Palawan’s Indigenous People

A Brief Introduction to the Island's Diverse Ethnic Group

Take a closer look at the diverse indigenous groups of Palawan, a beautiful island province in the Philippines. From the Tagbanua to the Batak, we highlight the unique customs, traditions, and way of life of each tribe, offering a fascinating glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of Palawan's indigenous peoples.

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A Batak woman with a baby

Palawan, the largest province in the Philippines, is home to several indigenous ethnolinguistic groups, including the Tagbanua, Palaw’an, Tao’t Bato, Molbog, Batak, Agutaynen, and Cuyonon. These groups live in remote villages throughout the province found in mountains and coastal areas. Palawan’s history shows that these indigents have occupied the area long before Malay settlers arrived in the 12th century.

Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan, wrote about the native people of Palawan after Magellan’s death. The natives used weapons like blowpipes, spears, and bronze Lombard. Pigafetta also noted that the natives had their system of writing and a dialect of 18 syllables. The Tabon Man that Dr. Fox discovered may have been the natives that Pigafetta described.

Research indicates that the Tagbanuas and Palaw’ans are descendants of the Tabon Cave’s inhabitants. These tribes share similarities in their language, farming methods, and belief in soul relatives. Although several indigenous groups have moved to Palawan, only seven have been recognized as the true natives of the province by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.


The Batak tribe is an indigenous group of people who reside in the rugged interiors of the northeast portion of Palawan, Philippines. With only about 500 or fewer members remaining, they are considered a small and endangered group. They are known for their close connection to nature and their belief in nature spirits, which they communicate with through the aid of a “babaylan” or shaman.

Anthropologists believe that the Bataks are closely related to the Aytas of Central Luzon, another Negrito tribe, with similarities in their physical characteristics, such as small stature, dark complexion, and curly, kinky hair.

For centuries, the Bataks have combined a hunting-gathering lifestyle with seeding of useful food plants, kaingin farming, and trading. They have even had trading relations with Chinese merchants as early as 500 AD.

However, during the mid to late 20th century, Bataks were forced out of their gathering grounds by emigrant farmers and were pushed into less fertile areas in the mountains. They tried to supplement their income by harvesting and selling non-timber forest products, which conservationists found to be more sustainable than commercial concessionaires.

Bataks are animists and make regular offerings to nature spirits. Shamans undergo spiritual possessions to communicate with the spirits and to heal the sick.

Nowadays, intermarriage with people outside the tribe has resulted in the assimilation of Bataks into a more diffuse group of upland indigenous peoples, causing the loss of their tribal identities, unique spirituality, and culture. There are even debates about whether they still exist as a distinct ethnic entity or not.


Agutaynon is an indigenous group that is most likely to be found in the northern part of the province of Palawan, such as Agutaya Island, the Municipality of Roxas, the Municipality of San Vicente, the Municipality of Brooke’s Point, the Municipality of Taytay, and Linapacan. They may also be occasionally spotted in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines.

These groups of people are believed to belong to the family of Austronesians and Malayo-Polynesians, who have long inhabited the province of Palawan. They have lexical similarity with Cuyonon and the Calamian Tagbanua, who are also indigenous groups in Palawan.

Agutaynon, however, is not well-known to the public due to the limited number of individuals and the lack of records about this group because of the remoteness of their area from the mainland of the province of Palawan. According to recent reports, this group of people has also begun to embrace modernization.


The Tagbanuas are believed to be descendants of the Tabon Man due to the many similarities they share in language, alphabet, and cultural practices such as kaingin (shifting cultivation) and belief in soul relatives.

This tribe is mainly located in the Central and Northern portions of Palawan, where they practice upland rice cultivation and the traditional rice wine ritual known as “Pagdiwata”. They also have a religious system centered around the cult of the dead and the worship of numerous deities found in nature.

