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ALTERNATE NAMES: Tagabili; TauSebu
LOCATION: Philippines
POPULATION: 100,000-120,000 (2000)
RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Filipinos


The T'boli (Tagabili to lowlanders) are an animist ethnic group inhabiting highland areas in southwestern Mindanao, centering on Lake Sebu (TauSebu is another of the people's names). Their immediate neighbors are the Manobo and Bilaan, other animist upland peoples (with whom they are often in conflict). The T'boli rely on Muslim traders for contacts with the lowlands and maritime trade.

The Muslim Magindanao (who founded a powerful sultanate) raided for slaves among the T'boli; Muslims appear as villains in T'boli folklore. The resistance of Muslim lowlanders shielded the T'boli from Spanish political and cultural influence. This isolation ended with the imposition of American military control on Mindanao, completed in 1913. Since that time, Christian migrants from the Visayas and elsewhere have greatly increased the local population, pushing the T'boli from much of their traditional territory, a great part of which is also being appropriated by logging companies. Some protection and development aid has been offered by government institutions (such as the controversial PANAMIN) and Catholic missionaries. Adopting as a common designation "Lumad," the Cebuano term for "indigenous," the T'boli and other non-Islamized/non-Christianized ethnic groups in Mindanao are beginning to develop a collective identity and mobilize in their common interests.


The T'boli inhabit a 1,940-sq-km (750-sq-mi) territory in southwestern Mindanao, where the coastal mountain range joins the Cotobato Cordillera at an elevation of 915 m or 3,000 ft above sea level. The region has three major lakes, Sebu, Lahit, and Siluton, which drain off through large waterfalls.

Precipitation levels are sufficient for agriculture, the driest period running from December to March.

In 2000, the total number of T'boli stood at 95,000 to 120,000. The T'boli in South Cotabato alone numbered nearly 72,000 (10.4% of the population); this was an increase over the 1978 estimate of over 60,000 T'boli. The province's largest ethnic group, the immigrant Hiligaynon/Ilongo from the Western Visayas, constituted 52.4% of the population.


Like the other indigenous languages of Mindanao (such as Maguindanaon and Maranao), the T'boli language is a language of the Southern Philippine sub-branch of the Western Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family.

It is taboo to call parents, grandparents, and parents-in-law by their name instead of the kin term; it is also improper to address uncles, aunts, or children-in-law by their name.


In the T'boli origin myth, the god D'wata warns humans of a coming deluge. La Bebe, La Lomi, T'mefeles, and La Kagef hide inside a huge bamboo. After the waters recede, the four split their way out of the bamboo. La Bebe and La Lomi married, becoming the ancestors of the Christian Filipinos. La Kagef and T'mfeles also join and go on to produce 10 sons and daughters. Of these, Bou and Umen are the ancestors of the T'boli. The other 8 form couples; their descendants are the other non-Christian peoples of Mindanao, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

The T'boli have an epic, the Todbulol, which takes women performers 16 hours to sing. Todbulol is the name of the hero (also Samgulang or Salutan) who has many beautiful, fragrant women and a magical winged horse. In addition, the T'boli tell numerous comic folktales, such as "Bong Busaw ne Tahu Logi" ("The Big Aswang [intestine-sucking demon] and the Old Woman").


The T'boli believe in a seven-level upper world inhabited by many gods, foremost of whom are the couple, Kadaw La Sambad and Bulan La Magoaw. They had seven sons and seven daughters who formed couples. Of these, S'fedat and Bong Libun could not have children. Despairing of this, S'fedat asks his wife Bong Libun to kill him; his body becomes the earth and its vegetation. D'wata, another of Kadaw La Sambad and Bulan La Magoaw's offspring, obtains the earth for his children, having agreed to give Bong Libun one of his sons in marriage. This son, however, flees; Bong Libun's children by another husband become the gods of disease. Meanwhile, Hyu We and Sedek We, children of D'wata, create humans from clay, laying them on a banana plant (from this, humans get both their fertility and mortality).

In T'boli belief, a spirit or force lives in all objects, animate and inanimate. The T'boli make offerings (including bracelets) to the spirits of rivers and forests. Parents will place a sword by sleeping to children to protect them from evil spirits. Folktales often feature talking crabs, horses, or other animals. The souls of ancestors are part of everyday reality. The various gods mediate between D'wata and humanity. Of these the most important is L'mugot M'ngay, the god of all food plants. The gods can be vindictive and greedy as well as kind and merciful. They speak to humans through the song of the l' muhën, the bird of destiny. When people violate customary norms, they must appease the relevant god by placing a pig, chicken, or goat cooked without salt on an altar where the god resides. A sick person is brought to the altar, and the water that has previously been poured over swords is collected and poured over him or her. Other than this, the T'boli have few set rituals and no religious specialists other than the elders who in general lead the community, though there are tao d'mangao, people who can act as spirit mediums.


