The Batak tribe

The Batak tribe is one of the seventy indigenous peoples in the Philippines and they are considered as one of the oldest tribes in the Philippines. The Batak are small in stature, have a dark skin colour and curly hair.


  • The history of the Batak tribe
  • The culture of the Batak tribe
  • The future of the Batak tribe

The history of the Batak tribe

The history of the Batak tribe is difficult to determine because the Batak have no written history. A high percentage of the Batak are illiterate. Chinese history shows that there is possible trade since five hundred years after Christ, between Chinese merchants and members of the Batak tribe.

There are several theories about the origin of the Batak. It is generally assumed that they are the descendants of the Negritos. Negrito is a Spanish diminutive of Negro and means small dark person. Spanish explorers called them Negrito because they thought the Negritos were from Africa. The Negritos come from Southeast Asia, Australia and New Guinea to the Persian Gulf. DNA research has shown that, although they exhibit outward similarities with the pygmies from Africa, they are not particularly related. It is thought that the Negritos are descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia and Melanesia, where they among other things belonged to the Aborigines of Australia.

  • Theory 1: 220 years after the beginning of the Christian era, a troubled period began in southern China that would surely keep forty years. The Han Chinese conquered many areas and many aborigines ran from the violence. Southern China was inhabited by, among others, Negritos. These small dark people spread over various islands in Southeast Asia. There also came to attend a group in Luzon that would come to be known as the Aeta. Anthropologists suggest that the Batak are closely related to the Aetas from Central Luzon.
  • Theory 2: One suspects that Borneo was once connected to Palawan by a land bridge. This theory states that the Batak, along with other tribes emigrated from Sabah. The Batak tribe bears a resemblance to strains from Malaysia including the Semang and Sakai strains.
  • Legend: In addition to these two theories, there is also a legend has arisen as to how the Batak strain came into existence.
    Four sons were in the family home where their mother was sleeping at that time. The eldest son lifted the mother’s skirt up and laughed at his naked mother. The second oldest son did the same but was laughing harder. The third son avoided the laughter and the youngest son covered his mother with a blanket. At that time the father came in and told his four sons that this was a test. The oldest son got a stick from his father to make of bark clothes. The second son was old cloth and the third son a new cloth. The fourth son got a piece of iron. The Batak were descended from the eldest son, the Tagbanua of the second son, the wealthy Muslim merchants (Moro), the third son and the Spanish of the fourth son.

The Cuyunons gave the word “Batak” to the tribe. Batak means “people of the mountains.” The Batak are centuries old semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in river valleys along a 50 kilometre coastline northeast of Puerto Princesa. The Batak lived off the land and saw so in their daily necessities. In the twentieth century, more and more immigrants, mostly from Luzon, chose Palawan to build a new life. These migrants claim land they needed for farming. The Batak people are quiet, helpful and shy. Instead of coming into conflict with the new people the Batak chose for prevention of a possible conflict. This resulted in the abandonment of their land near the coast and migration into the jungle towards the higher parts of northern Palawan. This makes their life a lot harder because in the higher areas it is harder to obtain food.

Previously, the Batak walked around naked and the men wore bark around their waist. Today, women wear skirts and the men prefer to walk in shorts.

Currently, the Batak are the smallest tribe in Palawan. According to research, the number of tribal members has fallen from six hundred in 1900 to around three hundred now.

The culture of the Batak tribe

The Batak community consists out of three social groups:

  • The family
    A family lives with other families in a settlement.
  • The band
    Multiple families form a band. This band is traditionally led by a leader. This leader is called ‘Kapitan” and is chosen by other elderly members based upon their strength, leadership capabilities and the skill of hunting.
  • The settlement
    Every settlement has a ‘masikampo’. This is chosen by the group of elders and makes sure there is social control and justice.

The Batak are peaceful. When a Batak becomes embroiled in a conflict he will avoid the conflict by running away. Contact with outsiders is avoided as much as possible. This worked a lot better in the past than now because the Batak need outsiders for their daily necessities. The Batak are shy and introvert. Adults are usually silent, even if they are together in a group. The children have a carefree life and enjoy playing different games.

The life of the Batak is very relaxed and carefree. The children of the Batak can greatly enjoy playing with balls and sticks. The women keep an eye on the kids while they play. One can often see the residents repair their hut, make spears for hunting or women doing the laundry. In contrast to the inhabitants of the city, their lifestyle is easier and without the pressure of life in the city.


Originally polygamy was the basis of society and made the strongest man in the community posterity by different women. Because adult men and women were looking for a partner picked out within the family but their partner in a neighbouring settlement, genetic defects are minimized.

With the advent of the Christians, monogamy was introduced within the Batak tribe. Many women were against it and thought it was a shame. From childhood, Batak women learn to have children with the biggest and strongest man. A big strong man can hunt better and thus increase the chance of a better future for posterity.

By monogamy men also had a chance to offspring who previously may not have had. It also became more difficult to prevent a family together would produce offspring because the choice within the Batak community is not so big. Therefore, much Batak went looking for a partner in neighbouring communities. Because of this there are now also marriages between a Batak with someone from another culture, making it difficult nowadays to speak of a pure Batak genetically.

Monogamy also had an advantage. Because providing daily subsistence for the Batak became increasingly heavier, it was not practical for a man to take care of several women and children.

