Philippines Prehistoric Culture

The Arts

Prehistoric Writing

Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines, most of the people were already capable of reading and writing. Wrote Pedro Chirino in 1602, "...there is scarcely anybody who cannot read and write in letters proper to the island of Manila."

Where the ancient way of writing in the Philippines came from is still a bone of contention. However, the fact that the people who inhabited areas near rivers and coasts were the most literate indicates that, in the beginning, script was utilized to note down transactions because these places were significant trading centers. It was only after some time that writing was used to note down literature.

Today there are three artifacts that are evidence of early Filipino writing - the silver paleograph found in Butuan, the earthenware pot from Calatagan, Batangas and the most significant of all, the copper plate from Laguna de Bay dated 900 A.D.

After studying the few samples on early script, Robert Fox concludes that there are at least 16 kinds of syllabary writing utilized by various groups of people. The alphabet was composed of three vowel syllable-signs: A, EI, and OU; and 14 consonants: B, D, G, H, K, L, M, N, NG, P, S, T, W, and Y.

At present there are two indigenous communities that still use syllabic script. These are the Mangyan in Mindoro and the Tagbanua in Palawan. This mode of writing is said to be Indic-derived and originated from southern Indonesia.

Precolonial Literature

As expressed in their native literature, Filipino culture at the time of discovery was high. Native literature started as a manifestation of the people's love to their deities, anitos, spirits, gods and goddesses. It consisted of songs (awits or dalits), maxims or sabi, riddles or bugtong, prayers, proverbs or sawikain, and of "a kind of face representing and criticizing local customs (examples are duplo and karagatan in which riddles or bugtong play a considerable role)." According to early historians, there were no less than twenty kinds of songs. In prose, they had fables and drolls. The native plays were invariably associated with music. The players danced and sang to the accompaniment of the string instruments called codyapi, bangsi and colelong. The music and the dance were executed not only as a form of amusement but as a serious occupation.

Unfortunately, the materials that came down to us on the native literature were very scarce. Whatever materials that were passed on were preserved through oral tradition, while the others were recorded by the early missionary chroniclers.


Trade plays an important role in enriching the art of the region. More than 40,000 pieces of trade potteries, which represent the intensity of formal trade, have been recovered in the Philippines with 80% of these coming from South China.

The Manunggul Vase and other burial jars

Among the artifacts unearthed in the Tabon Caves in Palawan is a vase which Robert Fox claims to be the most beautiful burial jar in the whole of Southeast Asia. Called the Manunggul Vase, it is intricately designed. The cover of the jar supports a ship of the dead with two figures holding a paddle each, sailing into the netherworld. Red hematite painting accentuates sophisticated and attractive designs on the body of the jar. The cover design is further proof of our ancestors' belief in the afterworld. Other sites like the Sta. Ana Convent in Manila have been havens for looters and archeologists alike because of the many graves and jars that have been dug. The convent, which was built on a large burial and habitation mound, is pre-Spanish in date and is more than three meters deep, with pottery found in all levels. Fox is also of the opinion that this was a major trade center during the 11th to 14th centuries since it is near the Pasig River.

But burial jars were not the only jars that existed in the area. Also unearthed were jars used for domestic chores. Plainer, less intricate and less spectacular, with little to no variations in form, the essence of these vases were more functional than aesthetic. Some vases, used for rituals, were of more variation and had a wide range in form.

Still other jars have been unearthed, those of Chinese origin. Fox says that with the advent of trade, dragon jars gradually replaced locally made earthenware vessels. Also unearthed were beautiful and large collections of Thai pottery, including rare Khmer jars and other vessels.


