Some Historical Photos of Negrito People

Young Negrito Girl from the Philippines

There’s this weird divide between physical anthropology (which talks about what people look like,) and cultural anthropology (which talks about what they do.) When I read about what people are doing, I always want to know what they look like, especially if they’re from obscure groups I’ve never met anyone from in real life.

But when talking about people whose lifestyles have changed radically over the past hundred years or so, you run into a sharp divide between historical photos,
(depicting nearly naked hunter-gatherers in a nearly Edenic environment,) and modern photos of young women at the mall. With few exceptions, the folks Anthropologists love to study still exist–they did remain in the 1800s–even if Wikipedia contains no updated information on their modern lives.

So with that caveat, this post is devoted to historical photos of Negritos, with the emphasis on historical. Outside of the Sentinelese, who have remained independent and preserved their historical lifestyle by killing anyone who gets too close to their island, most modern Negritos no longer live like the folks depicted in these photos.

But the past is still fascinating.

The Negrito couple on the left hails from the lovely Andaman Islands (of which North Sentinel Island is part,) off the west coast of Indo-China and today part of India; the remaining Andamanese are designated a Scheduled Tribe[1] under Indian law.

To the right: Two Great Andamanese men, circa. 1875.

The Andamanese are believed to have arrived in the area around 26,000 years ago, about the time of the last glacial maximum, when lower sea levels made getting to such isolated places much easier.

Unfortunately, contact with the outside world has devastated the population, estimated at 7,000 in the late 1700s and only 400-450 today (and the Jangil are completely gone,) despite access to at least some of the modern medicines and technologies that are allowing populations to explode elsewhere.

The following photo is one of my favorites:

Perhaps this Andamanese fellow–a young man or teen, I assume–was showing off for the camera, but that is quite the leap he made in pursuit of the turtle he is spearing.

The boat (as you can see in other pictures) is quite long and can hold several fishermen (or warriors) at once.

I don’t know the purpose of the enclosure in the background; perhaps it also served to catch fish?

This fellow is not carrying about the skull of his defeated enemy, but a memento of a loved relative. According to the Handbook to Ethnographical Collections, “The dead are buried within the encampment in a sitting posture and wrapped up in leaves. The encampment is then deserted forthree months, after which the body is exhumed, and washed in the sea. Necklaces are then made of the bones, which are worn as mementoes by relations and friends, and are thought to cure pain or disease. Thus a man afflicted with toothache ties such a necklace round his face… The skull of the deceased is also worn round the neck as a mark of affection.”

Here is a jawbone worn in similar style, and a necklace made of what look like finger bones.

Their villages looked something like this village from Car Nicobar Island, with a thatched roof raised well above the ground. Here is another village, which shows how the huts could come right over the water, and a view of the inside of a large hut.

Here is a view of the outside of a large hut; this one’s sides go all the way to the ground–perhaps it belonged to a different tribe than the folks with the elevated huts.

The huts of the Jangil Negritos of the Andaman islands were completely different and look more like temporary sun-shelters than houses. (Though I note they are very similar to this double-decker storage and lounging hut.) When the weather is warm all year long, you just don’t need much in the way of house.

This young woman to the right is wearing a “tail skirt,” a piece of traditional finery that Wikimedia speculates may have led to legends of “monkey-tailed people” inhabiting the Andaman Islands.

Here is a photograph of Riala, Age 35, Andamanese-English interpreter from the Aka-Kede tribe, showing a traditional Andaman hairstyle (1890s), and here is a photo showing a traditional Andaman Negrito scarification pattern.

The Negritos of the Philippines, of course, having long inter-married with the other Filipinos, look a great deal like their neighbors.

This illustration of two pre-Hispanic Filipino Negrito warriors comes from the Boxer Codex, created around 1590. The Boxer Codex is filled with lovely illustrations of the various ethnic groups of the Philippines at the time of first contact with the Spanish, including Tagalogs, Visayans, Zambals, Cagayanes or possibly Ibanags, as well as several non-Filipino groups like Chinese and Vietnamese who had also settled there.

The Codex is (probably intentionally) also a guide to relative social class, with wealthier folks wearing far more (and colorfully dyed) clothes than than poor folks like these nearly-naked warriors.


Some 300 years later (1899), the Smithsonian published a near-recreation of the illustration, featuring two Negritos from Luzon, demonstrating their skill with the bow:

Here is another photograph of the same men plus several of their fellow tribesfolk (including three women), showing off their extremely long bows and fine hats.

Sadly, Wikimedia doesn’t seem to have any photos of Malaysian or other mainland Negritos.

For the most part, the Philippine Negritos appear to have tightly curled hair similar to the Andamanese, Papulans, and Melanesians, but some have wavy hair, more similar to the Australian Aborigines (though the effect is probably due entirely to marrying a non-Negrito neighbor.

