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LOCATION: Philippines
POPULATION: around 20,000
LANGUAGE: Tagbanua;Tagalog/Pilipino
RELIGION: Indigenous animist religion; some Catholicism and Protestantism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Filipinos


The name Tagbanua derives from tiga banua, meaning "people of the village." There is evidence of early influence from Hinduized Brunei. In more recent times, Muslim traders and aristocrats, chiefly Tausug from Sulu, dominated Palawan. Although Magellan's expedition made a landfall on Palawan, and its chronicler Pigafetta recorded an impression of the natives, intense Spanish contact did not begin until the 1872 founding of the town of Puerta Princesa at the northern edge of Tagbanua territory. American contact with the Tagbanua only commenced with the 1904 founding of the Iwahig penal colony. Catholic and Protestant missionaries have had only limited success in converting the Tagbanua, even in comparison with the neighboring Palawan ethnic group. Like most peoples in the southern Philippines, the influx of immigrants from the overpopulated Tagalog and Visayan regions has had a profound impact on Tagbanua life, though the relationship in their case is not one of armed conflict.


The Tagbanua inhabit both the eastern and western coasts of the central portion of Palawan Island, which lies between Mindoro and Borneo. The greater concentration of population is in the more extensive lowlands to the east of the island's mountain range that rises 760 m to 900 m (2,500–3,000 ft). The few mountain villages date from only the 18th century. Tagbanua also live on the Calamian Islands off the island's northern tip. The ethnic group numbered 14,000 in the 1980s (an 1985 estimate counted 2,000 speakers of the Central Tagbanua dialect). In 1990, speakers of the Agutaynen dialect of Tagbanwa (Agutaya island and nearby points in northern Palawan) numbered almost 10,400 and of the Calamian dialect almost 8,000. According to the 2000 census, 2.15% (over 16,000) of the population of Palawan identified themselves as Tagbanua.

The Tagbanua have much contact today with other ethnic groups, such as the Palawano and the Batak (not the same as the Sumatran people), both of which are animists like the Tagbanua themselves, as well as the Muslim Jama Mapun and Christian Tagalog and Visayan immigrants.


The Tagbanua speak a language of the Central Philippine sub-branch of the Western Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family. Significant differences exist between the dialects spoken on Palawan and that of the Calamian Islands. The Tagbanua on Palawan are one of the three groups (the others are in Mindoro) who use the pre-Hispanic alphabet (ultimately of Indic origin) once used by the Tagalogs and other Filipinos. They scratch the letters with a knife on pieces of bamboo. Many Tagbanua also speak the languages of neighboring peoples as well as the national language, Tagalog/Pilipino.

There is a strong taboo against mentioning the names of grandparents, especially deceased ones. Nor does one ever call parents by their names; this applies also to non-kin of the parents' generation, whom one addresses as "Amey" or "Manung" (uncle), or "Iney" or "Manang" (aunt). One even avoids using the names of adults of the same generation, calling them "Ungkuy" (friend) instead. One calls young boys "Duduy" and young girls "Nini."


Diseases are caused by the salakep, small, dark, kinky-haired beings who once lived among the Tagbanua in the mythical past. Men who marry into a village fear magical poisoning (ratyun) by village natives. Against this and other harmful forces, men carry mutya, or amulets.


Named deities dwell in a multilayered sky-world. The highest is Mangindusa, the "punisher of crime" (namely, incest). Upon clearing a forest for planting, offerings (pagdasag) are made to the tawu tung talun ("people of the forest"), spirits who will protect crops from pests and animals. Moreover, the rice plant itself has a soul (kalag), which is respected by the use of a special knife called the kayed. In the Calamian Islands, the tekbeken, a giant octopus, appears when someone is under a spell or breaks the incest taboo.

The tiladmanin, ancestral spirits, cause illness. The pagsalaknan ritual is performed for small children, entailing the sacrifice of a pig and six young chickens (pitung kulu, "seven heads") in an appeal for ancestral protection. Ceremonies for the ancestors are held from the level of the family to those of the entire Tagbanua people (by the Masikampu). Offerings include rice, chickens, and betel nuts placed on platforms or rafts decorated with leaf streamers affixed to upright poles. Ritual drink fests attract the spirits with rice wine; this is also an occasion for dancing, blood pacts, and courtship.