There are no holidays as such among the T'boli. Rites of passage ceremonies and ritual celebrations serve as T'boli holidays.


Parents arrange their children's marriages as early as just after birth. Taking a child's illness as a sign that he or she needs a partner, parents will ask to borrow a bracelet or other object belonging to a child with whom they wish to match their own; they give this to their sick child. Once their child recovers, the family visits the other child's family to propose marriage. The girl's parents visit the boy's for a feast during which they settle the bride-price (gongs and horses or water buffalo). The two children are made to lie down together on a mat and are covered with a blanket. The girl's parents stay the night. A period of mutual house-visits follows before the formal ceremony. As they are already considered married, the children may sleep together, and the boy helps the girl's family with chores. If one of the partners dies, a sibling takes his or her place. A child-marriage can be dissolved by returning the bride-price; a datu (an elder who is an expert on unwritten customary law) may have to oversee disputes over the exact amount to be handed back.

When the children reach puberty (12 to 13 years of age), a final marriage ceremony is held on a bright moonlit night with no rain (rain symbolizes tears). The bride and groom dress in their own houses amid the sound of music and dancing. An old person sprinkles the bride's face, hands, and feet with water; the same is done for the groom. As soon as the bride's preparations are finished, her family sends a messenger to the groom. Then, to the playing of gongs, the groom and his party proceed to the bride's house.

With a blanket over her head, the bride sits on a cushion in the center of the house. The bride's sister or another female relative escorts the groom into the house and takes off the blanket. Careful not to touch the bride, the groom sits down next to her. The old person who sprinkled her with water before the ceremony feeds the groom, just as the one who sprinkled the groom feeds the bride; the couple give rings, bracelets, and other gifts to these old people. After this, all the assembled kin and guests eat in silence, being careful not to drop anything or sneeze, both of which constitute bad omens. After eating, the bride's kin forms a team to sing poetry (s'lingon) in praise of the bride's qualities; the groom's kin do the same for the groom. This is an opportunity to haggle over the final bride-price. After the s'lingon comes the klakak, the all-night singing of the Todbulol epic; the story enthralls the audience, and some episodes move young women to cry. At daybreak, the groom's family hands over the bride-price. The groom then lives with the bride's family for a time determined by the withering of a branch taken from the forest. Then, another wedding ceremony is held at the groom's house, where the couple stays until they buy their own house.

Important families may choose to hold mo'minum, six feasts, alternating between the bride's side and the groom's. All T'boli have the right to attend the mo'minum. The bride's side builds a special house for the hundreds of guests, while the groom's side sets up a house-like structure (tabule) for the hanging of gifts (especially antique china plates). The bride's relatives hang gift blankets from a long bamboo frame in front of the guest house. The groom's relatives carry the tabule and pass it under the wall of blankets. The celebration includes mock combat dances depicting rivalry over women. The singing of the Todbulol epic occupies the whole night. The following morning, horsefights are held, involving as many as 15 pairs of horses (the horses represent the bride's and groom's respective kin); gambling over the fights is intense.

A person's soul is believed to leave the body during sleep and reenter it upon waking. Evil spirits or divine punishment cause death, the permanent separation of the soul from the body. After a death, family members do not cry for several hours, lest the deceased's spirit return. Small children who died are wrapped in a blanket or mat and hung up high in a tree. Everyone else is put into a boat-shaped coffin made by the tau mo lungon, a person specializing in making them. Paintings on the coffin reflect the deceased's specialty, for instance, stars and moon for a poet. The deceased's personal belongings are placed in the coffin. The coffin is left open to give all the bereaved a chance to stroke the body for protection against a similar fate. The coffin of an illustrious datu is suspended over a fire; the grease that trickles out is made into a dipping sauce for sweet potatoes. Those who eat them acquire the excellent qualities of the deceased. The corpse is never left unattended in the house; those keeping vigil play games, tell riddles, and dance.

For burial, the coffin is placed in a house-like structure in a pit. The burial party returns home by a different route than they originally took to get to the burial site. Once home, to ward off evil spirits that may have followed them, they jump over two swords stuck in the ground to form an upright "X." Later, they bathe to purify themselves. All food of the deceased's is consumed, all marketable objects are sold, and the family abandons the house to build another.

The deceased's spirit returns if unhappy in the other world.


The leaders of T'boli communities are datu, elders who are consulted on the unwritten customary law and who settle intertribal disputes. A datu cannot inherit the position but earns it through winning the esteem of others (for instance, through prowess in combat). The datu decides punishment for those who violate custom, imposing fines or requiring the transgressor to do service for the offended party.

