Thomas N. Headland
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Four Decades Among the Agta:
Trials and Advantages of Long-Term Fieldwork With Philippine Hunter-Gatherers

Thomas N. Headland and Janet D. Headland


This paper was first presented at the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, November 20-24, 1991, in an invited symposium entitled "Theoretical and Methodological Flexibility in Long-Term Field Research," with Elizabeth Colson, George Foster, Robert Kemper, Conrad Kottak, and Richard Lee. A few revisions have been added to this version, and major additions made in 1999 appear in the text below in square brackets.


The authors here describe their many years of living with Agta Negritos in the Philippines as lay missionaries with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. The Headlands have been studying the language and culture of these rainforest hunter-gatherers since 1962, and recording the Agta's struggles as they have attempted to adjust to the thousands of colonists who have migrated into their area since the 1960s. They discuss here the degradation of the rainforest by logging and mining corporations, expanding agriculture, game decline, and new diseases. Only long-term research allowed the Headlands to understand Agta culture change, to realize that the Agta population was declining and why, and to document first-hand the surprising ways these foragers lives were changed as they struggled to survive the onslaughts of "modernization." They also review their personal challenges and advantages of raising their three children among the Agta.

Introduction: The Agta People

The Agta Negritos of the Philippines consist of eleven language groups, numbering in total about 10,000 people. They are traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers living in small temporary camps widely-scattered over several thousand square kilometers of dense rainforest in the Sierra Madre of eastern Luzon. [Today they are most definitely a post-foraging society (Headland 1998) as they changed from foragers to peasants in the 1980s (Early and Headland 1998).] The most salient activity of Agta men was hunting wild pig, deer, and monkey with bow and arrow. They trade most of the meat they catch and forest products they gather to nearby farmers in exchange for starch foods and other trade goods; and they also work as seasonal laborers for those farmers. Much of their time is spent in collecting forest products for trade: wild game, rattan, honey, tree resin, orchids, etc. Almost all of their starch foods are cultivars acquired through trade, although a minority of families cultivate small swiddens each year. The Casiguran Agta are one of the eleven Agta populations. Numbering 600 in the 1990s, they range over a 700 km2 area in northern Aurora Province in or near the municipality of Casiguran.

The two of us have spent most of our adult lives living with Agta, working as lay missionaries with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Between 1962 and 1986 we spent 18 years in the Philippines, with most of that time in Agta fieldwork. We later conducted periods of Agta fieldwork in 1992, 1994 (with John Early), 1995, and twice in 1998. Our three children were born in the Philippines and spent most of their childhood years growing up in Agta camps. As adults, all three have made several trips back to visit the Agta.

The theme of this symposium [see "Background" above] is to describe the advantages and strains of long-term fieldwork.] It seems hardly necessary to argue today that long-term fieldwork is better than short-term fieldwork. As more and more ethnographers conduct long-term research, the weaknesses of short-term fieldwork become glaringly apparent. In our case, after having read hundreds of ethnographies over a period of four decades, in 1976 we read one that was on a people we knew something about. This was Jean Peterson's (1974) doctoral dissertation on the Agta in Palanan, based on her field research there in 1969-70. We had done fieldwork in Palanan, but we lived most of the time with Casiguran Agta 90 kilometers south, and we had never met Peterson.

We were shocked. While Peterson made an important theoretical contribution to forager/farmer symbiosis (1978a, 1978b), most of her descriptions of Agta society and culture were simply wrong. For awhile we were ready to throw out anthropology as a pseudo academic discipline. Eventually, though, we recovered, published a detailed critique of Peterson's work (Headland 1978), and went on to write our own ethnography of the Agta (Headland 1986).

The main difference in our approach versus Peterson's was that her method was synchronic [disregarding the history of a people] and ours was diachronic [historical]. Synchronic ethnographies can be valuable too, of course. They just don't tell us as much. And they can lead readers astray if they imply that the people described are a "people without history" (Wolf 1982). Other differences in the two approaches was that ours was based on long-term fieldwork and full fluency in the Agta language (Headland and Headland 1974; Headland and Healey 1974), while Peterson's research was based on short-term fieldwork (15 months in Palanan), and she did not speak Agta.

Agta Diachronic Research as a Team Project

The two of us have not worked alone on this long-term Agta study. Bion Griffin of the University of Hawaii Department of Anthropology organized and directed an Agta team-research project, of which we were a part. Griffin formed this team project after his initial two-week visit to the Agta in 1972. It has continued on a small scale since then. Griffin has mentored a number of students in the Agta field, resulting from 1974 to the present in master's theses, doctoral dissertations, and many published articles on Agta by those students: Melinda Allen, Artemio Barbosa, Constance Clark, Agnes Estioko-Griffin, Janet Headland, Thomas Headland, Karen Mudar, Thomas Nickell, Jean Peterson, Warren Peterson, and Navin Rai. And scientists have been brought in from other disciplines as co-authors to assist in data analyses (Madeline Goodman, John Grove, and John Early). Griffin's son, Marcus Griffin, who lived with Agta for two years when he was age 13-14, and for two summers in his pre-teen years, recently completed his doctoral dissertation on Agta kinship (Griffin 1996).