Music, Dances, and Songs

Filipino music, dances,and songs unquestionably antedated the coming of the Spaniards. The Spaniards who came to the Philippines in the 16th century had observed and had written down their observations on Philippine culture including the native customs and traditions. Pigafetta, the official historian of the Magellan expedition, himself witnessed four young women in Cebu harmoniously playing with the native cymbals which they called platiles. A member of the Villalobos expedition attended a stately banquet in Samar where he noticed the native girls dancing to the music of a local orchestra. Ancient Filipino dances and songs were primarily done as serious occupations of the natives. Each tribe had its own musical instruments, songs and dances. The pagans of Northern Luzon had the nose flutes, bamboo mouth organs, harps called subing or aphiw, gansa or brass gong, bansic or flute, and colibao or long drum. The Visayans had the lantoy or flute, subing or a bamboo harp, paiyak or water whistle, bugtot or guitar, kudyapi, and sista. The Tagalogs used the barimbaw, kalutang, bigwela and kudyapi. The Ilokanos, likewise, used the kutibeng which is very similar to the Tagalog bigwela. The Moros from Mindanao played the gabbang similar to a xylophone, agong which is a bronze gong, tugo or a drum, lantuy or flute, etc. The songs were usually melancholic and woven around themes of love, woman and war. They were highly spiced with romance and poetry. The natives had war songs, festival songs, melancholy songs, religious songs, love songs, folk songs, ballads, heroic songs and different kinds of songs for harvests, for building terraces and houses, for catching fish, animals, etc. The kundiman, the kumintang and the balitao (a dance) at the same time were among the most popular songs. The Ilokanos had a ballad-epic song called dallot, depicting the life and heroism of Lam-ang, who according to his people, conquered the primitive tribes of Luzon.

In precolonial Philippines, songs were very closely associated with dances, so that a singer was also a dancer and vice versa. The most primitive dances could be traced to the war dance in order to incite the "warlike" enthusiasm of the natives. Natives performed the dances primarily to please the god and the anitos, and the spirits who, it was believed, were always jealous of the actions of the natives. They danced much in the same way as our modern pantomimes.

In religious dances, the dancer or the priestess danced to exhaustion, until she fell to the floor foaming in the mouth and was believed to be possessed of the spirits. Prehispanic Filipinos also danced to please themselves during their festivals and other merry-making occasions.

Their Practices

The Emergence of the Elite

Before the coming of the Spaniards, the Philippines already had an existing social structure and political organization, which consisted of small chiefdoms. Archeologists and anthropologists describe chiefdoms as societies headed by individuals with unusual rituals and political entrepreneurial skills. While still based on family ties and kinship like the tribes, chiefdoms are more hierarchical with the power concentrated in the hands of powerful kin leaders. These leaders are in turn responsible for the redistribution of resources within their political domain.

Analysis of the earthenware pottery recovered from the excavation in the Bais Region of eastern Negros Island, central Philippines reveals the existence of a "prestige goods" trade between the Philippines and its neighboring countries. According to Junker, the operation of such a prestige goods economy and trade between the Philippine chiefdoms and the complex societies of mainland Asia began in the 10th century AD and intensified just before the coming of the Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries. Participation by the leaders in this trade was strongly linked to a centralized control of an interregional system of production, exchange and resource mobilization. Studies indicate that lowland-produced earthenware varied from region to region before the coming of foreign luxury trade goods in the 10th century. After the emergence of foreign trade, archeological evidences show earthenware that was more or less standardized. This indicated a change in pottery production modes: from scattered household production to full-time, large-scale production. These changes in pottery production, according to Junker, may be linked to a powerful lowland "government" which tried to gain control of upland raw material acquisition for improved participation in foreign trade.

Chiefdoms along the Coastline

At the time of European contact, the coastlines of most of the major Philippine islands and some regions already had numerous, politically complex, and regionally centralized societies. These societies also had well-developed systems of social stratification.

Just like the chiefdoms in Mexico and Hawaii, the members of the chiefly class in the Philippine chiefdoms played a central role in the administration of a complex regional economy. The chiefs controlled agricultural livelihood by restricting land tenure. They mobilized surplus through a system of tribute payments and gained wealth through sponsorships of raiding or trading expeditions for sources of prestige goods like porcelain and jewelry. They used this wealth for building political alliances with other chiefdoms which would then result in a stronger economy.

