Casiguran Agta / Casiguran Dumagat
by Jesus T. Peralta
The Negrito group recognized in literature as Agta, otherwise locally known as Dumagat, can be found along the Pacific coast of the province of Aurora. They inhabit seven hundred square kilometers of dense forest on the eastern flank of the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Luzon, especially in the municipality of Casiguran. They spread over the ridge to the western flank then to the adjoining province of Nueva Vizcaya. They are one of the over thirty-three identified groups of Negrito distributed allover the country and one of the sixteen known Agta groups in northeastern Luzon.
The Negrito are one of the oldest people to populate the various islands of the Philippines. They are said to have arrived in the archipelago between 30,000 to 20,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial period when the sea level started to rise. They were thought to have moved overland and island-hopped, coming from the southwest of the Philippines from the direction of the Indian Ocean. Only two other groups may have come before them in these islands, the first being the Paleolithic Age men of Cagayan Valley in northern Luzon who are dated to have been present as early as 9 million years ago, and the Mamanwa of northeastern Mindanao estimated to have been present in the Lake Mainit area of Agusan del Norte at about 60,000 to 50,000 years ago. Thought earlier as another Negrito group, the Mamanwa were later to be identified as a distinct Proto-Malay population.
There were two Negrito population movements from the southwest. One movement went northwards at the western side of the country along the island of Palawan, Panay, though the Zambales mountains, and hence to Abra and the northern tip of the Cordilleras. The other movement followed the northern coast of Mindanao and hence to the eastern side of the country then turned northwards. This movement now represent the sixteen Negrito groups on the Pacific side of the Philippines, including those in the Bicol Peninsula, the eastern flanks of the Sierra Madre and the narrow coasts, then upward to the northern extensions of the Sierra Madre mountains. The Casiguran Agta were part of this movement.
An Intimacy With Nature
The people are long drawn from a traditionally highly mobile population, not only through the long years of prehistory, but also by the nature of their culture. In the past, their subsistence was based on food-gathering, hunting, and incipient cultivation. This lifestyle molded the way by which their society organized themselves, creating the least impact on their physical environment and, in fact enhancing its recuperative propensities. It is a lifestyle that fits in the many ways nature carries on with all form o f life, a symbiotic relationship with those that participate in a systemic cycle. They forage in the fringes of the forests where the diversity of plant and animal life is the most varied. Their knowledge of the inventory of flora is so intimate that they will know-as they go through a patch of woodland-what shoots, leaves, flowers, roots are edible. They are known to pluck leaves, stems, and shoots as they walk, crushing these between their fingers, smelling, tasting the pulp to determine whether these are any good. In a glance they can and will identify plants, trees, weeds by name together with the information about what they are for, what their characteristics and qualities are.
Their knowledge about animal life is just as intimate. It has been said that by smelling the recent tracks of a snake, they will be able to tell the species of the reptile. They know where animals and birds are to be found at specific times of the year, and on which species of plants and trees. The rivers and the many mountain streams are reliable sources of protein: shrimps and crayfish beneath rocks, shellfish in the sand of silt, all obtained easily with their bare hands or sometimes even by children at play. This knowledge is born of a long tradition of intimacy with nature, perpetuated by practice through many generations. Through these hundreds of years of relating with nature, they have not created such an impact that could degrade the environment. They remain in perfect balance, and like every other living creature obtain only as much as they need in a day.
Although food foraging constitutes their most efficient mode for their daily sustenance, high prestige hunting, although relatively low yielding, is associated with them. Of all the peoples of the Philippines, they are known to be the most proficient in the use of bow and arrows. There are countless varieties of prey, the largest of which are deer, wild pig, and monkey.
Among the Pinatubo Negrito there are at least sixty named varieties of arrowheads employed for specific hunting purposes. The bows are made from the trunk of the palma brava about two meters or so in length and strung with strips of bamboo or bark. When a flat string is used, the arrows are not notched, but when bark strings are used the arrows are notched. The meter-long arrows shafts are made of straight reeds, tri-fletched with feathers, and provided with bamboo or metal heads of many shapes. There are overly long three-pronged arrows for birds or fish. There are harpoon-like arrows with single pronged heads lashed onto the shaft with a short cord that detach and get entangled in the brush as the game tries to escape. Game is also obtained by running them down with dogs and spears. They also use more efficient traps like pitfalls across game trails or spear-spring traps. Catching game by driving them into nets is rarely resorted to since there are just not enough people to constitute a drive. Hunting is more often than not an activity undertaken only by men and youths. Quite rarely, some women also have gone on hunting forays by themselves.
