Negritos means “little black people”; it is what the Spanish called the short black people they saw in South East Asia. The men were barely over five feet (1.5 m), the women shorter still. They looked like black people from Africa: woolly hair, dark brown skin, flat noses, thick lips.
Negritos do not think of themselves as Negritos: they see themselves as belonging to this or that tribe.
The Chinese knew about them: one appears as the hero in the book “Kunlun Nu” (c. 880). Even the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu was said to be “black in complexion”. Some of the ancient Buddhas of Thailand look black too!
The big mystery about Negritos is when and how they got to South East Asia.
We do not know yet for sure, but the following seems to be the probable answer based on what we know so far:
Negritos are extremely ancient, so ancient that they were the very first people ever to come to South East Asia. The Malaysians even call them the orang asli – the original people. They came with the first wave of people to leave Africa. South East Asia was mainly Negrito 5,000 years ago but now only pockets of them are left here and there. Like the American Indians in North America.
If you look at people’s mitochondrial DNA you can not only build a family tree of all mankind, you can also piece together when and how humans spread across the earth.
Most Negritos who have had their DNA tested turn out to have the same mitochondrial DNA as the people in southern India, New Guinea and Australia: haplogroup M, the first to leave Africa. They left about 50,000 years ago, following the coast of the Indian Ocean and then spreading inland. This gave rise to:
- India: Dravidians
- South East Asia: Negritos
- New Guinea: Papuans, Melanesians
- Australia: Aboriginals
- South America: palaeoindians of 30,000 years ago
We do not know if the palaeoindians of 30,000 years ago (at Pedra Furada in Brazil and Monte Verde 2 in Chile) belonged to haplogroup M, but we do know they looked like the people in Australia, so it seems likely. They could have been shipwrecked there – they did have boats, having reached Australia. (The Incas, for example, knew about white people before the Spanish came because of shipwrecks.)
Every branch of mankind started out in Africa and started out black. But because haplogroup M stayed mostly in the tropics they kept much of their black appearance, like dark skin and flat noses.
It seems that South East Asia is most like Africa so that Negritos changed the least in appearance, unlike, say, the Aboriginals to the south, who changed more (straighter hair, for example).
Negritos, though, did get shorter. That might be due to island dwarfing: most Negritos who remain live on islands where food is limited, which gives short height an advantage.