Aside from mobilizing resources within the lowland agriculturists under their direct sovereignty, Philippine chiefs, according to Junker, also facilitated the exchanges between lowlanders and interior tribal swiddening societies and the hunter-gatherers.
Interior resources gained from this upland-lowland trade like metal ores and other forest products were directly tied to prestige goods production and acquisition.

The Stones of the Sea

Because chiefdoms were founded near bodies of water, civilizations during the precolonial era were prone to sea attacks. The question about how they protected themselves against these attacks were answered mostly by speculations brought about by the presence of ruins. Among these are prehistoric monuments in Batanes, the northernmost region of the country. Called ijangs or idyangs, these castle-like structures are prominent landmarks found near the towns and barrios and are high rocky formations which, archeologists surmise, served as fortresses and refuge against enemies. Ijangs were hills with shaven tops, giving them a plateau-like appearance. Florentino Hornedo speculates that people from warring clans used to climb the ijangs when attacking. To defend themselves, the attacked stayed on the flattened top of the hills and threw stones at the climbers from above the fortress.

Unearthed within the vicinity of the ijangs are burnt wood and pottery. These artifacts have been unearthed from the ashes of Mt. Iraya after its eruption at around 350 BC, and suggest that the Batanes region had already been inhabited as early as more than 2000 years ago.

Trading with China

Chinese texts and archeological data from Philippine sites suggest an intensive long-distance trade between Philippine chiefdoms and China. Karl Hutterer defines "long-distance trade" as "sustained and direct exchange links with geographically distant societies, whereby the distant origin of the exchange goods has implications not only on their valuation but also on the social and economic mobilization of return goods and socially restricted access to imports."

The trade reached its peak in terms of volume during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Philippine chiefs were primarily interested in obtaining luxury goods like porcelains, silk, magnetite mirrors, and gold jewelry from the Chinese traders. These goods were usually recorded as bodily ornaments for the elite. They are usually found as accompaniments or grave furnishings at high-state burials. These luxury goods are usually presented as objects of wealth in the households of the elite. In short, these goods coming from China imply the existence of a native elite, an elite conscious enough of their status in society. The Chinese traders in return, get interior forest products like metal ores, forest hardwood and resins from the elite. This indicates a direct link to the internal lowland-upland trade since the forest products had to be obtained via internal networks of trade.

Archeological evidence of trade with Asian neighbors

The most noticeable archeological fact of late Philippine prehistory is the abundant presence of glazed Asiatic import pottery. This pottery begins to appear in the archeological record sometime around 1000 AD and is thereafter present continuously until the Spanish colonizers diverted the porcelain to Mexico and Europe by the early 17th century. Over this period of 600 years or so, the pattern of trade wares encountered in Philippine archeological sites changes drastically. Only a tiny handful of wares, mostly in Mindanao can be dated with a minimal degree of confidence to the late T'ang Dynasty (618-907). Even wares datable to the Early Sung period (960-1126) are quite rare. Pottery import increased rapidly, however, during the Late Sung (1127-1279) and Yuan (1280-1368) periods. There was also a significant increase in pottery import during the 15th and 16th centuries of the Ming Dynasty (1369-1640).

