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Philippines, History

food gatherers, Sulu Archipelago, recent ice age, Negritos, Pleistocene Epoch

Little is known of the early human settlement of the Philippines. Scientific evidence remains inconclusive. It is generally accepted that the first significant human settlement occurred sometime during the most recent ice age, the Pleistocene Epoch. At that time sea levels were lower, creating land bridges that connected the Southeast Asian mainland to some of the present-day islands of the Malay Archipelago, south of the Philippine Islands. Historians theorize that Paleolithic hunters from the mainland may have followed herds of wild animals across these land bridges, later finding their way to the Philippine Islands.

Some of these early migrations to the Philippine Islands were made by the ancestors of the present-day people of the Aeta and Agta tribes. These people continue to be primarily hunters and food gatherers, much as their ancestors were thousands of years ago. They are one of the world’s few remaining populations of Pygmies, who are characterized by shorter-than-average height. The Spanish colonizers of the 16th century called them Negritos, a term that is still widely used today.

People of Malay descent, who now make up the majority of the population, are believed to have settled in the Philippines in several waves of migration after the 3rd century bc. Their languages developed independently because they settled in widely scattered villages, or barangay. Each barangay included from 30 to 100 families and was ruled by a datu, or chieftain. The economy was one of subsistence, with each village producing most of what it needed, and land was held in common. The villagers engaged in both shifting (slash-and-burn) and settled agriculture. Religion was animistic, or based on the worship of ancestors and other spirits, such as nature deities.

Communities in the islands eventually established trade contacts with states in East and Southeast Asia, particularly China. By the 12th century ad the powerful Sumatra-based Malay kingdom of Sri Vijaya had extended its considerable influence to the Philippines. In the 14th century traders and settlers from the Malay Peninsula and Borneo introduced Islam to the southern islands of the Sulu Archipelago. In the 15th century Islam was established on the island of Mindanao. By the 16th century the islands had several Muslim principalities, including one in the Manila area of Luzon. However, no major political entity—kingdom, sultanate, or empire—was established in the islands until the imposition of Spanish rule in the 16th century.

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