Orang Asli: Introduction To The ‘First People’ Of Southeast Asia

For much of my adult life, I have been collecting old photographs of the so-called “little blacks” of Asia.

Satun Woman and Child, Satun province, Ban Doan Village, S. Thailand. Photo: Brandt, John H (1961–1968). Source: Brandt Image Collection, Keene State College. Mason Library, Orang Asli Archive.

As a kid growing up on the far South Side of Chicago, whenever I would envision the physical features of Asian people—since those I saw most were in martial arts movies and Ultraman reruns on television—a fairly narrow set of characteristics always came to mind. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, brown skin and curly black hair were never among them.

But one fateful day, my father told me about an eye-opening experience he’d had as a young man serving in the United States Marines.

While stationed in the Philippines between 1961 and 1963, “Pops” would learn of Asians whose physical features were significantly different from what most Americans have been conditioned to expect.

There in the Philippines, my father saw native Filipinos who, albeit small in stature, looked a lot like him, with dark brown skin, curly black hair, and — stranger still — African facial features.

To say the least, the sight of such people living in the heart of Southeast Asia was completely unexpected.

It was also unsettling.

Equally as unsettling, my father soon learned that these puzzling pint-sized people were typically referred to locally by a Spanish term, one that translates literally into English as the “little blacks.”

Jahai men singing, Narathiwat Province, S. Thailand. Photo: Brandt, John H (1961–1968). Source: Brandt Image Collection, Keene State College. Mason Library, Orang Asli Archive.

Facts of Life

As the Earth’s largest and most populous land-mass, Asia is home to 60% of the planet’s human populations. Included in this sum are the continent’s lesser known groups called the Negritos—indigenous Asians who look a lot more like the relatives of Kevin Hart than Jackie Chan.

The term Negrito was first applied by Spanish sailors in the 16th century after encounters with such people during early forays into the region. And though wholly unscientific, the term is still used today to refer to distinct ethnic groups living in various parts of Southeast Asia and the Asian Pacific island of Papua New Guinea.

According to James J.Y. Liu, author of the book The Art of Chinese Poetry, the term kunlun is the equivalent of Negrito in the Chinese language, and there are several mentions of kunlun people in the early literature of China. The most well known of these can be found in the martial arts adventure romance entitled The Kunlun Slave.

In the language of their Malay-speaking neighbors, the Negritos are known as the orang asli, meaning, “first people” or “original people.” This term would come into use in the 1930s in response to efforts by the Malaysian government to officially recognize them as the region’s earliest inhabitants.

Prior to the adoption of a more respectful designation, such people were typically called by the pejorative term semang (“debt slave”), a word bonded to times when, like the people of Africa, Negritos too were abducted from their homelands and sold into slavery.

Two women, Budu Village, Pahang, Malaysia, 1929 Photo: © archiv RNDr Jim Baum

Family Tree

The defining physical features of the orang asli include dark brown to black skin, spiraled or curly black hair, and diminutive stature. The average height among men is 5-ft. 5-in., and the average height among women is 4-ft. 8-in.

And though seemingly orphaned from humanity’s family tree, TV’s Maury Povich will not be needed to pop for a DNA test to figure out “Who is the father?” According to geneticists, these peculiar peoples are actually the modern descendants of the first migrant populations to venture into Asia more than 50,000 years ago.

That there is a strong resemblance between the orang asli and African groups like the Pygmies of Uganda and Congo is clear to see. What is impossible to see, however, is that on DL (read: DNA level), these folks share closer genetic bonds to other Asians than they do to now distant cousins in the Motherland.

Mai Darat women, Bidor, Batang Padang, South Perak, Malaysia. Source: Fasciculi Malayenses: Anthropological and Zoological Results of an Expedition to Perak, and the Siamese Malay States by Christopher, Robinson, 1903

Stunted Growth

Archaeological finds from across the continent suggest that these nomadic hunter-gatherers once lived across Asia, from India to the southernmost regions of Japan. The southern islands of the Pacific Ocean were also once part of their domain, as well as the southern continent of Australia, and the neighboring island of Tasmania.

But their stomping grounds today are but mere traces of what they once were.

Challenged by the continuous spread of larger, more organized and more technologically advanced human groups, their once wide open range is now limited to only isolated parts of Southern Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Andaman Islands (off the coast of Myanmar), and Papua New Guinea.

What’s more, populations that were documented as recently as the late 19th century to have numbered in the tens of thousands now number only in the thousands. But the numbers for some groups are even smaller.

Drastically smaller.

Today, the tribal population of the Onge people in the Andaman Islands numbers less than one hundred. And it is conceivable that in the proverbial blink of an eye this ancient tribe of humankind will simply cease to exist.

Man of North Andaman and his son, Andaman Islands. Source: The Andaman islanders; a study in social anthropology, Anthony Wilkin studentship research, Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (Alfred Reginald), 1906
Man with white clay face paint pattern, Andaman Islands. Source: The Andaman islanders; a study in social anthropology, Anthony Wilkin studentship research, Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (Alfred Reginald), 1906

Collective Memory

For much of my adult life, I have been collecting old photographs of the so-called “little blacks” of Asia. It is a driving passion.

Yellowed volumes published in the late 1800s and early 1900s have been a good resource for many of these finds. Antique postcards made from the plates of globetrotting photographers have been another. Snapshots taken by American military personnel who, like my father, were stationed in this region has been yet another.

It has become important to me to collect these images because, as the old expression goes, a picture paints a thousand words. And too few actual words have been written about these intriguing humans and the living, breathing bridge they form between the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the rest of the planet.

For me, the photos also serve as a personal reminder of just how big an impression my father’s words on these people once made on me now so many years ago. And how — as the stories our parents tell often have the power to do—one small anecdote shared on a summer’s day could shape so much of my worldview.

Two girls sitting on a rock in a stream, Mariveles, Luzon Island, The Philippines, 1901. Photo taken by Dean C. Worcester. Source: University of Michigan. Special Collections Library

Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.