Bion Griffin himself has done long-term fieldwork with three Agta groups, beginning in 1974 and, most recently, his field trip there in the summer of 1995. The best review of this long-term Agta research project by Griffin and his students and colleagues may be seen in his and his wife's edited book (Griffin and Estioko-Griffin 1985). [A complete bibliography of all academic publications on the Agta has also been published (Headland and Griffin 1997).]

Do Agta women hunt? Agta are most widely known by anthropologists today because of the Griffins' articles claiming that some Agta women hunt large game with bow and arrow (Estioko-Griffin and Griffin 1981, 1984; Griffin 1984; Estioko-Griffin 1985, 1986; Goodman et al. 1985). If readers have heard about the Agta, women hunters is probably what they remember. Being the skeptics that we are, we didn't believe this when the Griffins first described it in 1978, anymore than we believed Peterson's ethnography. After all, we had lived among Agta for many years by that time, and though we had seen women assist men in hunting (driving game with fire or dogs towards the men waiting in ambush), our own Casiguran Agta informants denied that Agta women ever hunted on their own.

However, in a trip through the Griffins' research area 90 kilometers north of Casiguran in April 1979, I (TNH) found Agta bands where the women did hunt pig and deer with bow and arrow. I was so skeptical of this that, after interviewing four women hunters [on different days in different camps], I asked to see the bow of the fourth woman. When I saw that she had a bow and arrows (a somewhat lighter bow than men use), I still found it hard to believe. So I asked her if she could demonstrate her skill by shooting at a nearby banana plant. She readily did this with ease, burying an arrow into the center of the trunk from 30 feet away. Her husband, who happened to be a non-Agta farmer and thus a non-hunter, also showed me a row of ten wild pig jawbones in the roof of their house, all of which, he said, were of pigs his wife had shot. By the end of this trip through this northern part of the Agta area, I was finally convinced that the Griffins were right. Here Agta women did sometimes hunt. [Griffin reported after his last field visit to this area in 1991 that because of the near-extinction of game, it is rare to see men hunting anymore, let alone women.]

Of course, long-term fieldwork hardly means that a single pair of ethnographers will uncover all that goes on in a society. Without the Griffins we probably never would have learned about Agta women hunters. We know what we know today about the Agta not just because we two lived there for so long, but because of the Griffins' well-coordinated team working together and sharing data in a multidisciplinary project, much of it sponsored by the University of Hawaii, over the last quarter century. While the Agta research project was not perfect (for example, there was never a biological anthropologist on the team, funding was limited, and archaeological study was minimal), it did benefit from participants with expertise in--besides cultural anthropology--ethnobotany (Allen), archaeology (Warren Peterson), ethnoarchaeology (Griffin), statistics (Grove), zoology (Mudar), women's studies (Goodman), linguistics (Nickell and the Headlands), and most recently demography (John Early).

A Diachronic View of Agta Culture Change

As we lived with the Agta year after year we gradually became aware of certain surprising aspects of their culture that were far different from what appeared on the surface. Our years of fieldwork with Agta allowed us to especially get a firm grasp on two major bodies of information that we could not have gotten otherwise. These are Agta acculturation and Agta population decline. While Agta acculturative change had begun in the second decade of this century, the really upsetting cultural changes came after our arrival. Colonists poured into the Casiguran area throughout our tenure, and today number 50,000, outnumbering the declining Agta population by 80 to 1, and bringing the human population density to 70 people per square kilometer. We expect this population explosion to accelerate in the early 21st century. Logging and mining companies entered the area in the 1960s; today bulldozers and logging trucks have honeycombed the whole region, virtually all of the primary old-growth forest has been cut down, new diseases have been introduced, and the Agta's primary fish and game resources have declined drastically. Major changes came when the first government road reached Casiguran in 1977.

