The tribal spread of the Atis…

by Ronnie Hoyle

DIFFERENT tribes have formed the rich diversity of the population which currently makes up the Philippines since they first wandered down the Malaysian peninsula from Asia and across the now sunken land bridges before the end of the last real Ice Age some 10,000 years ago.

The period up to one-and-a-half million years previously was when the receding seas were sucked up to form the Polar ice caps and left dry land between mainland Asia, Sumatra, Borneo and what was eventually to become the Philippine archipelago.

The Philippine islands actually possess 35 distinctive tribes with various cultures and individual beliefs, according to anthropologists who have made the study, and the most diverse are the Negrito, who some recognize as the aboriginals – or first discoverers - of the islands, and the process of colonization by these nomadic people is still an ongoing phenomenon in some parts of the country.

Land levels 20,000 years ago

The various tribes were left behind, isolated on the newly-formed islands, when the Ice Age ended and the Polar ice caps melted, returning the seas to their former level, which then became more than 30 meters higher, sinking much of the land which had been exposed for thousands of years.

With tribal names of Ata, Aeta, Agta, Ati, Ating, Eta, Ita and Dumaget (all meaning ‘little black people’ from the Visayan (itom and nigro) and the Tagalog (itim) and their description (negro) by the Spanish) the most wide-ranging are the Ati…and they are ones who still seem to be spreading further in the Visayan region.

Mostly short (under 1.5 meters), dark-skinned, flat-nosed and with kinky hair, the Negritos were left stranded at the time that the seas returned and now their descendants occupy portions of land from the northern tip of Luzon as far south as the island of Negros itself, which was named after the tribe by Spanish conquerors with the city of Dumaguete also named after one of their tribes.

Traditionally roving like the Sea Gypsies, but tending to occupy more mountainous country than the coastal lowland tribes, the majority are based in the wilder regions of Panay and Negros, although they also spread across parts of Samar and Leyte. In the last few decades, however, they have also settled into the southern portion of Bohol from Negros and Panay.

In January each year on Panay, at Kalibo, the Ati are responsible for organising what is probably the most famous of fiestas in the country, the Ati-Atihan, and many of the Atis living in Barangay Calvario at Loay on Bohol originally came from the region. Stories have it that they followed one of their elders when he fell in love with Bohol some 25 years ago and decided to migrate.

Now living quietly way off the regular tourists’ beaten track, mostly on the banks of the Loboc River in lean-to nipa-thatch buildings, they are mainly hunters, gatherers and fishermen – just as their predecessors were – and are skilled at using hooks, nets, traps and spears in their quest for food.

Although the younger generation is slowly being absorbed into the jeans and t-shirt culture of today, they still prefer to live in small self-sufficient bands of up to 20 families, usually with a common ancestor, and keep interaction with outsiders to a minimum. Despite this, they are also proud of their traditional dress which is worn on festive occasions, and have a tribal house for visitors who want to stay for a short time.

Controlled by the tribal chieftain who exerts judicial power, the elders of the clan normally arrange courtship and marriage, although this is being resisted by many young people today.

The quest of the elders – the tribal leaders who try to provide peace and order within the band - to maintain their ancestral culture clashes with the desire of the younger generation to modernize: even their traditional simplistic animistic belief in good and evil spirits (spirits of the sea, river, land, mountain, sky) and the intrusion into their lives by Christianity have split and confused their society in recent years with one part of the population moving away on their own.

Attempts at trying to be a living museum for their elders, but modernizing at the same time to try and cope with demands to update and become eco-tourist friendly, appear to have failed, even if they have resisted the temptation of bringing electricity and other conveniences to their village, says sociology teacher Eugene Enhog who is studying the situation at the University of Bohol.

Even their own language is fast fading among young people but they can become insulted if pidgin or childlike language is used in Visayan, Tagalog or English.

More information about the Bohol tribe and arrangements for trips to their riverbank location can be found from the sociology department at the university in Tagbilaran on and from tour guide coordinator Leo Udtohan on e-mail: