Tagbanua tribe

The members of the Tagbanua tribe, also known as the Tagbanwa, belong to the oldest inhabitants of the island of Palawan and the surrounding islands. Researchers have shown that Tagbanua people are probably descendants of the Tabon people, who lived in the Tabon cave thousands of years ago. The Tagbanuas inhabit mostly the northern areas and the central part of Palawan. The total amount of tribe members is drastically decreasing lately. In 1987 it still had 129.691 members, but nowadays there are only about ten thousand left. One fifth of them lives in the Calamian archipelago.


  • The history of the Tagbanua tribe
  • The culture of the Tagbanua tribe

The history of the Tagbanua tribe

The history of the Tagbanua tribe can be divided into several periods. Because the Tagbanua have no written history, we know this mainly through writings from other cultures. About the beginnings of the Tagbanuas, little is known. They are first mentioned by traders from Indonesia. Here the Tagbanuas were introduced to Hinduism. The period then describes a trading relationship with the Sultanate of Brunei. The Tagbanuas are also introduced to the Muslims of Sulu and Mindanao. This included the pirates who infested the Sulu Sea. Especially the east coast of Palawan was faced with raids of these pirates that caused the people to move away from the coast.

With the dawn of the Spanish period, we have learned more about the Tagbanua tribe. When the Spanish explorer Magellan arrived in Palawan, his historian Antonio Pigafetta described the Tagbanua in one of his books. Therein it is described that the Tagbanuas were hunters who hunted by means of a blowpipe and thick arrows on different animals. They cultivated the land and grew crops and they used copper wire to attach fishhooks to. They were adept at making bronze jewelry, including rings and necklaces. He describes that closed friendships and agreements have been made through a blood treaty. This involved a cut in the two person’s wrist and the wounds were pressed against each other. Cockfights were also held and there was alcohol made from rice (rice wine).

In the three hundred years of Spanish rule, the Spaniards were at war with the Muslims of Sulu, Mindanao and North Borneo. This had an influence on the contact between the Muslims of the Sulu Sea and the Tagbanuas. After the Spanish period, the American period began. The Americans began a penal colony in Palawan for Filipino opponents of the US government. This place was named Iwahig. The prisoners had to work on the land. As more and more prisoners were brought, Tagbanua were dispelled because of this because more land was needed for the prisoners. The Americans gave Tagbanua a piece of land where they could live on. In 1989 the Tagbanua got rights on nearly 22,000 hectares of land and sea to the islands around Coron.

The rise of the Christian faith, the immigration of people from surrounding areas and because of political and economic interests, the number of Tagbanua people continues to decline.

The culture of the Tagbanua tribe

There are different translations for the word Tagbanua.

  • There is a translation that states that the word Tagbanua means ‘people of the world’ wherein banua translates to the world.
  • There is a translation that states that the word Tagbanua means ‘people from our place’ wherein banua means land or place.
  • There is a translation that states that the word Tagbanua means ‘people from the inland’ wherein banua means countryside or inland.

It’s said that the last translation would have come from the colonists of the island of Palawan. Because these colonists went on to populate the coastline, the Tagbanua moved further inland over time.

The Tagbanuas are divided in two subgroups based on geographical location.

  • The ‘centrally located’ Tagbanuas
    De ‘centrally located’ Tagbanuas are also called the Central Tagbanua and they live in the eastern and western coastal areas of Palawan. Especially in the areas around Puerto Princesa, Quezon and Aborlan
  • The ‘northernly located’ Tagbanuas
    The  ‘northernly located’ Tagbanuas are also called Calamian Tagbanua and they live in the Calamian archipelago. Especially on Coron island and Busuanga island you will find a lot of Tagbanua, but also in the municipality of El Nido.

Because of the settling on different places, these two subgroups have different cultures as well. The main reason for this is that the Tagbanua from the Calamian archipelago are dependent on the sea.


The Tagbanua people have brownish skin, a slim build and straight dark hair. In the past, both men and women had long hair and would give their teeth a black coloring. The Tagbanuas made various ornaments from wood such as ear plugs, combs and bracelets. Furthermore, the women made necklaces of beads and wore anklets of brass and copper.