(I note as well that the lady on the right is a bit taller than her friend on the left, which also suggests intermarriage–leaving us with a different question: Why do Aborigines have wavy hair?)

I have also met Vietnamese women with wavy hair (though perhaps not as wavy as this woman’s.) It contrasts with the extremely straight hair associated with Chinese and Japanese people, and I also wonder where it came from, though perhaps it’s just within the range of totally normal human variation.

The Negritos of Sundaland, Sahul, and the Philippines

Ati (Negrito) woman from the Philippines

The Negritos are a fascinating group of short-statured, dark-skinned, frizzy-haired peoples from southeast Asia–chiefly the Andaman Islands, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. (Spelling note: “Negritoes” is also an acceptable plural, and some sources use the Spanish Negrillos.)

Because of their appearance, they have long been associated with African peoples, especially the Pygmies. Pygmies are formally defined as any group where adult men are, on average 4’11” or less and is almost always used specifically to refer to African Pygmies; the term pygmoid is sometimes used for groups whose men average 5’1″ or below, including the Negritos. (Some of the Bushmen tribes, Bolivians, Amazonians, the remote Taron, and a variety of others may also be pygmoid, by this definition.)

However, genetic testing has long indicated that they, along with other Melanesians and Australian Aborigines, are more closely related to other east Asian peoples than any African groups. In other words, they’re part of the greater Asian race, albeit a distant branch of it.

But how distant? And are the various Negrito groups closely related to each other, or do there just happen to be a variety of short groups of people in the area, perhaps due to convergent evolution triggered by insular dwarfism?

From Wikimedia

In Discerning the origins of the Negritos, First Sundaland Peoples: deep divergence and archaic admixture, Jinam et al gathered genetic data from Filipino, Malaysian, and Andamanese Negrito populations, and compared them both to each other and other Asian, African, and European groups. (Be sure to download the supplementary materials to get all of the graphs and maps.)

They found that the Negrito groups they studied “are basal to other East and Southeast Asians,” (basal: forming the bottom layer or base. In this case, it means they split off first,) “and that they diverged from West Eurasians at least 38,000 years ago.” (West Eurasians: Caucasians, consisting of Europeans, Middle Easterners, North Africans, and people from India.) “We also found relatively high traces of Denisovan admixture in the Philippine Negritos, but not in the Malaysian and Andamanese groups.” (Denisovans are a group of extinct humans similar to Neanderthals, but we’ve yet to find many of their bones. Just as Neanderthal DNA shows up in non-Sub-Saharan-Africans, so Denisvoan shows up in Melanesians.)

Figure 1 (A) shows PC analysis of Andamanese, Malaysian, and Philippine Negritos, revealing three distinct clusters:

In the upper right-hand corner, the Aeta, Agta, Batak, and Mamanwa are Philippine Negritos. The Manobo are non-Negrito Filipinos.

In the lower right-hand corner are the Jehai, Kintak and Batek are Malaysian Negritos.

And in the upper left, we have the extremely isolated Andamanese Onge and Jarawa Negritos.

(Phil-NN and Mly-NN I believe are Filipino and Malaysian Non-Negritos.)

You can find the same chart, but flipped upside down, with Papuan and Melanesian DNA in the supplemental materials. Of the three groups, they cluster closest to the Philippine Negritos, along the same line with the Malaysians.

By excluding the Andamanese (and Kintak) Negritos, Figure 1 (B) allows a closer look at the structure of the Philippine Negritos.

The Agta, Aeta, and Batak form a horizontal “comet-like pattern,” which likely indicates admixture with non-Negrito Philipine groups like the Manobo. The Mamanawa, who hail from a different part of the Philippines, also show this comet-like patterns, but along a different axis–likely because they intermixed with the different Filipinos who lived in their area. As you can see, there’s a fair amount of overlap–several of the Manobo individuals clustered with the Mamanwa Negritos, and the Batak cluster near several non-Negrito groups (see supplemental chart S4 B)–suggesting high amounts of mixing between these groups.

ADMIXTURE analysis reveals a similar picture. The non-Negrito Filipino groups show up primarily as Orange. The Aeta, Agta, and Batak form a clear genetic cluster with each other and cline with the Orange Filipinos, with the Aeta the least admixed and Batak the most.

The white are on the chart isn’t a data error, but the unique signature of the geographically separated Mananwa, who are highly mixed with the Manobo–and the Manobo, in turn, are mixed with them.

But this alone doesn’t tell us how ancient these populations are, nor if they’re descended from one ancestral pop. For this, the authors constructed several phylogenetic trees, based on all of the data at hand and assuming from 0 – 5 admixture events. The one on the left assumes 5 events, but for clarity only shows three of them. The Denisovan DNA is fascinating and well-documented elsewhere in Melanesian populatons; that Malaysian and Philippine Negritos mixed with their neighbors is also known, supporting the choice of this tree as the most likely to be accurate.