To Dwell Or Not To Dwell
The mode of life implies mobility since subsistence relies on the availability of food in the immediate place of habitation. They have been described as mobile; that is to say they continually wander around without permanent homes. Their basic early living structures are lean-tos erected near water sources like a bank, near mountain streams or beaches. These are no more than a ridgepole across two posts made of saplings, leaning against one side of which is makeshift roofing made of overlapping broad leaves, or grass that are available. The direction of open side is shifted depending on where the sun shines. The interior of the lean-to can be bare ground, or lined with plant material, or slats of bamboo. In front of the opening will be a fireplace, for cooking, warmth during cold nights, or protection against numerous forest insects and pests. Only the barest essentials of life are in the lean-to: the hunting tools, knife or two, bamboo tube containers, occasional bark cloth, cooking paraphernalia, some cooked food like tubers, and little else.
When the place becomes too littered and infested with flies and other insects, they shift dwellings to a more acceptable place within the general area. Major movements, however, are prompted by the availability of food resources. When they have depleted the plant and animal food in the area such that cost-benefit of food foraging is no longer viable, they move. They either leave the lean-to entirely, or bring with them the most essential poles, since it is easy enough to obtain building materials where they will next live. The movement is usually to a previously known area, which has lain fallow for a long time and which now they know would have regenerated food resources. They will select habitable areas influenced by certain beliefs. For instance, they will not select a place with pitcher plants since these are omens of death. Through an annual cycle, the movement is a roughly patterned circle, moving from one place to another previously occupied area. Only during occasion of drastic change do they enter an unknown area of the forest in order to live there.
Patterns Of Movement
While they are highly mobile, their movement is not aimless and without pattern. In fact, any time through an annual cycle their general location can be predictable. The key to finding them is to know also the cycles that nature undergoes. For instance, they will move to the vicinities of trees, like the balite, when they are know to be already bearing fruits since this is where birds they can hunt will congregate. Wild pigs and deer too will browse below these trees for the fallen fruits. Occasionally, they will converge on open tidal areas to gather shellfish especially during the hot months, or go deeper into the protection of the trees when tropical typhoons are blowing. All through these, they maintain what can be called "frequentation stations" that are familiar even to outsiders.
The basic lean-to houses a nuclear family composed usually of a father, a mother and children of young age, and perhaps a grandparent. Fissioning takes place when older children form their own families. But it is rare that a family lives alone. Present in an area usually is a band composed of a few related families forming a small community of lean-tos. Called a bertan in some areas, this band operates and moves socially as a unit. The organizational links are sanguinal and affinal. Although it is an egalitarian society, there are recognized elders whose opinions and decision are respected. The decision to move to another area, for instance, depends on consensus-formed discussion and consideration of elderly opinions. No single family moves without the rest of the band as f the band itself is the basic social unit.
Traditional custom vests leadership on an elder of the group who acts as judge, kaksolan/ kaksaan together with other elders. The position is often inherited. He promulgates decisions arrived at consensually by the group. He acts as judge, intervenes in social relationships, and decides on guilt and modes of punishment. The consensus process ensures the legitimacy of decisions. A decision, once promulgated, is to be respected by all the members of the group.
Ornamenting The Body
The dress is very basic: loin covering for men and short skirts for women, and traditionally made of bark. These are at times decorated with vegetable colored prints at the fringes.
There is ornamentation made of plant materials, often dyed in earth colors. Bracelets, girdles, necklaces of vines or of occasional copper or bronze are known, as well as wooden earplugs fronted with engraved mother of pearl.
Body scarification was often practiced for other than mere ornamentation. It is resorted to also in the belief that it protects the person from various forms of diseases. Patterned wounds are incised on the skin of arms, back, chest, abdomen, legs, and hands, even calves. These are then irritated by ash, lime, fire and others to produce keloids or raise fibrous tissues that produce designs on the skin. Teeth chipping or filing, as well as blackening are also done, since sharp and black teeth are considered human features. Young children go about naked.