Prehistoric Philippines (BCE)


Prehistoric Philippines (BCE)

Prehistoric Philippines (BCE)


Manila Philippines Map 1
Manila Philippines Map
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Manila Philippines seal
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Manila Philippines Coat of Arms
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Prehistoric Philippines (BCE)

The original indigenous peoples of the Philippines are believed to be the Negritos, which include the subgroupings of Agta, Aeta, Ati, Ata, and Batak, amongst others. These hunter-gatherers are thought to have occupied the archipelago sometime before 40,000 BCE. These small, dark-skinned peoples were nomadic and semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who used their skills to hunt game throughout the centuries as a primary item for barter and trade; they even sold their hunting and fishing skills to colonialists into the 20th century. They are now a tiny sub-grouping of Filipino ethnicities, and in the 1980s, they numbered about fifteen thousand individuals, scattered mostly across the islands of Luzon, Palawan, Panay, Negros, Cebu, and Mindanao. Through the waves of colonialism over hundreds of years, this indigenous people’s belief system has remained largely animistic (local indigenous folklore and nature worship). Unfortunately, however, since the colonial era, the number of Negritos has declined dramatically. This decline is due mostly to the introduction of foreign diseases and the encroachment and degradation of lands, which has affected traditional hunting resources, enforced the alteration of lifestyles and livelihoods, and resulted in poverty for many.

The Negrito languages (as are all indigenous languages of the archipelago) are of Austronesian descent, although the Austronesian peoples were only thought to have occupied the islands a few thousand years before the Common Era and many tens of thousands of years after the Negritos were present on the Philippines. The Negritos are remarkably different in appearance from the dominant Asian progenitors of the Austronesian race of the Philippines, who currently outnumber the Negritos by four thousand to one. Despite being very dark-skinned, scholars accept that it is unlikely that the Negritos’ ancestors came from continental Africa but rather believe they are the descendants of Homo sapiens that migrated into the Philippines during the Late Pleistocene period from mainland Southeast Asia. (However, scholarly debate around this subject continues since it is accepted that the first hominids of Southeast Asia, Homo erectus, journeyed from Africa over a million years ago. Theories continue over whether a subsequent wave of Homo sapien migration from Africa occurred thereafter. Evidence suggests a break in human evolution within Southeast Asia, and although it is unconfirmed, advocates believe that a later wave of the more evolved Homo sapiens must have come from Africa or Asia.)

The Late Pleistocene, or Tarantian Stage, was the last of the four stages of the Pleistocene era, lasting from approximately 126,000 to 11,700 years ago. During this era, global ice ages held oceanic waters captive in ice sheets and glaciers, creating lower sea levels. (In Southeast Asia, the sea levels may have been as low as 120 to 140 meters—or 394 to 460 feet—below current levels!) Land bridges between continents and islands existed that are not present today, which allowed people to migrate to more habitable locations. It is likely that most of the Philippine archipelago, except Palawan, existed as one or two more exposed islands separated from mainland Asia by narrow, navigable sea corridors.

The Sunda Shelf is the extension of the continental shelf of Southeast Asia upon which the landmasses of western maritime Southeast Asia rest, such as Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Madura, and Bali. A biogeographical boundary known as Huxley’s Line divides the geographical distribution of fauna and flora between the areas included in Sundaland (of the Sunda Shelf) and the Philippines (except for Palawan). Thomas Huxley (1825–1895 CE) was an English biologist and anthropologist known as “Darwin’s bulldog” in his support of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of evolution. Between himself and Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913), a British naturalist and explorer, they demarcated a primordial theoretical line that runs through maritime Southeast Asia with distinct differences in fauna and flora on either side of the line. The line is known as the Wallace Line below the Philippine archipelago, but it has an extension that runs north—the Huxley Line—separating Sundaland from the Philippines (except for the island of Palawan). The Huxley Line also gives some indication of the likely distribution of early hominids who crossed from the mainland. Since evidence of prehistoric human remains on the Philippines, which is east of the Huxley Line, is more contemporary in evolutionary terms, it seems less likely that the archipelago was populated via distributions from the west of the biogeographical line. (Although, unfortunately, there is not enough evidence to either confirm or deny any of the evolutionary theories.)