The traditional costume of the Tagbanua was made from the bark of a tree. First, a tree had to be cut down, after which the outer layer of bark was removed from the tree. After that the inner layer was altered with a heavy object until the sheet came loose to hang from the tree. This layer was then placed in the sun to dry, after which it could be used. The men wore only a loin cloth, often in combination with a waistband made of rattan. Women’s skirts made of bark and wrapped it around their body. Then there was more contact with other cultures, the traditional clothing was supplemented with garments from other cultures. The women now wear clothes and jewelry with many colors. The men on the other hand you will still see with a g-string while working on land or at sea, fishing. Yet you see that Western clothes slowly replace the traditional clothing.

One of the traditions with the Tagbanua is the manufacture of baskets and they are very proficient in his. The baskets are used for harvesting, decorated with different designs. The baskets are made out of two colors of bamboo which makes the design very unique. They also make baskets for different purposes such as conical baskets and rice baskets.

Besides baskets, beautiful animal sculptures from wood are made as well. Often this is blackened wood. The animals have a ceremonial purpose, namely contact with spirits in various rituals. Also, there are figurines used as toys for children.

The Tagbanua people are crazy about music and they have a wide range of musical instruments they developed by themselves. These instruments are used for religious ends and during social meetings. Hereunder is a summary of a couple of instruments:

  • The aruding is a mouth harp.
  • The babarak is a nose flute.
  • The tipanu is a mouth flute.
  • The tibuldu is a citer made of bamboo (just like the Pagang).
  • The kudlung is a boat flute.
  • The gimbal is a drum made of the skin of a lizard.
  • The tiring is a bamboo stick with different holes in it where a stick will hit it.
  • The babandil is a sort of gong.

Nowadays there are also the electric guitar and a ukulele, made of coconuts.

Besides music, dancing is also very popular. Most of the dances belong to a ritual. Here are a few:

  • The aballado is a traditional dance, performed by men.
  • The andardi is a festival dance that is danced during the Pagdiwata.
  • Bugas-Bugasan. The Bugas-Bugasan dance is danced by everyone attending the pagdiwata ritual.
  • The kalindapan is danced by a female Babaylan.
  • The runsay is a traditional dance performed by the people living near the coast. This ritual dance is held once a year on the fourth day after the full moon in December and lasts from sunset until the sun rises again. This ritual takes place at the Aborlan River and aims to seek protection against epidemics.
  • The sarungkay is a healing dance performed by the Babaylan.
  • The tugatak is like the tarindak danced by villagers during a pagdiwata
  • The tamigan is danced by male warriors with a homemade shield.

Besides these traditional dances there are also different dances which imitate animals and dances to show your skill.


The Tagbanua community has three social classes. The first social class is the upper class. Leaders are chosen from this class. This class is inherited. The second social class is the middle class. These are ordinary people. From the middle class, local leaders are chosen. The third social class consists of people who are in debt and can not pay those debts off.

Marriage plays an important role within the community of Tagbanua. Tagbanua marriages within the community are often pre-arranged by the parents. After the wedding, the married couple will live with the parents of the woman or build a new house in the neighborhood. Children are very important in the life of the Tagbanuas.

Polygamy is permitted within the community but is rarely done. Divorces do occur but are discouraged when the married couple has children.


In the south of Palawan, in the municipality of Aborlan, the festival of Pagdiwata is held every year. This festival takes place in December during full moon. The festival is dedicated to showing gratitude to the gods and asking for help for the sick.


The Tagbanua people have their own language. Within the language there are three dialects:

  • Aborian Tagbanua
  • Calamian Tagbanua
  • Central Tagbanua

Besides the Tagbanua language they speak Palawan and several other dialects. Also, a large part of the community understands  Tagalog, Batak and Cuyonon.

In addition to the spoken language the Tagbanuas also use an alphabet based on the Kawi script originating from Bali, Java and Sumatra.


The Tagbanua hang follow an animistic religion with a complex mythology related to gods and other divine beings. Below are the four most important gods.