It is not only the quantities of Asiatic import pottery that change. The earliest (T'ang and early Sung) wares found in the Philippines were of relatively high quality and highly diverse in both functional and stylistic terms. As the quantity of export pottery increased, both their quality and diversity decreased. During the Late Sung period, average quality of the glazed wares remained relatively high, but noticeable distinction developed between a diverse set of fine wares (including such items as incense burners, various jars and jarlets, small sculptures, small bowls and serving dishes, specialty items, etc.) During this time a much more uniform set of lower quality utilitarian wares (consisting primarily of small bowls and dishes, and a few forms of soft-bodied wares) emerged. During the 13th and 14th centuries, there appeared also very delicate wares, some of them perhaps even experimental in terms of the development of manufacturing techniques and decoration by South Chinese kilns. Among these items were fine white porcelains of the ying-ch'ing and shu-fu variety. There were also wares with underglaze decoration in the form of dark brown spots executed in iron pigments and delicate stylized painting in copper and blue. Majority of these wares consisted of very small and delicate items in the form of bowls and covered boxes, small flasks, perfume bottles, water droppers, brush holders, small saucers, tiny jarlets, and small figurines. By the 15th and 16th centuries, a radical change was noticeable. At this time, blue and white porcelain was well-established as a stylistic form and dominated the wares found in the Philippines. The imported pottery of that period was dominated by low-quality, mass-produced, chiefly blue-and-white items represented mainly by eating and serving bowls, some extremely large bowls and platters and jars in different sizes. Items of truly outstanding quality were truly rare.

Another change was in the composition of ceramic assemblages in late prehistoric Philippine sites. In the 14th century, there appeared glazed ceramics manufactured in Vietnam and Thailand. Although coarser than fine Chinese wares during that period, they joined the latter in terms of their exotic forms, represented by small covered bowls, ewers, kendis and bottles, bowls, jarlets and small saucers. In some sites in the Visayas and in Mindanao, these kinds of porcelain make up 30 percent of the export pottery present.

Virtually all of the materials in hand were found in prehistoric graves which contain several pieces of imported ceramics. Relatively few porcelain sherds are found in the habitation debris. The situation is exactly the opposite with regard to locally manufactured earthenware pottery: while whole earthen vessels are common in graves predating circa 1200 AD, they are rare in later burials; yet earthenware sherds remained common in habitation contexts. There also seem to be significant changes in the spatial distribution of export wares over the period of 600 years. It appears that the distribution of Chinese wares is quite uneven at first. The early wares can be found in scattered localities, that is, in just a few larger sites, while many other contemporaneous sites do not have any porcelain. By about the 14th century, however, export wares become much more widely distributed. The distinction of finer and coarser wares mentioned appears to have a correlation with the spatial distribution of these wares. Fine wares are more common in larger coastal sites while coarser wares predominate in smaller and non-coastal locations.

Their Practices...

Precolonial Women

Precolonial Philippine society was already highly organized. This could be seen not only through the customs and traditions of the early Filipinos but also through the role definitions between precolonial men and women.

Contrary to popular belief, Philippine society was not always patriarchal. There was a time when women were treated as equally as men. Precolonial "Filipinas," unlike their modern day counterparts, enjoyed the same privileges, rights and opportunites as did men. They played key roles both in and outside. Before the coming of the Spaniards, women were already active in business, politics and even religion.

According to Sister Mary John Mananzan,O.S.B., in volume 2 of the Kasaysayan series, precolonial families were as eager for the birth of a daughter as for the birth of a son. The daughter was considered an important member of the family since the groom would have to give a dowry to her family as compensation for her loss. The dowry could be in the form of gifts to parents and relatives. Aside from these, the groom was also required to render "bride service," working for the family for a probationary period. After marriage, the Filipina did not lose her name. Among the Tagalogs, the husband usually took the bride's name if the she was especially distinguished due to family connections or personal merits.

Precolonial Philippine society did not consider virginity a value. Unwed mothers were not condemned. They did not also lose the chance for a good marriage since they were considered to have proven their capacity for motherhood. While premarital sex was not a taboo, the law of custom, however, punished promiscuity and prostitution.

Children were treated equally. Precolonial families were neither overprotective with girls nor lenient with boys. Daughters were brought up in the same way as the sons. No one was exempted from work training. Legitimate male children got the same inheritance as their female siblings.