T'boli value hospitality so much that they will even kill their last hen to feed a guest. When passing a house, a person calls out; the owners of the house will invite the person to eat. T'boli exchange help with farm work. Families enter friendship pacts, the breaking of which could cause the death of family members.


For defense from enemies, such as neighboring Manobo groups, T'boli houses are built on hillcrests, with slash-and-burn fields covering the slopes below. Houses are only semipermanent because of the need to open new fields and to abandon a house upon the death of a resident. The gunu bong ("big house") resembles a roof on 2-m (6-ft) stilts. The low sloping roof of dried cogon grass overhangs the 1-m-high (3-ft high) bamboo side walls (some of which can open out to extend the floor). The interior is spacious (14 by 9 m or 45 by 30 ft) because of the needs of work (looms are long) and entertaining guests. The central space (lowo) is where guests sleep. On either side are the blaba where family members sit, work, and chat. On one end is the desyung, the place of honor, with a Muslim-style k'labu canopy at the center, decorated with piles of mats (a status symbol) and cushions. The sleeping quarters (dofil) flank the desyung, sometimes raised 1 m (3 ft) above the rest of the house. At the other end of the house is the döl, the vestibule floored not with bamboo but with heavy wooden planks. Here is the hearth, a utility area (fato kohu) along the wall, and a ladder going down to the ground. Horses are tethered under the house. For a toilet, a low bamboo perch is set up some distance from the house. T'boli bathe in rivers or lakes. Beside the gunu bong stands a granary, a similar structure though smaller.

Average family income in the SOCCSKARGEN (Southern Mindanao) region, of which the T'boli's South Cotabato province is a part, amounted to 114,000 pesos (us$2,235) in 2006, the third lowest in the country (above MIMAROPA [Mind-oro-Masbate-Romblon-Palawan] and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), cf. the national average of p173,000, the National Capital Region's p311,000, Southern Tagalog's p198,000, and those of the neighboring Davao and Northern Mindanao regions, p135,000 and p142,000, respectively.

According to the 2000 census, 15.5% of households in South Cotabato had access to a community faucet, 14.5% to a faucet of their own, 19.4% to a shared deep well, 15.2% to a shallow well, and 14.7% to a household deep well, while 16.4% obtained their water from springs, lakes, rivers, or rain. More than half of households (52.5%) disposed of their garbage by burning it and 21.4% by dumping it into a household pit; only 8.2% had it picked up by a collection truck. 38.7% of houses were lit with kerosene lamps, 57.8% with electricity, and 2.2% with firewood. 68.3% possessed a radio, 37% a television, 25.5% a refrigerator, 10.8% a VCR, 6.4% a telephone or cell phone, 13.7% a washing machine, and 10.6% a motorized vehicle.


Marriages with blood relatives up to and including second cousins are taboo. Those who can afford it may take more than one wife. A household includes from six to eight people, a nuclear family plus other relatives. There are no villages. Houses are scattered, usually an hour's walk from each other, although related families may build houses closer to each other. Weddings and funerals bring together related households who otherwise function independently.

Tao matunga, women versed in abortion techniques, assist women who fear loss of face or the pain of childbirth or who have too many children already. During pregnancy, a woman observes many taboos, including avoiding cooking as this will give the child enormous eyes. Husbands assist midwives.

The orders of a husband or father must be obeyed (but wives have the right to argue their point of view). In the past, parents sold a gravely disrespectful child to non-kin; the parent's siblings or cousins, however, were obliged to buy the child back. The eldest male child inherits the father's rights.

Grounds for divorce are sterility, incompatibility, and infidelity (a husband may kill an unfaithful wife). If the wife is at fault, her family returns the bride-price; otherwise, it is divided between the families.


At five to six years of age, girls begin to use cosmetics like older women, plucking and painting their eyebrows, using lipstick and face powder bought from non-T'boli lowlanders, and arranging their hair into the traditional coiffure with a comb stuck into it horizontally. Beautification for both sexes includes filing and blackening of teeth and tattooing. After death, the tattoos on the forearms and backs of the hands are believed to glow as guides to the dead. As an endurance game, men and boys put hot coals on their arms to make scars.

The T'boli use their traditional clothing for daily wear and not for tourist entertainment, as other groups do. Women wear a luwek, a tube sarong, and a long-sleeved, tight-fitting blouse. Blouses for manual labor are black or dark blue; otherwise, heavily embroidered blouses are worn. These may also be worn with lowlander skirts or, less commonly now, Magindanao malong (sarongs). The finest blouse is the k'gal binsiwit, which is covered with shell spangles.

A woman is not properly dressed without jewelry. These include earrings of shell or glass, necklaces, and beadwork chokers. The köwöl or bëklaw is a chain that runs from earlobe to earlobe under the chin. Women also wear massive chain-mail girdles, the finest of which include beadwork and have small hawk bells hanging along their lower edge.

