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.

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Ethnic Groups of India, Pakistan, Asia, and Australia

india

Source: Haak et al., Massive Migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European langauges in Europe.

Note: There is a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. I am not trying to wade into that dispute or pass judgment on who really controls what. Also, I don’t know what distinguishes the 4 Gujarati samples, so they’re just in ABC order.

And finally, greater Asia (plus Australia):

asia

Note that I had to leave off some groups from this map that appeared on earlier maps, like most of the Caucasian ethnicities. (Note that central Siberia is not actually as badly sampled as it looks, because this is a Mercator projection which makes Siberia look bigger than it actually is. Yes, I know, I don’t like Mercator projections, either, but it’s hard to find a nice, blank map with Asia on the left and Alaska on the right, and a cylindrical projection allows me to just switch the two halves without messing up the angles of the continents.)

And we’re done!

Species of Exit: The Sentinelese, the world’s most isolated people

North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island
Map showing location of North Sentinel Island (red) relative to the rest of the Andaman Islands
Map showing location of North Sentinel Island (red) relative to the rest of the Andaman Islands
Map showing the distance between the Andaman Islands and land.
Map showing the distance between the Andaman Islands (small islands south of Myanmar) and land.

The Sentinelese appear to have split off from the rest of humanity approximately 48,500 years ago, and aside from occasional contact with other members of the Andaman islands, have remained isolated ever since.

People have occasionally landed on or near Sentinel island, but the islanders have all resisted contact, generally by shooting arrows at anyone who gets too close. Even National Geographic hasn’t got any pictures of them–when they tried to make a documentary on the island, armed with gifts, they had to retreat after the director took an arrow in the thigh. The last guys whose boat accidentally drifted onto their beach got killed and buried in shallow graves on the beach.

North Sentinel Island is technically owned by India, but India has given up trying to make peaceful contact, and it would probably look bad to just bomb the place.

So what do we know about the Sentinelese?

Obviously not a whole lot, since most of what we know of them has been observed from a distance.

The whole island is about the size of Manhattan, and probably inhabited by 40-500 people. They’re generally characterized as Negritos, a term used for the shorter than average but taller than Pygmies, dark-skinned people of the Andaman Islands and certain groups in the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. The term is only descriptive; different Negrito tribes may not be related to each other at all. (I promised I’d get around to the Negritos eventually.)

Aside from stuff that has randomly washed up on their island or was given to them by folks trying to make contact, they have only stone tools and, according to the Wikipedia, appear not to have fire.

But a little more research suggests that Wikipedia may just be wrong on this point; during the search for the lost Malaysian jetliner, smoke was observed rising from North Sentinele, which implies that the people there probably do have fire.

At any rate, we do know that they have bows and arrows, boats, and spears.

When National Geographic tried to make contact, they left a plastic toy car, coconuts, a live pig, a doll, and aluminum cookware on the beach before getting shot at. After they retreated, they observed the Sentinelese shoot and bury the pig (not eat it?) and, if the Wikipedia is accurate, shoot and bury the doll. They took the coconuts and pans; no word of the car’s fate.

In 1970, a group of Indian anthropologists that came near the island had a decidedly strange incident:

Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics… A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude… They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship…

Virtually nothing is known about the Sentinelese language, though it is speculated that it is related to the Onge language of the Andaman islands. However, attempts at using the Onge as translators have failed, as the Onge themselves cannot understand a word of Sentinelese.

A British expedition in the 1880s that got a decent look at the island claimed that, of all the nearby groups, Sentinelese culture most closely resembled Onge culture, so it is still possible that the languages are related, albeit distantly.

Since much more is known about the Onge, I’m going to speak briefly about them:

A member of the Onge collecting Honey on the Andaman Islands
Onge man collecting honey, Andaman Islands

The Onge are marked in blue on the map above; today they live chiefly on Little Andaman Island in the south, but in the past they ranged further north, closer to to the Sentinelese. Contact with the outside world has reduced their population from almost 700 people (1900) to about 100. (There may well have been >700 people before 1900, that’s just the first date I have numbers for.) Strangely, the Onge appear to be the world’s least fertile people, with 40% of couples suffering infertility. Wikipedia estimates their Net Reproductive Rate (similar to TFR, but only looks at daughters) at 0.91, which is below replacement, however, their population appears to have held steady for the past 30 years, so perhaps the problem is working itself out.

Why such infertility? The most obvious guesses (IMO) are some sort of environmental poison/effect; some sort of diseased-induced infertility, like gonorrheal scaring (please note that I have no idea if any of the Onge have ever had gonorrhea, but it is a common cause of infertility;) or a side effect of inbreeding/lack of genetic diversity following their extreme population collapse.

The article Malnutrition and high childhood mortality among the Onge tribe of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands suggests that the real cause of the low NRR is high childhood mortality due to malnutrition/insufficient food, probably due to loss of their traditional hunting/gathering grounds.

