Thomas N. Headland
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A Historical Study of a Changing Ecosystem and its Effect on a Negrito Hunter-Gatherer Group in the Philippines

Headland, Thomas Neil, Ph.D.
University of Hawaii, 1986

A Publication of University Microfilms International
Order No. 8622099
735 pp. Chairman: P. Bion Griffin

Reprinted from
Volume 47, Number 6, 1986


The Casiguran Agta, a Philippine Negrito hunter-gatherer society, are today [1986] undergoing traumatic socioeconomic change as a result of game decline and intrusion by outsiders. These hunters have reached a point where they can no longer live by hunting, and are thus modifying their traditional economic strategy in an effort to survive.

The present study, based on 13 years of field work among the Agta between 1962 and 1984, attempts to describe this change and to test how well the Agta are adapting to it. The two basic questions of the study are, What are these Agta doing for a living in the 1980s, and Why do they resist taking up agriculture as an alternative way of life, in spite of repeated government efforts to encourage them to do so. Special attention is given to finding out why this population has declined over the last 50 years.

The study is based on theories developed in cultural ecology. Three ecological concepts are used as heuristic devices for explaining the present-day Agta culture and for showing why thev are not successful at agriculture. A model is proposed here for explaining most of today's foraging societies as belonging to a single, unique basic production type, called here "commercial hunter-gatherers." Theoretical arguments are developed for explaining why this type has persisted into the late twentieth century. The data used for testing the hypotheses are heavily quantitative, and include a time allocation study, hunting success rates, input/output analyses of swidden cultivation activities and of the gathering of forest products, and a breakdown of food types consumed. An analysis of the population's vital statistics is also presented, based on the data of Agta demographic events recorded over a 20 year period.

The study shows the Agta to be living in a degraded environment suffering from deculturation, alcoholism, nutritional stress, and an extremely high death rate. If human populations were to be put on the list of "endangered species," this group would appear near the top. The data show that the Agta did little hunting in 1983-84, while at the same time only 24 percent of the men did any cultivation during the same period, producing enough rice to feed the population for only 15 days. Instead, these people are moving into a [peasant] niche manifested by casual labor for immigrants. Evidence is provided showing that a main reason they avoid farming is because the dominant lowland population hinders any attempts Agta make to change from patron-client servanthood to independent agriculture.