More and more women now choose to have a child outside the Batak tribe because that increases the chances for the survival of the child. Officially a Batak woman gets her first child when she was eighteen but often the first child was born whenever she can get pregnant.

Due to limited methods to earn money and a high rate of depopulation, the Batak rather not marry within their own tribe and resort to marry someone from the neighbouring tribal communities. Their children follow the same rules. It is therefore difficult to obtain a pure Batak today.

Many women work and help men by participating in various activities. If the women do not work, they do housework and prepare the food. Often there is a woman who feeds the children of several families if they are working.

Batak women generally marry as soon as they can bear a child. Although the leaders lie about this fact and tell tourists that eighteen is the age of marriage.


Women make drums out of hollowed trees and there is dancing to the music. There is also a lot of handcrafted products from rattan.


The Batak believe an animistic belief. Batak believe that ghosts exist in animals, plants, stones and natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning. These spirits can be good and bad. There are two main spirits in faith:

  • Paneyon
    This spirit keeps an eye on people and remains kind until natural resources get misused
  • Diwata
    These are kind spirits and you can compare them to fairies.

The Babaylan, a shaman, maintains contact between the spirits and is also a traditional healer.

In the time that many Batak had to give up their place and relocated there have been missionaries to higher parts they have helped in this difficult and arduous period. These missionaries have learned the Batak English and Tagalog and are spreading the Christian faith. As a result, many Batak converted to Christianity.

When a person dies, the whole village is moved in a settlement. Often the hut of the deceased is burned.


The Batak speak Binatak. Binatak is an ancient language belonging to the Austronesian languages. Through contact with other tribes there are many loan words added to the language including Tagbanua, Tagalog, Spanish and English. Although almost all Batak are illiterate, yet they all speak Filipino.


Be a tourist acquainted with the Batak. You can then get acquainted with the lifestyle of the Batak. You get an impression of manners and habits in dealing with others. Also you get an impression of the faith and of course you will act as a source of income.

The Batak community lives in the jungle in the northern part of the island of Palawan. You can go on an organized tour led by an expert guide. After having driven a while followed by a walk through the beautiful nature. You come along beautiful streams of which some must be crossed. The sound of the water, the chirping of birds and the wind blowing through the trees gives it a special feel.

Once you notice that you will be welcomed by some tribesmen while others seem to ignore you and continue their work. Because not many tourists go to the village, it is still quite authentic and not yet touristic. It is allowed to bring a gift but choose very carefully. Usually sugar, coffee, milk, pasta, rice and biscuits are taken.

You often recognize the chieftain by his grey hairs. The leader is usually old, brittle and looks weak and fatigued. Besides the chief, you often get a lot of kids along with mothers aged twenty to thirty. Many men are at work. Ask permission first before you begin taking pictures.


In the past, the Batak could well meet their daily needs. There was enough food in the river valleys. Only when they were displaced from their land, the problems started. Today, their diet consists of rice they grow or buy themselves. Also, native plants are eaten, including cassava. They hunt wild boar and squirrel. Some Batak choose a meal that is prepared by an NGO.

Due to the deteriorating living conditions there is a lot of malnutrition within the Batak community.


The Batak already had trade relations with Chinese business people back to five hundred AD. The Batak were adept at that time in a form of agriculture that is now banned by the government. The Batak cut down a forest and burned everything so there remained a fertile piece of land suitable for growing crops. With the current legislation, this way of farming is no longer permitted in Palawan. Because the Batak are drawn to the higher parts the ground is less fertile than in the lower parts. The country’s yield was no longer sufficient to provide the necessities of life while money had to be earned.

Today, a Batak family spends about five thousand pesos a month. Men earn money by searching the forest for rattan wood, Almaciga juice and honey. Women earn money by manufacturing (flower) pots, jewellery and hand-weaving products. These products are beautifully made, but there are often not enough buyers to buy these products. Today, tourism has also become an important source of income.

The future of the Batak tribe

The Batak have a difficult life which shows a less bright future. This is due to different factors:

  • Outside world
    The government has declared their forests as protect area. This allows the Batak to no longer be able to live as they would like to. Reaching the forests can be increasingly difficult so that they cannot hunt well. They also face competition from companies that are looking to get the natural resources of Palawan.
  • Culture
    The traditional way of life is threatened. The tribesmen slowly lose their identity. The original way of life and the uniqueness of this tribe are in danger of disappearing due to the fading traditions and it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue living in the old way. Because Batak increasingly choose to marry someone outside the Batak tribe, they in danger of disappearing.
  • Facilities
    The Batak have little or no access to schools and hospitals. There is hardly good farmland available.
  • Area
    Batak currently live in a remote area where there are few facilities to help them survive.
  • Faith
    As more and more Batak adhere to a Christian faith this leads to conflicts with the Batak who lead a traditional way of life. There is a particular dissatisfaction with the different leadership methods.
  • Health problems
    The Batak experience many health problems. Diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and measles are common. In the elderly, lung problems including infections, shortness of breath and coughing are also common. Malnutrition is a major problem as well as a high infant mortality. This is for a large part because of the non-availability of facilities during childbirth. Research has found that of the eight children born, six will die. Another problem is that the shaman still determines the policy on health and only as a last resort they use Western medicine. For example, a woman Balingasag after Balat after childbirth to reduce bleeding so no sutures are required under the shaman.