Regardless of which you pick, all of the trees show very similar results, with the biggest difference being whether the Melanesians/Papuans split before or after the Andamanese/Malaysian Negritos.

In case you are unfamiliar with these trees, I’ll run down a quick explanation: This is a human family tree, with each split showing where one group of humans split off from the others and became an isolated group with its own unique genetic patterns. The orange and red lines mark places where formerly isolated groups met and interbred, producing children that are a mix of both. The first split in the tree, going back million of years, is between all Homo sapiens (our species) and the Denisovans, a sister species related to the Neanderthals.

All humans outside of sub-Saharan Africans have some Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors met and interbred with Neanderthals on their way Out of Africa. Melanesians, Papuans, and some Negritos also have some Denisovan DNA, because their ancestors met and made children with members of this obscure human species, but Denisovan DNA is quite rare outside these groups.

Here is a map of Denisovan DNA levels the authors found, with 4% of Papuan DNA hailing from Denisivan ancestors, and Aeta nearly as high. By contrast, the Andamanese Negritos appear to have zero Denisovan. Either the Andamanese split off before the ancestors of the Philippine Negritos and Papuans met the Denisovans, or all Denisovan DNA has been purged from their bloodlines, perhaps because it just wasn’t helpful for surviving on their islands.

Back to the Tree: The second node is where the Biaka, a group of Pygmies from the Congo Rainforest in central Africa. Pygmy lineages are among the most ancient on earth, potentially going back over 200,000 years, well before any Homo sapiens had left Africa.

The next group that splits off from the rest of humanity are the Yoruba, a single ethnic group chosen to stand in for the entirety of the Bantus. Bantus are the group that you most likely think of when you think of black Africans, because over the past three millennia they have expanded greatly and conquered most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Next we have the Out of Africa event and the split between Caucasians (here represented by the French) and the greater Asian clade, which includes Australian Aborigines, Melanesians, Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, Siberians, Inuit, and Native Americans.

The first groups to split off from the greater Asian clade (aka race) were the Andamanese and Malaysian Negritos, followed by the Papuans/Melanesians Australian Aborigines are closely related to Papuans, as Australia and Papua New Guinea were connected in a single continent (called Sahul) back during the last Ice Age. Most of Indonesia and parts of the Philippines were also connected into a single landmass, called Sunda. Sensibly, people reached Sunda before Sahul, though (Perhaps at that time the Andaman islands, to the northwest of Sumatra, were also connected or at least closer to the mainland.)

Irrespective of the exact order in which Melanesians and individual Negrito groups split off, they all split well before all of the other Asian groups in the area.

This is supported by legends told by the Filipinos themselves:

Legends, such as those involving the Ten Bornean Datus and the Binirayan Festival, tell tales about how, at the beginning of the 12th century when Indonesia and Philippines were under the rule of Indianized native kingdoms, the ancestors of the Bisaya escaped from Borneo from the persecution of Rajah Makatunaw. Led by Datu Puti and Datu Sumakwel and sailing with boats called balangays, they landed near a river called Suaragan, on the southwest coast of Panay, (the place then known as Aninipay), and bartered the land from an Ati [Negrito] headman named Polpolan and his son Marikudo for the price of a necklace and one golden salakot. The hills were left to the Atis while the plains and rivers to the Malays. This meeting is commemorated through the Ati-atihan festival.[4]

The study’s authors estimate that the Negritos split from Europeans (Caucasians) around 30-38,000 years ago, and that the Malaysian and Philippine Negritos split around
13-15,000 years ago. (This all seems a bit tentative, IMO, especially since we have physical evidence of people in the area going back much further than that, and the authors themselves admit in the discussion that their time estimate may be too short.)

The authors also note:

Both our NJ (fig. 3A) and UPGMA (supplementary fig. S10) trees show that after divergence from Europeans, the ancestral Asians subsequently split into Papuans, Negritos and East Asians, implying a one-wave colonization of Asia. … This is in contrast to the study based on whole genome sequences that suggested Australian Aboriginal/Papuan first split from European/East Asians 60 kya, and later Europeans and East Asians diverged 40 kya (Malaspinas et al. 2016). This implies a two-wave migration into Asia…

The matter is still up for debate/more study.

Negrito couple from the Andaman Islands

In conclusion: All of the Negrito groups are likely descended from a common ancestor, (rather than having evolved from separate groups that happened to develop similar body types due to exposure to similar environments,) and were among the very first inhabitants of their regions. Despite their short stature, they are more closely related to other Asian groups (like the Chinese) than to African Pygmies. Significant mixing with their neighbors, however, is quickly obscuring their ancient lineages.

I wonder if all ancient human groups were originally short, and height a recently evolved trait in some groups?

In closing, I’d like to thank Jinam et al for their hard work in writing this article and making it available to the public, their sponsors, and the unique Negrito peoples themselves for surviving so long.