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The Aetas (also called Agtas) of the mountainous part of northern Luzon, Philipines belong to the “Negrito” group of people that was believed to be the first to inhabit the country when the land bridges in Asia still exist. In terms of physical features, the Aetas are dark skinned; short in stature and with a curly hair and dark round eyes.
Compared to other indigenous people groups in Luzon, like the headhunting tribes of the Ilongots, the Aetas are docile. They originally lived as foragers moving from one place to another in search for food. While the Aetas are highly skilled in the use of the spear and the bow and arrow, they use it mainly for hunting games and rarely for warfare.
If chronology would be the sole basis, then it could be said that Aeta archery was the original Filipino martial art.
Junior Soria, a 23-year old Aeta man I interviewed narrated that the skill in the use of the bow and arrow is something that is part and parcel of an Aeta child’s education. Hailing from the mountains of Zambales, Soria himself learned the skill from his grandfather and describes his ability to use the weapon as second nature. He declared that it is now their turn to pass the skill to the younger generation.
Soria said that their typical target practice with a bow and arrow starts at a distance of 10-meters then gradually progressed to 15-meters as the skill of the archer improves. Soria related that they usually shoot at banana trees during practice. The soft exterior of the banana tree allowed them to extract the arrow easily and also prevents rapid wear-and-tear of the arrowhead from repeated use.
The Aeta man revealed the materials they used to make a bow and arrow. He said that Aeta bows, which in archery jargon are classified as a straight-limb bow, were commonly made of thin planks from the core of the anahaw palm tree (The anahaw palm tree is the same source of the bahi fighting stick). They used “baging” [wild vines] from the jungle for the string of the bow, a reed called “uyong” for the shaft of the arrow and feathers of wild birds for the fletching. Because of its abundance in the lowlands, common nails were just hammered flat and filed into shape to make arrowheads.
I’ve seen a wide variety of arrows used by the Aetas of Zambales – some have simple points while others have elaborately barbed points. I even saw a three-pronged arrow used for shooting certain kinds of birds. Soria pointed out that it is essential to know what kind of arrow would bring down a certain animal. He said that most games go down with one arrow while certain kinds require another shot.
I’ve have witnessed Aeta archers shoot their arrows at a target, reload another arrow while running and shoot again with impressive accuracy.
Aeta elder Pepito Tanglao
Aeta archers aiming at a target
While highly skilled at shooting animals, they would rarely use their weapons against a fellow human being. The Aetas’ pacifist nature was evident in some of their techniques in the use of the bow and arrow. Pepito Tanglao, an older Aeta man, demonstrated to me a method of pulling the string of the bow and releasing it without an arrow, a move, which he emphasized, is just meant to scare an enemy.
Soria narrated that they perform a special ritual before they go hunting. This may consists of a dance and prayer offered to Apo Namalyari, the deity of Mt. Pinatubo volcano. A hunting expedition usually lasts three days. Aetas commonly hunt for wild boars, deer and certain wild birds. Traditionally, they barter these goods with the products of the lowlanders.
An Aeta dance
While I mentioned the docile characteristic of the Aetas at the beginning of this article, these indigenous peoples indeed engaged in warfare in certain phases of Philippine history. A number of historical works significantly mentioned the role of the Aetas in the fight against the Japanese in Luzon during World War II. One book, “On A Mountainside: The 155th Provisional Guerrilla Battalion Against the Japanese on Luzon,” by Malcolm Decker, describes how the Negritos of Luzon helped the American forces in driving out the invaders. The book was based on the accounts of Malcolm’s father Doyle who had served as an American soldier in the Philippines during the war.
On the heroic exploits of the Aetas during the Japanese occupation, Filipino writer Ramon de Jesus penned the following words in “World War II in Zambales:” “Only seven Japanese soldiers escaped from the attack. A few days after the massacre, a Japanese punitive force was sent to avenge the death of their comrades. When the Japanese force was passing through Poonbato on its way to Sitio Villar, Negrito guerrillas killed 30 of the Japanese soldiers with their bows and arrows.” De Jesus, in the same work also narrated how Aeta archers served as lookouts in various gatherings of the resistance forces during the war, it reads. “Negrito bowmen led by Pam Melicia provided security during these delicate meetings.”