionally tattooing was common. Men wore tattoos on the chest, upper arms, forearms, and fingers, while women had tattoos on the same parts of the body as well as on their calves, where the most elaborate tattoos were done. Tattoo designs mimicked the embroidered patterns on clothing, with the addition of figures of binuaja (crocodile), ginibang (iguana) and binuyo (betel leaf).

Traditionally men carry bolos, knives with long blades and a wooden handle that are used to clear vegetation in agricultural land or cutting trails in the forest.


Before World War II, agriculture provided about 75% of food, while hunting, fishing, and gathering provided the remainder. Since then, as commercial logging (by non-Manuvu') depletes game and otherwise upsets the ecology, the proportion of food obtained through hunting, fishing, and gathering has fallen to 5%.

Families own two or more swidden fields, rotating their cultivation in two- to three-year cycles; tools consist of machetes, wooden spades, and digging and dibble sticks. The staples are maize, rice, and sweet potatoes, supplemented by squash, beans, sugarcane, bananas, and tubers. Some areas have begun to grow abaca and coffee as cash crops in recent decades. Families keep chickens for food and sacrifices. Wild boar having once been abundant, Manuvu' had no need to keep domestic pigs and learned hog-raising from Visayans only recently. Horses, water buffalo, and now cattle are obtained from coastal peoples as measures of wealth used in the paying of bride-wealth, debts, and fines. Game includes wild boar and deer (speared or trapped), and monkeys, small game, and birds (shot with arrows or blowdarts, or trapped). Fishing techniques include damming, poisoning, and piercing with spears and arrows.

Traditional society held blacksmiths, weavers, healers, midwives, and epic singers in high esteem.


See the article entitled Filipinos .


The Manuvu's practice a subsistence agricultural economy and the chores of daily life leave little time for recreation. A common form of entertainment is music played on traditional instruments, including the dwagay (violin-like instrument), togo (bamboo guitar), and the kubing (harp).


Though Manuvu' wear modern clothing and have access to mass produced goods, they continue to utilize traditional crafts.

Common ornaments include brass or silver rings, bracelets, anklets, and earrings. In addition, beads, mother of pearl, wild cat's teeth, and the seeds of the saguya tree are used in traditional ornaments.

Many Manuvu' crafts are utilized in agriculture. Large containers named lukong or liwit are made from the bark of the red lauan tree and can store five to six sacks of rice. A single tree can produce three to five pieces of lukong/liwit. The bark is sewn together with uway, a variety of calamas plant, and the bottom of the lukong/liwit is made of uway mesh. The lukong/ liwit are placed in a traditional storage house (payag sa humay) constructed of wood or bamboo and covered with a grass roof. The payag sa humay is elevated several feet off the ground by four posts that have milk cans or flat, round wooden discs placed on them to prevent rats from climbing into the storage areas. The structures have only one door, no windows, and a removable ladder. The Manuvu' keep separate storage houses for rice and corn.

Another seed container is the laban or carrying basket. This is made of uway and is used to carry harvested crops or firewood. Other seed containers include the tabungos , which can carry two taros (45 lbs) of rice seeds, and the langkap ; both are made of bamboo.


The most pressing social problem for the Manuvu' is the civil war that has taken place on Mindanao since the late 1960s. The local Muslim population of Mindanao rebelled against the central Filipino government because of land distribution inequalities and official corruption. The mountainous homeland of the Manuvu' is ideal terrain for an insurgency, and both the rebels and government have attempted to recruit Manuvu' villagers. In 1993 the government used the military to force the Manuvu' to back down from opposition to a geothermal project on Mount Apo. In the late 1990s the government armed a village of Manuvu' who in 2000 engaged in a battle with insurgent forces from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The civil war has pitted the Manuvu' against their neighbors, and Manuvu' villages have negotiated dyandi, or peace pacts, with their neighbors.


Manuvu' society is male-dominated and men and women are assigned distinct social roles.

When preparing for marriage, women have little choice in choosing their future husbands. While females may express resistance to an initial marital suggestion, it is the role of the male suitor or the parents to decide a match. Marriages can be arranged in any of the following ways: (1) either the man's or the woman's family makes the proposal (sometimes, a man will hint at his preferred bride); (2) parents arrange the betrothal of a child (or even a fetus); (3) the woman's family holds the man prisoner in their house until the marriage is consummated or the man's family "buys" him back or provides a replacement; (4) the man abducts the woman (sometimes with her consent); (5) the man provides his prospective in-laws with live-in bride service; (6) the man courts the woman (clandestinely, as she is not supposed to talk to men); or (7) a senior wife selects a junior wife for her husband.

New brides are directed by their fathers to not quarrel with their husbands, talk to any male strangers, and to be faithful to their partner until death. In marriage there is a division of labor according to gender. The activities of the wife are centered in the home: house cleaning, cooking, raising children, making clothes, and weaving baskets and mats. Men work in the fields, hunt, and fish. When the family leaves home to visit relatives the woman usually is loaded with a child or goods in her carrying basket, where as the man carries a weapon and is responsible for defending the family against attack. While both men and women may on occasion exchange assigned gender roles, hunting is exclusively assigned to the husband. Women do not even play a part in preparation of the carcass. Historically, wife-stealing took place between villages and tribes. Datus who had more than one wife were often the victims, and incidents of wife-stealing could ignite inter-communal warfare.

Women play a large role in the Manuvu' agricultural economy. They tend to rice plants, removing weeds and picking crops. An important task of Manuvu' female farmers is the selection of seeds for the following year's crop. Storing and preserving seed material for the next planting season is exclusively the role of women in the Manuvu' community.


LeBar, Frank M., ed. Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Vol. 2, The Philippines and Formosa. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

Lopez, Regolio M. Agricultural Practices of the Manobo in the Interior of Southwestern Cotabato (Mindanao). Cebu City, Philippines: University of San Carlos, 1968.

Manuel, E. Arsenio. Manuvu' Social Organization. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2002.

Parreno-de Guzman, Lucille Elna. "Caring for Seeds: Learning from the Manuvu Women in the Philippines." Appropriate Technology. Vol. 29. No. 3. (September 2002): 54-55.

Sevilla, Ester Orlida. A Study of the Structure and Style of Two Manuvu Epic Songs in English. Cebu City, Philippines: University of San Carlos, 1979.

—revised by D. Straub

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Manuvu' (Upland Bagobo)

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