Terror from the Sky: Unconventional Linguistic Clues to the Negrito Past


Within recorded history. most Southeast Asian peoples have been of “southern Mongoloid” physical type, whether they speak Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, or Hmong-Mien languages. However, population distributions suggest that this is a post-Pleistocene phenomenon and that for tens of millennia before the last glaciation ended Greater Mainland Southeast Asia, which included the currently insular world that rests on the Sunda Shelf, was peopled by short, dark-skinned, frizzy-haired foragers whose descendants in the Philippines came to be labeled by the sixteenth-century Spanish colonizers as “negritos,” a term that has since been extended to similar groups throughout the region. There are three areas in which these populations survived into the present so as to become part of written history: the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, and the Andaman Islands. All Philippine negritos speak Austronesian languages, and all Malayan negritos speak languages in the nuclear Mon-Khmer branch of Austroasiatic, but the linguistic situation in the Andamans is a world apart. Given prehistoric language shifts among both Philippine and Malayan negritos, the prospects of determining whether disparate negrito populations were once a linguistically or culturally unified community would appear hopeless. Surprisingly, however, some clues to a common negrito past do survive in a most unexpected way.