The Tagbanua is one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines, and can be found in several municipalities, including Aborlan, Quezon, Calamian Islands, Baras Coast, Busuanga Island, Coron Island, some parts of El Nido, and Puerto Princesa City.

Tagbanuas are characterized by their brown skin, slim, and straight hair. They are divided into two groups: Central Tagbanua and Calamian Tagbanua, who speak different languages and have distinct customs.

Tagbanuas live in compact villages ranging from 45 to 500 individuals. While there were around 130,000 Tagbanuas in Palawan in 1987, the current population has decreased to approximately 10,000, with 1,800 residing in Calamianes.

The Tagbanuas have their own unique government system, which is practiced by both Central and Calamian Tagbanua communities.


The Molbog people are an indigenous group dominating the municipalities of Balabac and Bataraza in southern Palawan. They are the only indigenous Muslim community in Palawan, and their area has been their homeland since the classical era prior to Spanish colonization. The Molbogs have a strong connection with the natural world, particularly the sacred pilandok (Philippine mouse-deer), which can only be found in the Balabac islands. In Molbog culture, the coconut is their most prized agricultural crop.

The Molbogs rely on farming, fishing, and occasional barter trading with neighboring communities for their livelihood. They are related to the Orang Tidung or Tirum, an Islamized indigenous group living in the northeast coast of Sabah. However, Molbogs also incorporate words and customs from other ethnic groups such as the Jama Mapun and Tausug.

The frequent intermarriages between Molbogs and Tausugs have hastened the Islamization of the Molbogs, and their offsprings are known as “kolibugan” or half-breeds. Islam is a way of life for the Molbogs, who observe the Five Pillars of Islam and conduct daily Arabic chanting. The Molbogs played a significant role in the formation of the Sulu Sultanate, which was established by the unification of Molbogs and Palawanon Muslims ruled by Sulu Datus.

While outsiders are welcomed as medical and literacy volunteers, those who attempt to introduce other religions to the community are not accepted.


The Palaw’an, also known as Palawano, is an indigenous ethnic group found in the province of Palawan in the southern Philippines. This group is divided into four ethnolinguistic subgroups: Quezon Palawan (Central Palawano), Bugsuk Palawano (South Palawano), Brooke’s Point Palawano, and Southwest Palawano.

The Palaw’ans belong to the large Manobo-based linguistic groups of the southern Philippines and were originally found in the interior regions of South Apuruan and South Abo-Abo in the southern part of the province of Palawan.

The Palaw’ans used to be nomadic, but agrarian settlers began occupying their vast domain, leading them to exploit the most fertile piece of land and move on to the next one. Their family units were very small, probably due to high mortality rates. It is believed that the Palaw’ans have the shortest lifespan, but there is no statistical data to back up this claim.

Their houses are built on a hillside near a river or stream, and the floor is about 15 to 20 feet above the ground. The Palaw’ans hunt wild animals using spears with lethal poison at the tip and catch fish by using a special root sap. They prefer dogs for hunting rather than domesticating chickens or hogs.

Due to their fear of falling ill, the Palaw’ans are cautious in socializing with outsiders and may be seen as naive. They take great precautions and may even leave their area if they feel there is a risk of contracting any illness, even a common cold.

They have no concept of years and when asked about their age, they often refer to a tree’s height as a point of reference since they do not have a concept of years. They would say that they were born when the tree was at a specific height.

In terms of food preference, the Palaw’ans do not usually use salt and consume rice, banana, cassava, vegetables, rimas, fruits, wild pigs, birds, and freshwater fish. They prepare a delicious delicacy called pinyaram, similar to the bibingka of the Tagalogs.

The men wear g-strings while the women wear patadyong, a native wrap similar to the malong. 

Taaw't Bato

The Taaw’t Bato community, also known as the “people of the rock,” is a small traditional southwestern Palawano tribe. They reside in the Singnapan Basin, a valley situated between Mount Matalingahan and the coast of Palawan. During certain seasons of the year, they live in the crater of an extinct volcano, building their houses on raised floors inside caves or on open slopes. Despite the lack of modern amenities, the Taaw’t Bato have a unique lifestyle and culture that has remained relatively unchanged for generations.