Some of the earliest evidence of prehistoric man has been found on the island of Palawan, which is technically part of Sundaland and is west of the Huxley Line. The Tabon Caves have yielded the oldest human remains of modern Homo sapiens, the “Tabon Man,” dating back to approximately between 58,000 to 16,500 years ago. (These dates can vary by 10,000 years. The discrepancies in dates are due to the human fragments being from more than one hominid individual.) The original excavations at Tabon were conducted by Dr. Robert B. Fox, a leading anthropologist and historian of the pre-Hispanic Philippines who lived from 1918 to 1985, along with members of the National Museum of the Philippines, in the 1960s. In addition to the human fossils (including a tibia fragment, a mandible, and a skull) were chert flakes (sharp rock flakes from human activity) and pebble tools (rocks used as tools). Paleolithic remains were also discovered beyond the Huxley Line in other parts of the Philippines, including on Luzon and in Cagayan Valley. Several caves within the northern Luzon area of Cagayan have produced evidence of early humans, as well as other paleolithic evidence, and additional prehistoric evidence (unconfirmed by date) has been found across the Philippine archipelago, including in Metro Manila, other parts of southern Luzon, and Davao, Mindanao.

In 2019, it was confirmed that the remains of an ancient man (pre-modern Homo sapiens) in the northern Luzon caves (specifically Callao Cave), which had originally been estimated to be more modern, were classified as being between fifty thousand and seventy thousand years old. These human remains indicate a previously unclassified species of human that is pygmy-like and was named Homo luzonensis after the island of its discovery. Overall, human presence on Luzon is now estimated as dating to at least 770,000 years ago! This approximate date is attributed to the remains of the extinct Philippine rhinoceros, Rhinoceros philippinensis, which had been clearly and purposefully butchered by humans at an archaeological site. Scholars could decipher this due to the remains of primitive stone tools and rock shards in the area, as well as the particular breaks in the animals’ bones.

In the Rizal region of Calabarzon (lower Luzon, southeast of Manila), petroglyphs were discovered, known as the Angono Petroglyphs, of stick-like human and animal figures. The petroglyphs are believed to date back to before 2000 BCE due to the nearby discovery of fragmented earthenware, obsidian flakes, chert, flake stone tools, a stone core tool, and a polished stone adze. The Angono Petroglyphs were carved into a cave wall and are the oldest example of art in the Philippines. They have been declared a national treasure. The engravings are considered symbolic, and like most ancient indigenous art, they are associated with healing and sympathetic magic. The site is highly sacred to the Tagalog people (known as dambana or “holy ground”) and is believed to be home to anitos (spirits or gods).

The Negrito ancestors are believed to have journeyed from Asia to the Philippines between 45,000 and 30,000 BCE. (Some scholars suggest that Negritos are of Australo-Melanesian descent—southwestern Pacific/Australian origins.) Regardless of the true origins of the Negrito ancestors, scientists agree that it is likely that these early people developed their physical characteristics from about 30,000 BCE in situ within their evolving island environment. (This localized evolution could have begun as early as 50,000 BCE.) This microevolution of the Negritos would have given rise to their unique phenotypic traits in terms of how their genetic evolution would have responded to the local environment. Other Pleistocene evidence of ancient mammals (such as Stegodon—elephant-like beasts—rhinoceros, the Philippine warty pig, giant turtles, and a type of bovid) suggests that early hominids in the Philippines may have lived in tandem with now-extinct fauna. The prehistoric evidence of slaughtered animals across the Philippine archipelago is a key indicator of early human presence since there is no evidence of ancient carnivorous predators in the Philippines (except for the tiger on Palawan, west of the Huxley Line).