In the family, husbands and wives were also equal. Husbands treated their wives as companions and not as slaves or whores. The wife was also financially independent since she retained the property she owned before marriage. Both the husband and the wife had the right to file for divorce since this was practiced. The grounds for divorce were childlessness, infidelity, or failure to fulfill obligations to the family. In theory, husbands and wives had equal rights, although in practice, wives had limited causes for divorce.

Divorce entailed the return of the bride's price by her family if she was at fault; if the husband was at fault, he lost rights to its return. Child custody was not a problem since the children were divided between the two regardless of sex. Property acquired after marriage was also split equally. In some cases, the guilty party had to pay fines.

The married woman juggled between managing the home, taking care of the children, at the same time helping her husband in earning the family's livelihood. She often played a key role in the family's economic stability and in improving the family's finances by engaging in agriculture and trade with the Chinese merchants. Precolonial Filipinas were often considered as reliable trade partners, thus, women's signatures were often required to validate contracts.


Our language, as well as the language of neighboring countries, is said to be of autronesian origins. Taken from the Latin austro, meaning southern, and the Greek neses, meaning islands, austronesian carried out one of humankind's greatest population movements from their reputed homeland in Southeast Asia to the Pacific islands, which is equivalent to one third of the globe. Before 1500, it was said to be the most widespread language. At present, it is spoken by 270 million people, including Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Madagascar. Also spoken by the inhabitants of the Pacific islands (Micro-, Mela-, and Polynesia) and the aborigines in Taiwan, Vietnam and Campuchea, New Guinea, the Mergui Archipelago in Burma, Hainan Island, and South China, it is said to have come from one family, the Proto-Austonesian language, because of the similarities in vocabulary.

Studies suggest that speakers used words that related to rice cultivation and boat-making, this prompting them to suggest that the people who spoke this language had a culture in which ancestral homelands, horticulture, animal domestication and boat making were known. This is further supported by botanical studies that reveal that in areas populated by Austronesians, domesticated plants such as yam, taro, sugar cane, banana, breadfruit, and coconut were commonly used by the people. Further proof that the languages spoken by the above mentioned countries are one and the same can be found in the genetic evidences that link each of the countries to the autronesian origin.

Where they come from

The origins of the language are said to come from approximately the coastal areas of mainland Southeast Asia and several islands in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.Near the coasts, because these are the areas closest to the centers of early civilization and population growth.

There are two theories regarding the movement of the language.

The first one, the Mainland Origin Hypothesis, is by Peter Belwood. According to him, the movement of austronesian is from south China and Taiwan, spreading toward the south and the west. With an economy based on cereals (rice and millets), austronesia spread from the south of Yangtze River into Taiwan, and the northern Philippines in 5000 BC - 4000 BC and into Indonesia in 45000 BC. Austronesians, according to Bellwood, replaced the hunters and the gatherers of the Pleistoscene era. Because of the population growth and the instability of agriculture, prehistoric man learned to plant crops for food. With agriculture to depend on, food supply was more stable and population increased, prompting them to look for other unoccupied areas, bringing with them their languages. This is evidenced by the fact that families of languages are found where agriculture first started (in China and New Guinea, for instance). This led to the development of new societies. These horticultural people then taught the hunters their food production techniques, eliminating their dependence on perpetual hunting.

Solheim's Island Origin Hypothesis states that austronesians originated in Southeast Asia and spread from there. Proto-Austronesian, he says, developed in Northern indonesia and the Mindanao Islands, spread northwards when maritime population developed through the Philippine Archipelago and Taiwan, the to south China. Dr. Solheim talks about the Nusantao, a maritime-oriented prehistoric people who spoke autronesian from data gathered in Mainland and Southeast Asia.Unlike Belwood who emphasizes horticulture, Solheim is uncertain whether or not this played a big role in the spreading of the language saying that proto-austronesian developed as trade language in the coast of Northern Luzon, South Taiwan, and South China during the Neolithic era, approximately 4500 BC-5000 BC.

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