The Taaw’t Bato’s traditional dress is simple, with men wearing g-strings made of bark and cloth, and women wearing cloth skirts to cover the lower body. Although they are often half-naked, women sometimes wear blouses obtained through market systems. The tribe’s artistic abilities are cruder compared to other Palawan groups, except for exceptional cases involving basketry.

The Taaw’t Bato are swidden cultivators who practice multiple cropping, with cassava as the primary source of carbohydrates. They also grow sweet potato, sugarcane, malungay, garlic, pepper, string beans, squash, tomato, pineapple, and more. Hunting and foraging are pursued throughout the year to supplement their carbohydrate-based diet. They use spring traps to catch most of the wild pigs.

The Taaw’t Bato engage in both sambi (barter) and dagang (monetary exchange). The trade primarily involves marine fish provided by the people of Candawaga in exchange for horticultural products of the Taaw’t Bato. Dagang involves forest products such as almaciga and rattan.

The Tao’t Bato’s basic social unit is the ka-asawan or marriage group, which extends to compound and extended family groupings. The ka-asawan is further grouped into large associations called “bulun-bulun,” which means gathering. These multi-household bands are physically bounded in terms of areas of habitation and characterized by sharing through various types of social and material exchanges, such as food.

Due to their uniqueness, the Philippine government has declared the Taaw’t Bato’s area off-limits to outsiders to protect them from exploitation. However, the community is currently facing a threat from mining concessions granted in the Mt. Gangtong and Mantalingahan range. This is despite measures taken to prevent events like this from happening, as prior claims for mining are still valid. Despite the challenges they face, the Taaw’t Bato continue to preserve their way of life and culture, living in harmony with nature.


The Cuyunons is an ethnic group originally from the island town of Cuyo in northern Palawan. They are considered an “elite class” among the natives in Palawan. They are known for their religious devotion, discipline, and a strong sense of community. 

With various names such as Cuyonon, Cuyono, Cuyunon, Kuyunon, Kuyunen, and more, this ethnic tribe is the most dominant in Palawan, comprising about 240,000 people as recorded in 2015. Although scattered around the world, 85% of them permanently reside in the province of Palawan. The Cuyunons originated genetically and linguistically from Panay Island in central Philippines as early as 1250 AD, but they also have Malayan roots from Banjarmasin in Borneo Island, a thousand years ago.

Today, the Cuyono usually practices Roman Catholicism, Christian Protestantism, and Animism with strong Spanish adaptations. Unlike most of the Philippines’ homogeneous tribal groups, the Cuyunon tribe is heterogeneous, with ancestors traced back to ancient migrants and traders who settled in Palawan, such as the Chinese, Arabs, Jews, Indians, Malays, Vishayans, Spanish, and other Europeans.

Although the Cuyunons’ language is closely related to Kinaray-a of Miag-ao in Iloilo province, the early Cuyunon tribe became the common denominator of all the homogeneous tribes of Palawan as early as the 1250s because they intermarried with the Bataks, Tagbanuas, Agutaynens, Molbogs, and other tribes living in Palawan.

Cuyunons are divided into four subgroups that distinguish one Cuyunon from another:

1.Paraguanen: Cuyuno people who settled mostly in mainland Palawan (Paragua)
2.Poroanen: Cuyuno people who settled mostly in the islands and islets of Palawan
3.Mestiso: Cuyuno who are usually half Chinese or Spanish
4.Lakto: Cuyuno who did not accept Catholicism and lived as Animists

Cuyunons, unlike other tribes in Palawan, may be seen anywhere in the province, including the city of Puerto Princesa. They have embraced modernization and incorporated it into their daily lives, making it challenging to identify them in public unless asked about their ethnicity.