  • Mangindusa
    Mangindusa, also called Nagbacaban, is the uppergod that lives in Awan-awan. Mangindusa takes care of punishment when someone commits a crime.
  • Polo
    Polo is the god of the sea. Polo is a caring god which is contacted in case of illness
  • Sedumunadoc
    Sedumunadoc is the god of the earth. Sedumunadoc is contacted for a good harvest
  • Tablacoud
    Tablacoud is the god of the underworld

Besides these four, there are also Diwatas which have control over things like the rain and other divine beings like the wife of Mangindusa.

The Tagbanua people believe in communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Using different rituals and ceremonies they communicate between the worlds. It is headed by the Babaylan, the shaman who is also the shaman of the village.

There are more and more Tagbanuas who are converting to the Christian faith.


Tourists who visit the Calamian Archipelago will find out that not all islands are easily accessible. Among others, Coron island is mostly private property for Tagbanua community and forbidden to tourists. This is stipulated in a “Certificate of ancestral Domain Claim”, abbreviated CADC. This means that over twenty thousand hectares of land and sea belong to the Tagbanua community.

There are however organized trips to the Tagbanua community in order to take a look at the daily lives of these people.


Growing rice plays an important part in everyday life. In addition to rice there is also sweet potato, cassava and corn. The sea is also an important source of food for the Tagbanua who live near the sea. Also, there are several forest products, including rats and honey. These products can then be mutually exchanged or sold for regular currency. An important source of income are the different handmade products such as mats, baskets and other wood products.

Way of living & future

These people follow certain distinct customs which make them different from all other tribes residing on the Palawan island. What makes them different is the aura of superiority that surrounds them as well as their boosting pride that proves to everyone that their old ways of living were the greatest. They stay isolated from the outer political activities and artificial living and stay connected to their ancient ceremonies and traditions, make them deeply endemic and devoid of damaging modernization.

Their leadership and rulers are different from the other ethnicities.

  • Masicampo
    He is their primary leader among other traditional leaders and various Christian communities who have a strong hold over the other Palawan island areas. He is the patriarch and settles their issues, is responsible for imposing tribal laws called adat, tribal marriages and appoints other traditional leaders called bageral. There is only one Masicampo to avoid any conflicts and disruptions. When he dies or becomes inactive due to reasons, their elders of the clan called Usbae’t Masicampo choose the next Masicampo. No one is allowed to be present at these important ceremonies.
  • Maradia et Masicampo
    This position is given to the people who hold the bloodline with the Masicampo. He follows the orders of the Masicampo and when the latter dies, he gathers the council elders for the selection of a new Masicampo.
  • Maradia et Manlalambay
    A bageral acquires it by hierarchy and should be knowledgeable of their common rituals.
  • Maradia
    This person helps the local bagerals by setting the issues. He has a wide range of responsibilities.
  • Pangiran
    He is the consultant of the local leaders who should be knowledgeable about the positions he has achieved.
  • Laksamana
    It’s one of the highest and most respectable positions among the leaders and is also called commander of hundreds. It is a hereditary position.
  • Pangandelan
    Masicampo appoints him to act as a commissary to whatever task is assigned to him.
  • Panglima
    He is the chairman among ginuu and bagerals. He earns this position through hereditary and is responsible for solving issues of his area of expertise. He usually imposes traditional laws on the people.
  • Orangkaya
    He is present at the jury and observes the proceedings. He gives his analysis of the case.
  • Satya
    He is the secretary of Surrugiden and records his minutes. He attains the position through bloodline.
  • Pangarapan
    He is the clerk. He gives the remarks before a meeting or council gathering.
  • Parakasa
    He reminds the congregations of the rules they have to follow and is also an amuser of audience.
  • Mudadi
    He brings any important happenings and news to the knowledge of the leaders.
  • Aguasil
    Just like Mudadi he is a summon officer and maintains law and order.
  • Digadong
    During surrugiden he is the bondsman.
  • Saribangsawan
    He is a law enforcer and a lawyer.
  • Tumanggong
    He is a financer of politics.
  • Nakib
    He is an expert of natural medicine and knows all the religious rites and is incharge of them.
  • Sabandar
    He controls the laborers and labor issues.
  • Manlalambay
    He knows how to perform all rituals like Lambay et init, lambay et ginuu, lambay et uran and sin atonement.
  • Babalyan
    He is the priest who connects people to the spirits.
  • Taga
    He is Babalyan’s assistant.