There has been some conversion to Catholicism and Protestantism in the Calamian Islands.


The Tagbanua participate in the fiestas of non-Tagbanua communities.


A pregnant woman observes numerous behavioral and dietary taboos lest the fetus become ill; certain plants are kept in the house as protection against witches and evil spirits (mangaluk). The midwife (a relative) puts the placenta in a bamboo tube and puts it on a tree or buries it under the house. The new mother continues to observe food taboos and on the third day after the birth bathes in water prepared by the midwife with boiled leaves. The new baby receives five secondary souls at another ceremony. The Tagbanua do not celebrate birthdays, but a father may swear to hold a panaad feast on the seventh birthday if he has lost many children already.

The Tagbanua are monogamous and marry early—as arranged by parents or other relatives, or today more often by picking their own partners. Parents must use a talunga, an intermediary, to negotiate a marriage. The man's side initiates the first meeting with the woman's side; at this time, they settle the bride-price (begay). The begay is delivered before the wedding and consists of two steps: the giving of money and fabric, symbolic of the anchor and back of a boat, and the payment of wealth ideally not less than the groom's father paid for his mother (knives, pigs, rice, cash, and recently coffee, sugar, gin, bread, and biscuits, and a sarong for the bride's mother and trousers for her father). Both sides share the cost of the uglun, a dancing party that lasts a whole day and night.

The sides exchange visits, beginning with the groom's kin to the bride's house; each time the visitors bring double the number of rice sacks they received before as hosts, until the bride's side decides to call it quits. The wedding can then follow. Each family holds an all-night dancing party to which relatives contribute. The groom's family asks for permission to enter the bride's house, which they get after they pay a ritual fee. They are greeted with a war dance (saad). Only at midnight does the groom himself enter. On the floor, he sits with his back to the bride. Everyone sits in silence waiting for an animal to make a sound; the longer the silence, the better the omen. After this, the bride holds a coin between her fingers, an old man puts the groom's hand on the bride's hand, and asks the groom if he will treat his wife as his own body. After the groom answers yes, the old man asks the bride the same question, to which she says yes. Then, he pours gin over their hands onto a plate. The couple drink from the plate, and the bride takes the coin for safekeeping.

A cheaper and faster alternative to the above process is sudir: the couple act intimate in front of the parents, who are thus pressured (for fear of scandal) to speed up the wedding process. Older people regard the children of such marriages as under a stigma.

In the Calamian Islands, upon death, the body is kept in the house on a mat. The family stops work, summons distant relatives, and keeps a vigil by the body. A large carrying pole is secured to the coffin. During the pagtaliman ceremony, an older man asks the deceased questions as to the cause of death. The old man tries to lift the carrying pole: if it feels light, the deceased's answer is yes; if heavy, it is no. This aims to allay feelings of guilt relatives and friends may have toward the deceased. Music accompanies the carrying of the coffin to the burial site. Three days after the burial, people gather in the yard of the deceased's home for a simple meal of rice and fish, then enter the house to listen to the singing of the Dumarakul epic, taking numerous breaks for coffee and gin.

Among the Tagbanua on Palawan, the surviving spouse is secluded for seven days; on the last day, a ceremony is held to sever the soul's connection to the world of the living. The soul then goes to basad, the underworld. If an epidemic caused the death, the soul travels in a spirit canoe to a special afterworld. Formerly, a second burial transferred the body to large earthen jars.


Tagbanua society is composed of autonomous villages recognizing an ethnic leader, the Masikampu. Ginu'u, community leaders, possess titles bestowed centuries ago by the Tausug rulers of Sulu and handed down father to son. The ginu'u base their power on a thorough knowledge of customary law and on the possession of supernaturally powerful heirlooms, such as old Chinese jars. Retaining their ritual and judicial authority, they have conceded political power to Philippine government officials. Villages are integrated into the national system of local administration via elected barangay captains and councils. Surugudin councils headed by ginu'u determine fines under a complex system of customary law and kinship obligations.

The traditional social order distinguishes between "high bloods" (the ginu'u, bawalyan [shamans], and their kin) and "low bloods" (everyone else). In the past, there was also a small number of debt-slaves (uripen). Personal qualities could qualify an individual born of a high-blood father and a low-blood mother for community leadership.

A boy may not visit a girl in the home or speak to her in public but must try to meet her secretly or give her small presents. Because of the grave consequences of incest, men and women avoid each other, feeling inglaw (discomfort) with each other, even with parents or children of the opposite sex. Brothers and sisters must observe formality with each other.


Consisting of a single room, houses are raised on 1.5 m to 2-m (5- to 6-ft) piles (0.5-m or 1.5-ft in the Calamian Islands). The floor, walls, and gabled roof are made of bamboo, rattan, and palm fronds. Cooking is usually done outside or under the house; if inside, it is done in a tin bucket filled with earth. The smoke drives away mosquitoes. Larger houses may have chairs on the veranda and benches in the yard. Household articles include baskets, a mortar, and wooden trunks or cardboard boxes for clothes. Today, Tagbanua use town-bought aluminum cookware, chinaware, plastic water containers, and tin cans for storing rice. Valued heirlooms consist of ritually important Chinese jars, brass betel nut boxes and trays, gongs, knives, and spears. Flowers are planted around the house. Houses used to be burned upon the death of an occupant.

More nomadic groups that live off the sea build houses of light materials and carry the roofs with them when they move, using them as a windscreen or sleeping place on the beach.

A village contains from 45 to 500 persons, usually around 150. It is divided into smaller units comprising the families of sisters. Water is taken from wells and springs.

Visits from government medical personnel are very rare. Bawalyan (shamans) and midwives provide most health care.

Average family income in the MIMAROPA region (Mindoro, Masbate, Romblon, and Palawan islands) amounted to 109,000 pesos (us$2,137) in 2006, the second lowest in the country (above the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), cf. the national average of p173,000, the National Capital Region's p311,000, and those of the neighboring regions, Southern Tagalog, p198,000, and the Western Visayas, p130,000.

In Palawan province, the proportion of houses with a roof of galvanized iron/aluminum increased from 11.63% in 1990 to 24.68% in 2000, with outer walls of concrete, brick, or stone from 4.31% in 1990 to 7.23%; this meant that the great majority of houses were still constructed of wood or of grass or palm thatch.


Kinship is reckoned on both the mother's and father's sides; the incest taboo extends to third cousins on both sides. People tend to identify with a prominent patrilineal or matrilineal ancestor. Nuclear families have one to two children, in contrast to the national average of four children per family. A household consists of a couple and unmarried children (sometimes also other relatives). A newlywed couple will live with the bride's family at first; exceptions to this rule for economic reasons cause friction between in-laws. The nuclear family remains under the influence of other kin in close residence.

Terminology distinguishes between older and younger siblings and among uncles and aunts with reference to birth order. In the Calamian Islands, mothers and aunts are addressed as "Nanay," fathers and uncles as "Tatay," siblings and cousins as "Putul," siblings-in-law and cousins-in-law as "Ipag," and grandparents and grandchildren as "Apu." When the mother is out, grandparents, older siblings, or other relatives take care of the children; fathers also watch the children after work. Children do not join adult conversation and are taught to respect authority and age. Childless couples do not adopt but rather "borrow" relatives' children for a day, returning them at night. Formal respect must be shown in-laws at all times, even in the midst of a drinking party.

Divorce may be demanded at the slightest incompatibility. Village elders try to mediate. If the husband is at fault, he pays a fine equal to the bride-price. If the wife is at fault, she pays back the bride-price.

The Tagbanua keep dogs for hunting and for guarding the house, as well as cats for catching mice.


Traditional men's wear consists of fabric loincloths. In living memory, men wore takwil, loincloths of bark cloth. In town, men wear polo shirts and jeans or trousers, like other Filipinos. Women wear colorful sarongs (gimay or patadyong). It is not rare to see older and married women without a blouse on in the village, but schoolgirls always wear one. Female hair is kept long and in a chignon. In the village, earrings and chains of pearls are occasionally worn.


Rice, a divine gift, is the most prized food and is the source of tabad (the "perfect drink," a ritually important alcohol). Tagbanua now buy rice in town. In the Calamian Islands, however, the kurut, a wild yam, is the staple food. It is poisonous, so hours must be spent processing it to get rid of the poison. In dried form, kurut can last for two years. Dried fish is the usual accompaniment to the main starch.