Genetically, the Onge appear to have been isolated for an extremely long time. They all share the same mitochondrial DNA, haplotype M32, which is not found anywhere outside of the Andaman Islands. (The larger umbrella-group M, to which all M-varieties belong, is one of the world’s most wide-spread lineages, emerging either shortly before the Out of Africa event, or shortly after it, but is most reliably concentrated in Asia, with several ancient lineages in India.)

The Onge language is related to the languages of some of the other tribes in the Andaman Islands, and speculated to be part of the greater Austronesian language family. (Considering that the whole Indo-European language family is about, what, 4-6,000 years old, I am a little skeptical of our ability to reconstruct too much about a language that may have diverged 40,000+ years ago.)

Onge Y-DNA belongs to Haplogroup D-M174, which emerged in Asia about 60,000 years ago and isn’t found outside of Asia. It is found today among Tibetans, the Ainu, and the Andaman Islanders, suggesting that these people are all (at least partially) descended from a common source that split off from other humans around 60,000 years ago, or just after the OoA (relatively speaking.) D-M174 is also found in small amounts in China and central/east Asia.

The Ainu, IIRC, also have a particular tooth shape that is commonly found in Melanesia, but not outside of it, and a small amount (about 15%, I think,) of Siberian DNA. And, of course, we now have evidence of Melanesian DNA showing up in the Amazon rainforest, not to mention the curious concentration of archaic Denisovan admixture in Melanesians, despite the only Denisovan remains we’ve found so far coming from Russia. However, it appears that there is no Denisovan DNA in the Andaman Islanders, so maybe they split off before the Denisovan admixture advent.

The sum of the evidence suggests a single band of people, perhaps most closely resembling the Negritos, spread 60,000 years ago along the coast of southern Asia and spread far into the interior, reaching at least as far as Tibet, the Andaman Islands, and northern Japan, and possibly even crossing the Bering Strait and down to the tip of South America. (Since Melanesians do not appear to have ever spread to Polynesia, I suspect they did not boat straight across the Pacific, but maybe we just haven’t yet found Melanesian remains in Polynesia.)

Over the ensuing millenia, later population waves, like the Polynesians and the common ancestors of east Asians like the Han and the Japanese, migrated into the area, leaving only a few isolated remnants of Haplogroup D-M174 in far-flung, difficult to reach places like the Andaman islands, the Himalayan Plateau, and the coldest parts of Japan. Likewise, Melanesian DNA in the New World seems to have best survived in one of its harshest, most difficult to penetrate habitats: the rain forest.

This all gets back to my theory of genetic survival at the fringes, (discussed here,) which I hope to devote a full post to soon. The history of the world is the group with better tech conquering the group with worse tech, and then getting conquered in turn by a group with even better tech.

The island of Taiwan illustrates this well; the most recent immigration wave happened in 1949, when the ROC lost their war with the PRC and evacuated 2 million of their people to Taiwan, a nation of 6 million at the time. Taiwan had previously (temporarily) been conquered by the Japanese, and before that, by other Chinese people, who began arriving around 1300. They’ve been gradually defeating/replacing the aboriginal Taiwanese, who are now a very small population, and the aboriginal Taiwanese themselves have legends about having wiped out a negrito-like people who predated their arrival, but I consider such legends only potentially true. Each group got conquered by the next group with better tech.

A couple more pictures of Andaman Islanders:

source Wikipedia
Onge mother and child, Wikipedia

 

source Wikipedia
Andamanese Couple, Wikipedia

Anyway, back to the Sentinelese.

The available evidence suggests that they split off from the rest of the human population ages upon ages ago, and have been effectively isolated from everyone but their immediate neighbors ever since. Though technically their island is considered part of India, as a practical matter, they govern themselves. They have managed to retain their independent status for so long by living on a tiny, hard-to-reach island and enforcing a strict immigration policy of killing anyone who shows up on their beach.

Given that the Sentinelese would probably all die of the common cold if they ever did let foreigners onto their island, their policy is not unreasonable. You wouldn’t want to let some plague-bearing foreigner kill you with their germs, either. Unfortunately, the disease situation is unlikely to reverse itself; their population is just too small to withstand contact with the outside world. Too-long isolation in such a tiny place has cut them off from all the technological progress of the past 40,000 to 60,000 years, and their population is too small to develop much tech internally. To be fair, their strategy has worked so far. But now they’re stuck, maintaining their tiny island against the odds until someone decides to show up with guns and do some logging, fishing, or whatever they feel like, at which point there’s a good chance they’ll be wiped out.

Long term, total isolation is a policy with very low survival odds.

After some thought, the best option I can think of for the Sentinelese, other than continuing as they are and hoping for the best (after all, the rest of the world could destroy itself in a nuclear holocaust and leave them behind to continue doing their thing for the next 40,000 years,) is to expand their numbers and send excess people to the other Andaman Islands. Sure, most of those people would probably get colds and die, and if not the colds, alcohol’s a likely culprit, but as long as they keep exporting people, eventually some of them will survive, and create a breeding population/intermix with the other Andamanese until they have the numbers/immunity to interact with the outside world.