The Philippines: Ethnicity

Figure 1.--Here Igorot boys are taking mellons to market. This photograph looks to have been taken in the 1920s.

The population of the Philippines is one of the ethnically most diverse in the world. The country's ethnic history is a mater of considerable debate. Filipinos have a mixture of Negrito, Polynesian, and Mongoloid racial elements, with some admixture of Chinese, American Indian, Arab, Spanish and American elements. The Spanish term "indio" is used to describe the indigenous people of the Philippines and "mestizo" is used to describe anyone of mixed blood. There are many tribal Filipinos who are called lumad. They live in mostly mountain areas of the country like Igorot, Aeta, Mangyan, Manobo, Bagobo, Tausug, Maranaw, Badjao, Maguindanao, Samal, Yakan, Subanon, T’boli, Talaandig, Mandaya, B’laan, Tiruray, Tasaday. Despite the ethnic diversity, the Philippines through centuries of intermarriage have suceeded in creating a relativively harmonious, homgenous national culture. The principal group which has not assismilated into Filipino national life is not an ethnic minority, a religious minority--the Muslims on the southern islands.

Human Habitation

The first evidence of Human habitation is Cagayan Man (500,000-250,000-500,000 BC) and Tabon Man (30,500-11,000 BC). Anthropologists report similarities with similar fossil finds in China and Indonesia.


The nomadic Negritos appear to be the next people to reach what is now the Philippines archepeligo. They were the first still existing population to arrive. The Negrito populated scattered areas of the Philippines before the last Ice Age ended. This meant that at the time there may have been land connectiins with Asia, or at least much smaller sea distances. They appear to be related to the ancestors of the Andamanese. They are especially importnt on Luzon and Leyte.


The Negritos were followed by Malays who constitute the largest ethnic stock of the modern Philippines. They brought agriculture to the lowland Philippine. The Malays spread throughout the archipelago. They absorbed, through intermarriage, most of the existing Negrito population. Some of the Negritos resisted assimilation by moving into remote mountenous areas. As they disperse throughout the islands, the Malays developed into separate groups. This was especially pronounced in Mindanao, northern Luzon, and some of the other large islands. Modern linguistic analysis strongly suggests that most of these groups spoken a form of proto-Manobo suggesting common origins. Anthropolgists debate the origins and spread of the Malay population of Ocdania and the modern Malay Peninsula. It has long been assumed that the Malays spread from the Malayan Peninsula and spread from there to Sumatra and the Indonresian Peninsula and then to the Philippines Archepeligo. Another theory has developed in recent years, the /Mainland Theory/. [Bellwood] This theory postulates that the ancestors of modern day Filipinos (and Malays, Indonesians, and Pacific Islanders ) originally crossed the Taiwan Strait (2,000 BC). These voyagers often used balangays (boats) to cross the Bashi Channel to the Philippines. The theory uses as evidence the fact that on Taiwan and the Philippines, the peoples are divided into several small tribes, but in Malaysia and Indonesia there is a more homogenous population or large tribeal structures. The ethnic landscape of the Philippines was relatively fixed and dominated by the Malays (14th century).

Tribal Peoples

The Philippines population includes a large number of consist of indigenous tribal peoples. There are 150 indigenous ethnic groups. More than half are unique linguistic groups. The higland tribal groups tended to avoid contact with the lowlanders and Spanish colonizers, but this varies from tribe to tribe. Today the the destincttribal cultures and lngiafes are declinging. Intermarriage and incrasing cultural contact has meant that they are being increasingly assimilated. While the are a sunstantial number of tribes, the acoount for only about 3 percent of the population. The tribal peoples are not a destinct ethnic group, but shares origins with the same people who inhabited the Philippines wjen the soanisg arrived (16th century). They are cultural/linguistic group as they resisted Spanish cultural assimilation. They becane known as highlbd/mountain people as they retreated into the rugged interior of the islands that were of little interest to the Spanish. Even befire the Sonish invasion, cultural differences began to develop between the highlnd and lowland people. During the centuries of Spanish occupation, the tribal people fought to resist Spanish culture, including the Spanish language and Chrustianity and have retained their customs and traditions. The rugged teraine they ingabited made their comminities inaccessibe without aajor effort which siscouraged the Spanish. Thus there was limited contact, althiugh this varied from tribe to tribe. The major tribes include the Negrito (Luzon and Leyte), Igorot (Luzon), Mangyan (Mindoro), Palawan tribes, Panay (Ati and other Panay tribes), Negros (Ati and Panay tribes), and Mindanao (Lumad and Bajau). Many of these major tribes are collectives of small tribes which until the arrival of the Spanish did not consider themselves to be relted peoples. Relations with the Spanish were often hostile. The situation changed with arrival of the Americans who pursued an often enlightened policy with the tribal people. As aesult many such as the Igorot resisted the Japanese whn they invaded (1942). They supported guerilla groups as supported the American forces liberating the Philippines (1944-45). The Japanese withdrew into Luzon's northern and central mountain territory which was the homeland of the Igorot and resisted the Americans there until the end of the war.

Southern Chinese

Tornatras are peoples of mixed Austronesian and Southern Chinese descent.

Pre-Colonial Trade

The location of the Philippines made it a center of trade as developin maritime technology made trade possible. Traders included the Chinese (from the northwest), the Malays (from the West), and Arabs (from the south--modern Indonesia). There is evidence of trade with Persia and Indiaas well. Traders added diversity to the ethnicity of the Philippines, but the overall ethnic imprint was minor.


The Spanish mostly settled in the lowlands around Manila and Cavite. Some intermarried with the natives and the Southern Chinese. These gave rise to the Mestizo population. Other Mestizo communities appeared in Cebu, Iloilo, and Bacolod. The British and French opened the Suez Canal (1867). This had the effect of reducing the isolation of the Philippines from Europe by loweing freigh costs. A number of Europeans settled in the islands. American colonization (1898) brought more people of mostly European stock. More important than the ethnic footprint was the cultural impct of Spain and America.

Native Americans

The Spanish who had earlier colonized the America brought Native Americans with them as slave labor. We are not ebntirely sure of the size of the population, but some authors claimn that they were brought in considerable numbers. [Craig] They appear to have been brought from Mexico, members of the Nahuatl (Aztec) and Yaqui peoples as a more amenable labor group than indigenous Filipinos. Some appear to have been Spanish-Native American Mestizos. These Native Americans appear to have easily inter-married with the Malay population, especially on Luzon where many settled.


Bellwood, Peter.

Craig, Austin.


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Created: 11:15 PM 6/10/2007
Last updated: 3:27 PM 7/23/2017