To punish disobedience or disrespect, parents scold, pinch, beat, or lock up their children or put a curse (gaba) on them, threatening that the ancestors will cause the child illness or misfortune.

Children learn by observing and participating in the daily activities of adults. Illiteracy is high because school expenses (often requiring travel to a distant town) prevent most Tagbanua from sending their children to school, although Tagbanua value education. The first elementary school in the Calamian Islands dates to 1939. If parents can send their children, the children participate in school activities and celebrations, while the parents join in the P.T.A. Honors ceremonies are major events for such families.

According to the 2000 census, of persons over the age of five years in Palawan province, 47.5% had completed elementary school and 24.6% high school, but only 2.14% college or university (cf. 4.3% in Aklan province and 7.8% in Iloilo province, both on Panay in the neighboring Western Visayas region).


Pasigem (riddles) and ugtulen (folk tales) serve not only as entertainment but also teach children social norms and history (explaining conflicts with other ethnic groups and the relationship with the Muslim peoples). The epic of Dumarakul (the hero's name) is sung after burial; all know the general story but few fully understand the archaic language of this long work. Traditional songs (daluwasa, sablay, bagreng) are gradually dying out. Today, people mix in lines in the languages of neighboring peoples and even prefer to sing entire songs in these languages. Also in decline are the playing of the Jew's harp, drum (tambul), and bamboo flute (tipanu), while great interest is shown in the guitar. Dancing to gong music is an important part of celebrations.


The Tagbanua practice slash-and-burn agriculture, growing dry rice, maize, millet, sweet potato, cassava, and taro. They build huts (tangkungan) near their fields so they can watch them. For this same purpose, tiptay, platforms light enough for children (who do the watching) to carry around, are set up in the fields. Yard gardens grow vegetables.

Fishing is the other important occupation. Methods include pole and line, poisoning with plant extracts, damming and drying up streams, and attracting fish with torches at night. Various types of harpoons and spears are being displaced by fishing guns. In addition to barutu (small outrigger canoes), motorboats are now used by the wealthiest Tagbanua.

Spear-wielding men hunt wild boars with the help of dogs. Fowl are also caught. It is customary to share game with relatives and neighbors. Water buffalo, perhaps only introduced in the 20th century, are kept for transport, as are cattle. Cattle and pigs are kept for ritual feasts. Certain types of chickens are raised solely for cockfighting or for their feathers, which can be made into fish bait.

The Tagbanua trade "Manila copal" (a mountain tree gum), split rattan, local rice, forest honey (as well as edible young bees and ritually important wax), and (in the Calamian Islands) edible bird nests taken at considerable risk from caves. For these, they obtain Moro goods (gongs, betel boxes, and stoneware) from Chinese or Christian shopkeepers.

Specialists include bawalyan (shamans), midwives, and drum- and flute-players. Some young men and women work as servants in non-Tagbanua houses, returning home to get married. Non-Tagbanua hire Tagbanua men to do carpentry or construction work.


Children play with toys they make themselves, such as boats and bamboo knives. They catch birds or butterflies. Girls weave small mats and play sungka with stones or shells; boys spin ebeg, wooden tops, as well as catch fish in shallow water with toy bows and arrows. Older children combine play with helping their parents.


Radios are now common, the most popular broadcasts being amateur singing contests and soap operas. Tagbanua watch films in town, mostly action and love stories in Tagalog/Pilipino, the national language, but also Westerns, kung fu movies, and the occasional pornographic film.


The Tagbanua weave their own clothing from yarn bought in town.


See the article entitled Filipinos .


According to the 2000 census, Palawan province had a sex ratio of 107.07 men for every 100 women. Among those completing primary and secondary education, there were somewhat more men (53.6%) than women with an even greater gap than between percentages of men and women in the population as a whole. In tertiary education, the reverse was the case: women were more numerous than men (e.g. 59.7% of academic degree holders were women).


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.

National Statistics Office: Government of the Philippines. "Palawan: Population Rose to Three Quarter of a Million." http://www.census.gov.ph/data/pressrelease/2002/pr0290tx.html (November 21, 2008).

Talaroc, Edvilla R. Tagbanua: Ein philippinisches Fischerfolk. Münster: Lit, 1994.

—revised by A. J. Abalahin