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The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao
by Fay-Cooper Cole
Date: 2/6/2014

Anthropology in the Philippines has gone a long way from how it was done 100 years ago by American scholars like Fay-Cooper Cole who regarded his subjects, the indigenous peoples, with the cold, objective eye of a scientist. Now anthropology has branched out to cultural anthropology, among others, in which the anthropologist participates in the subject community’s life even as he or she observes it. In the excerpt below, Cole discusses the settling pattern of some ethnic communities in Mindanao, their cultural similarities, and why the notion that they practice cannibalism is false.

From the material now at our disposal certain general conclusions can be drawn.

A comparison of the physical measurements indicates that no group is of pure race. There are significant variations between members of different tribes, but these occur also between individuals of the same village. The average person in each group is short-headed, yet long-headed individuals are found in every tribe and variations just as great as this appear in the other measurements and observations.

We have previously noted the evidences of an aboriginal pygmy population, that has been partially absorbed by intermarriage with the later comers.1 In all the groups, except the Bila-an, the percentage of individuals showing evidences of Negrito blood increases as we go from the coasts toward the interior, until in such divisions as the Obo and Tigdapaya of the Bagobo, and the Tugauanum of the Ata, practically all the people show traces of this admixture.

In addition to the types already described there are found in each tribe individuals who in all but color might readily pass as white men. These persons freely intermarry with the rest of the population, and it is no uncommon thing to find in one family children of this sort as well as those showing Negrito characteristics or those conforming to the average type.2

The facts indicate that the tribes now found in Davao District did not reach the coasts of Mindanao at the same time, but rather that they represent several periods of migration, of which the Kulaman is the last. This tribe, which only a few generations ago seems to have been made up of seafarers, has not yet entirely adapted itself to a settled existence and it is only within the lifetime of the present generation that its members have taken seriously to agriculture.

It appears that the Bila-an once inhabited the district about Lake Buluan, but the pressure of the Moro has forced most of them from that region toward the mountains to the south and east. They have taken possession of both sides of this mountain range, except for the lower eastern slopes where they have encountered the Tagakaolo.

The other tribes probably landed on the southern or southeastern coast of the Island, from whence they have gradually moved to their present habitats.

Intermarriage between the tribes, Moro raids, warfare with the accompanying capture of slaves, and the possible influence of boat-loads of castaways, all have to be considered in dealing with the types found in Davao District. We have already seen that the physical measurements indicate a complex racial history.

After giving full credit to all these influences, however, it does not appear to the writer that such radical differences exist between the tribes as will justify us in assigning to them different ancestry or places of origin. The summarized description of the Bagobo … would, with only slight modification, apply to all the other tribes, with the exception of certain groups of the Ata in which the Negrito element is very pronounced. In brief, the various influences that have been at work on one group have influenced all the others, since their arrival on the island of Mindanao.

This conclusion is further justified by the language in which a large percent of the words in daily use are common to all the groups. Even the Bila-an dialect, which differs more from all the others than do any of those from one another, has so many words in common with the coast tongues and is so similar in structure that one of my native boys, who never before had seen a Bila-an, was able freely to carry on a conversation within a few days after his arrival in one of their most isolated settlements.

Similar as are the people and their dialects, the cultural agreements are even more noticeable. Taking the Bagobo as a starting point, we find a highly developed culture which, with a few minor changes, holds good for the tribes immediately surrounding. These in turn differ little from their neighbors, although from time to time some new forms appear. The Cibolan type of dwelling, with its raised platform at one end and box-like enclosures along the side walls, is met with until the Mandaya territory is approached, while, with little variation, the house furnishings and utensils in daily use are the same throughout the District. The same complicated method of overtying, dyeing, and weaving of hemp employed in the manufacture of women’s skirts is in use from Cateel in the north to Sarangani Bay in the south, while in the manufacture of weapons the iron worker in Cibolan differs not at all from his fellow-craftsman among the Mandaya. Here we are confronted by the objection that, so far as is known, no iron work is done by the Bila-an and Ata, but this is a condition which is encountered throughout the archipelago. In the interior of Luzon are found isolated villages, the inhabitants of which are expert workers in iron and steel, while their neighbors seem to be ignorant of the process.3 The writer holds to the opinion that iron working is an ancient art throughout the Philippine archipelago and that its use for various reasons, such as lack of material, has died out in certain sections. Brass workers are found among most of the tribes, but … there is sufficient evidence that the industry is of recent introduction, and the amount and excellence of the work done by the brass casters is governed by the nearness or remoteness of Moro settlements.

Except for the cotton garments recently adopted by the Kagan branch of the Tagakaolo, and the suits worn by the Mandaya men, the clothing seen throughout the District is very similar. A few ornaments, such as the silver rings and breast disks of the Mandaya, have only a limited distribution, but for the most part the decorations worn by the different tribes differ only in the number of beads, bells, and shell disks used in their manufacture.

In the ornamentation of their garments certain groups have specialized until the bead work of the Bagobo excels all such work found in the Philippines. The same can be said of the intricate and beautifully embroidered designs seen in the garments of the Bila-an or the oversewed fabrics of the Kulaman, while the crudely embroidered patterns of the Mandaya are wonderfully effective. Yet, despite apparent dissimilarities, there is such a likeness in many forms of ornamentation, as well as in the technique of the methods of production, that there seems to be ample proof of free borrowing, or of a common origin.

On the non-material side the similarities between the groups are even more marked. In each tribe the warriors gain distinction among their fellows, the protection of certain spirits, and the privilege of wearing red garments, by killing a certain number of persons. Except among the Kulaman, mediums much like the mabalian of the Bagobo make known the wishes of the superior beings and direct the ceremonies. The people are instructed when to plant by the spirits who place certain constellations in the skies. These are the same for all the groups, although often known by different names. The limokon warns or encourages the traveler, while certain acts of the individual, such as sneezing, are looked upon as warnings from unseen beings. Many of these beings having like attributes, although often bearing different names, are known to each group. The idea of one or more spirits dwelling in different parts of a man’s body is widespread, while the belief that the right side of the body is under the care of good influences and the left subject to the bad, is well nigh universal in the District.

In conclusion note should be made of oft repeated assertions to the effect that a part of the people of Davao District are white, and that they are also cannibals and headhunters. The first can be dismissed with the statement that so far as the writer has been able to observe or to learn from trustworthy sources, there is no justification for such a story. It can be just as positively stated that neither the Mandaya nor any other tribe here described practice cannibalism. Warriors do eat a part of the livers and hearts of men who have shown great valor, the eaters thus securing some of the good qualities of the victims. The Kulaman warriors always taste of the liver of the slain “in order to become like Mandalangan,” but they expressed the greatest disgust when it was suggested that the balance of the body might make good food.

While it is true that the Kulaman take the heads, and sometimes the arms,4 of slain foes, and that the same custom is sometimes followed by individual warriors of the other tribes, head-hunting for the sake of the trophy is not practiced here, as is the case in Northern Luzon. The skull or other portions of the body are kept only long enough to prove the murder, or until they can be mutilated by the women and children, “who thus become brave.”


1. Negrito are reported from the Samal Islands in the Gulf of Davao.

2. This will be discussed in a forthcoming publication on Physical Types. That paper will present a full series of measurements accompanied by photographs, including the Bukidnon of North Central Mindanao in which tribe this type is more frequently seen than in Davao District.

3. The process used in Northern Luzon is very similar to that employed in Southern Mindanao.

4. This is also the custom of the Bukidnon.

Source: Anthropological Series 12:2 (September 1913): 200-203

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