Our years there provided us with the opportunity to monitor and to document the affects of all this on the Agta, and how they have responded as they have attempted to adjust to these fluctuating changes (Early and Headland 1998; Headland 1988). Practically every year the Agta, as a group, are doing something different. In years when the weather conditions are ideal for slash-and-burn cultivation, up to a quarter of the families will clear tiny swiddens (Headland and Headland 1988). In other years, that percentage drops to near zero. In some years, Agta adults spend up to 15% of their person-work-days (PWDs) in clearing brush in coconut groves for lowland farmers. But after the bottom dropped out of the world market price for copra in 1980, that figure dropped to 4%. In the '60s and '70s Agta men occasionally collected rattan to trade for rice from local farmers. But suddenly, when commercial rattan buyers entered the area in the early 1980s, Agta men switched to rattan collecting as their major economic pursuit. In 1983-84 men gave 33% of their PWDs to this task. And when the anti-government guerrillas carried on dissident activities in the area in the mid-'70s, many Agta men switched to working full time for the military as guides and cargo-carriers.

Our point is, it is hard enough to write a fair ethnography on a group like the Agta even after four decades of studying them. Writing a dissertation on such a group based on a short-term period of, say, one year would be of very limited value, in our view, unless it was built into a long-term multi-team project such as the Harvard Kalahari Project (Lee 1979), other such studies as those described in Foster et al. (1979), or the Agta team project described above.

A Diachronic View of Agta Population Dynamics

Perhaps the most important contribution to come out of the long-term Agta team studies, at least for those interested in the demography of so-called primitive populations, is our still-ongoing study carefully documenting the Agta population changes. From our earliest years, the two of us recorded detailed demographic information on the Agta: births, deaths, causes of deaths, marriages, and migrations. Today this information is compiled into a computerized data base of over 3,500 records of Agta individuals. This includes the 600 Casiguran Agta alive in 1992 plus all those Casiguran Agta who have died since 1950 plus in-migrant Agta. Analyses of these data have already been published (Headland 1989; Headland and Headland 1985). The new book by Early and Headland (1998) is an example of the type of work that can be done only by long-term multidisciplinary field research. To our knowledge, it is the only demographic data bank available of quantitative data collected on a hunter-gatherer population over a 40 year period.

Note: The Casiguran Agta numbered slightly over 1,000 in 1936, approximately 800 when we started living with them in 1962, 618 in 1977, and 609 in 1984. For details, see Headland (1989). A tragic setback for this population occurred in March 1987 when a measles epidemic swept through the area. In a forty-day period 29 children--20% of all Casiguran Agta aged 0 to 9--died of this disease. The figure would have been higher but for the efforts of two American missionary women with the New Tribes Mission (Iris Harrison Dalberto and Anne Kueffer Quirk), who worked full-time that month treating sick children with antibiotics and vaccinating others with measles vaccine.

Conclusion: Advantages and Trials

We were pretty idealistic, I suppose, as we started out in 1962. Young, newly married and in love, and confident that we could help the Agta. This was before the hippie movement, but some of our friends in Manila and the United States referred to us in the 1970s as "the first hippies." As it turned out, we learned more from the Agta than they did from us. We had the usual trials, culture shock experiences, lonesomeness for our families back home, and tropical illnesses. But the advantages far outweighed the trials. The Agta are a fun and delightful people to live with (most of the time). And we and our three children have a strong emotional bond with them. Of course, for anyone who loves anthropology as we do, getting to live with an exotic people like the Agta for so many years was for us the experience of a lifetime.

Raising three children among the Agta.

Our children Rachel, Steve, and Jenny, ages 36, 34 and 29 today (1999), say they wouldn't trade their upbringing for the world. They spent much of their childhood years living in a rainforest, where their playmates were Agta children and where their closest aunts and uncles to this day were our Agta neighbors. They grew up bilingual in English and Agta, and bicultural (since we made three visits totaling 73 months to the USA between 1962 and 1986). They continue today to make periodic visits back to the Agta. [Our youngest daughter, Jenny, with her husband and daughter, SIL workers, now live with the Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Rachel and Steve, both married, live near us in Dallas, Texas.]

While some may think this way of life must have been a trial for us or our children--indeed, some severely criticized us at the time for the way we were raising our children in a foreign culture--the five of us think otherwise. Growing up without electric lights, toilets, or television was not a trial for them. Instead their childhood was filled with fishing, swimming, exploring the rainforest with their Agta friends, and watching in the afternoon for hunters to return home, hopefully with fresh pig fat to roast on the coals.

There were less-rosy sides to the way our children grew up, too, of course. They suffered from the local diseases, especially malaria (all five of us), and two of our children had primary complex tuberculosis. (TB is the number one killer of Agta adults.) And they may still suffer some psychological trauma over the deaths of many Agta with whom they were close: the majority of their childhood playmates are today dead. (Agta life expectancy at birth averages only 21.5 years.)

Our children's biggest trials came, however, when we sent them to the States for college. This is not because the United States is a bad place to live (although they thought so after they got there), but because, although they look like Americans, culturally they were not. They had plenty of culture shock during their college years, some hilariously funny experiences, and some close shaves. Today they are all three happily married, adjusted to American life, and reconciled (some of the time) to living in the United States for the rest of their lives. [Actually, Jenny now lives in Africa.] But culturally, in many ways they are more Agta than American. And often to their spouses' bewilderment they still show little interest in sports, television, and the material accumulation of the goods most Westerners value.