Men wear olew (turbans) or conical bamboo hats. From a decorative brass belt hangs a sword that may be a long-bladed sudeng with a hardwood hilt; a kafilan, a large machete; or a 71-cm (28-in) tok with incised geometric designs. Narrow shields come to three points at either end. Women also carry knives for work and defense.


Although an elaborate vocabulary for fruits and other edible plants indicates better nutrition in the past, T'boli meals today are simple, consisting of sweet potatoes, cassava, or maize eaten with vegetables and fish or lake snails. Because of poverty, rice, meat, and eggs are prepared only for feasts or guests.

T'boli prefer dishes that are spicy (using ginger, lemon grass, and onions) as well as pungent (chili, or male, is part of every meal). Obtained from Muslim traders, salt and sugar are precious. Wines from palm sap and sugarcane are also bought from lowland traders; the T'boli do not drink to excess. Betel-nut-chewing is an integral part of meetings and gatherings.


Parents train their children through cautionary tales. Because of the region's isolation, access to formal education remains limited, though less so than in the past.
According to the 2000 census, of the population over the age of five years in South Cotabato as a whole, 41.1% had completed elementary school, 29% high school, and 8.4% college or university. 2000 literacy levels in Southern Mindanao ranged from over 95% in Davao City to 80.4% in Sarangani province; the percentage for the T'boli's rural South Cotabato province was likely closer to Sarangani's.


According to myth, the T'boli's ancestors fashioned musical instruments to imitate the sound of the souls of those who had perished in the deluge. These are the d'wegey (a vertically held bamboo violin), the hagalong (a spindle-shaped two-stringed guitar), and the kubing (Jew's harp). Other instruments are the t'nongnong (a deerskin-headed wooden drum), the agong (a large gong struck by the household head to ward off evil spirits), the k'lintang (a horizontal set of eight graduated gongs, played with two sticks), the s'loli (a 0.6-m or 2-ft bamboo flute), the s'ludoy (a bamboo zither), and the feu (a small horn). Leisure time is devoted to making music. The most popular song is "Ye Daddang," about a husband who hacks up his unfaithful wife.


Hunting with bow and spears used to be important, but now the T'boli rely more on slash-and-burn agriculture and fishing. The main crops are dry rice, maize, and sweet potatoes. Observation of the stars determines the planting schedule.


Children make music, dance, and play tag and sungka (a game using beads and a long tray with holes cut into it). Adults gamble on cards and cockfights.


See the article entitled Filipinos .


Ginton, son of the god D'wata, was the first metalworker and ranks with the gods of life, death, mountains, and forests. His gifts to humanity include the singkil (brass anklets), blonso (brass bracelets), hilöt (women's chain-mail girdles), t'sing (rings), and kafilan and tok (swords). Men are the smiths, though women often operate the capstans. Smiths recycle old gongs and car parts for metal and use no set proportions in making alloys. Swords are made of balatok, tempered steel, and are strong enough for cutting down trees. The lost-wax process is employed to make anklets, buckles, betel boxes, hawk bells, and sword hilts.

The ideal maiden is proficient in weaving. A woman uses tie-dying to make designs from memory on handlooms, which are 0.5 m by 3.5 m (1.5 ft by 12 ft). The material is of hemp fiber, and the dyes come from particular leaves and roots. The complex, repetitive, geometric patterns include abstract representations of animals (crabs, birds, frogs, a python's markings). Frogs represent rain, birds the souls of the dead, and a bangala (a man in a house) a person's life force (also used as a tattoo design).


Lowlanders with money and guns have been pushing the T'boli farther up into the hills. Because T'boli lack a notion of private property, lowlanders can easily stake legal claims to T'boli land.


Among the T'boli, men slightly (50.7%) outnumbered women. In the South Cotabato population as a whole, more women had a college undergraduate education or higher and received academic degrees than men by a substantial margin; elementary school completion, a measure likely more relevant to the T'boli themselves, was lower for girls than for boys; 53.9% of elementary school graduates were male while only 51% of the population was male.


Casal, Gabriel S. T'boli Art in Its Socio-cultural Context. Makati, Metro Manila: Filipinas Foundation, 1978. Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th edition. Dallas: Texas: SIL International, http://www.ethnologue.com (November 16, 2008).

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. "South Cotabato: One Out of Two Persons a Hiligaynon/Ilongo." http://www.census.gov.ph/data/pressrelease/2002/pr0263tx.html (November 21, 2008).

— — —. "Southern Mindanao: Ninety Percent of the Population Were Literates." http://www.census.gov.ph/data/pressrelease/2002/pr02188tx.html (November 16, 2008).

-revised by A. J. Abalahin