Agta - Orientation

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.

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