References Cited

Early, John D., and Thomas N. Headland
1989 Population Dynamics of a Philippine Rain Forest People. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Estioko-Griffin, Agnes A.
1985 Women as Hunters: The Case of an Eastern Cagayan Agta Group. In The Agta of Northeastern Luzon: Recent Studies. P. B. Griffin and A. Estioko-Griffin, eds. Pp. 18-32. Cebu City, Philippines: San Carlos Publications.
1986 Daughters of the Forest. Natural History 95(5):36-43 (May). [Reprinted in Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, 5th Ed, 1987. Phillip Whitten and David E. Hunter, eds. pp. 234-237. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.]
Estioko-Griffin, Agnes A., and P. Bion Griffin
1981 Woman the Hunter: The Agta. In Woman the Gatherer. Frances Dahlberg, ed. Pp. 121-151. New Haven: Yale University Press.
1984 Women Hunters: The Implications for Pleistocene Prehistory and Contemporary Ethnography. In Gender, Equity, Theory and Practice in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Madeline J. Goodman, ed. pp. 61-81. Working Papers, Women's Studies Program. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
Foster, George M., Thayer Scudder, Elizabeth Colson, and Robert V. Kemper, eds.
1979 Long-Term Field Research in Social Anthropology. New York: Academic Press.
Goodman, Madeline J., P. Bion Griffin, Agnes A. Estioko-Griffin, and John S. Grove
1985 The Compatibility of Hunting and Mothering among the Agta Hunter-Gatherers of the Philippines. Sex Roles 12:1199-1209.
Griffin, Marcus B.
1996 Change and Stability: Agta Kinship In a History of Uncertainty. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 257 pp. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International [order no. 9712289].
Griffin, P. Bion
1984 Agta Forager Women in the Philippines. Cultural Survival Quarterly 8(2):21-23.
Griffin, P. Bion, and Agnes Estioko-Griffin, eds.
1985 The Agta of Northeastern Luzon: Recent Studies. Cebu City, Philippines: San Carlos Publications.
Headland, Thomas N.
1978 Cultural Ecology, Ethnicity, and the Negritos of Northeastern Luzon. A Review Article. Asian Perspectives 21:127-139.
1986 Why Foragers Do Not Become Farmers: A Historical Study of a Changing Ecosystem and Its Effect on a Negrito Hunter-Gatherer Group in the Philippines. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International [order no. 8622099].
1988 Ecosystemic Change in a Philippine Tropical Rain Forest and Its Effect on a Negrito Foraging Society. Tropical Ecology 29(2):121-135.
1989 Population Decline in a Philippine Negrito Hunter-Gatherer Society. American Journal of Human Biology 1:59-72.
1998 Hypergyny and the Future of a Philippine Negrito Post-Foraging Society. Paper presented at the 8th Int’l Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies, Osaka, Japan, October 26-30.
Headland, Thomas N., and P. Bion Griffin
1997 A Bibliography of the Agta Negritos of Eastern Luzon, Philippines. SIL Electronic Working Papers 1997-004. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics. Online. URL:
Headland, Thomas N., and Janet D. Headland
1974 A Dumagat [Agta] (Casiguran) - English Dictionary. Canberra: Department of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.
1985 A Casiguran Agta Census for the Year 1984. Microfiche. Reference No. 3mf 85-6056. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
1988 Rice Cultivation Practices in a Negrito Foraging Society in Northeastern Luzon, Philippines. International Rice research Newsletter 13(5):38.
Headland, Thomas N., and Alan Healey
1974 Grammatical Sketch of Casiguran Dumagat [Agta]. Pacific Linguistics A-43:1-54.
Howell, Nancy
1979 Demography of the Dobe !Kung. New York: Academic Press.
Lee, Richard B.
1979 Hunter-Gatherers in Process: The Kalahari Research Project, 1963-1976. In Long-Term Field Research in Social Anthropology. George M. Foster, Thayer Scudder, Elizabeth Colson, and Robert V. Kemper, eds. Pp. 303-321. New York: Academic Press.
Peterson, Jean T.
1974 An Ecological Perspective on the Economic and Social Behavior of Agta Hunter-Gatherers, Northeastern Luzon, Philippines. Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology, University of Hawaii. [Later published as Peterson 1978a.]
1978a [1974] The Ecology of Social Boundaries: Agta Foragers of the Philippines. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
1978b Hunter-Gatherer/Farmer Exchange. American Anthropologist 80:335-351.
Wolf, Eric R.
1982 Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.