The Philippines’ human origins (and maritime Southeast Asia, in general) have always been contentious and widely debated amongst scholars, as is typical of the general movement of Austronesian peoples throughout Asian, African, and Pacific waters over the millennia. While the Negrito ancestors would have moved across land bridges during the ice ages (whether from Africa, Asia, or even Australasia) during paleolithic times (from the first evidence of hominids in the Philippines to the end of the Pleistocene age, c. 11,500 BCE), the Austronesian people were on the move from Neolithic times, which proceeded the Pleistocene age. The Austronesian people were avid seafarers, and their redistribution began after the close of the last ice age (approximately 11,500 BCE, which marked the end of the Pleistocene period and the beginning of our modern Holocene era), when ocean waters were higher. They used their highly developed maritime navigational skills to move between islands and landmasses. Typically, the Austronesians would have used multi-hulled or outrigger (including a lateral support float) canoes and sailboats, as are still seen across the maritime Austronesian domains today (from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia of the Pacific Ocean). The Negrito and Austronesian interactions on the Philippine archipelago are evidenced to have begun between three thousand and one thousand years ago. At first, it is likely that these two early peoples would have traded, but Austronesians later settled on the Philippines. Over time, there was a natural interracial mixing of these two groups, and modern Filipino genealogy is a varying genetic admixture of ancient Negrito and Austronesian peoples. However, by the first millennium before the Common Era, societies had split into four groupings, of which the forest-dwelling Negritos have retained a form of separation and dominant Negrito genealogy to this day. The Austronesians (or Austronesian “mixes”) eventually came to dominate the population of the archipelago to produce what is now referred to as the Filipino people.

Austronesian people are found throughout the Pacific islands, maritime Southeast Asia, and the Indian islands to this day. (They are mostly collectively identified by their genetics and languages but also through cultural similarities, rice cultivation, and other domestic livestock and cultivars.) Their ancestors journeyed via sea during Neolithic times, seeking new homes and fresh resources for their growing communities. There is still strong scholarly debate as to whether these seafarers originally came from southern mainland southeastern China (the coastal Yangtze Delta area) or from the island of Taiwan.

The Austronesians brought agriculture, polished stone tools, pottery-making skills, and, most significantly, their languages with them. This indirect population of the Philippines by Austronesians is one of the more widely accepted hypotheses of the influx of Neolithic peoples to the archipelago and is thought to have happened in waves from 4,000 BCE to 500 BCE. A genetic study in 2021 examined individuals of 115 indigenous communities in the Philippines and discovered that at least five separate waves of prehistoric immigration were likely, several Negrito and several Austronesian. Scholars estimate that these successive influxes of peoples to the Philippines were both heterogeneous (in terms of ethnicity and culture) as well as random and that much of the genetic lineage of the Philippine people was developed (evolved or mixed) once they were already residents of the archipelago.

The most likely sources of Austronesian influxes may have been from the Indonesian islands, as well as via the Malay Peninsula and then via Borneo. Also, around 500 BCE, the possible influx of the rice-terrace building proto-Malays (ancient Malays) from central Asia took place, followed by a final wave of Deutero-Malays (direct ancestors of modern Malay people) from Indonesia during the 5th and 4thcenturies BCE. In about 2200 BCE, some of the first Austronesian people settled the northern Batanes, as well as northern Luzon; they were presumably from Taiwan. They are believed to have spread south through the archipelago from there, but it is also possible that additional influxes of Austronesians came from other parts of mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. The presence of Taiwanese indigenous peoples in the northern Philippines is confirmed by the presence of jade artifacts dating to two millennia before the Common Era. The jade originated in Taiwan and was crafted on northern Luzon into lingling-o cultural items. Jade craftmanship spread first from China, where the oldest nephrite (jade) artifacts have been found, to Taiwan and then spread farther south to the Philippines. Lingling-o is double-headed pendant jewelry associated with Iron Age Austronesian cultures. Lingling-o was mostly crafted from jade that was sourced in Taiwan, but the crafting of the amulets became mostly associated with workshops in the Philippines (and partially in Vietnam).

In the 2000s CE, archaeologist Peter Bellwood (an English Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University) proved the existence of lingling-o workshops in the northern Philippines (the Batanes) dating back as far as two and a half millennia ago. His discovery confirmed that lingling-o and other jade remains in the Philippines were not exclusively the result of trade. Lingling-o manufacturing in the archipelago continued until about 1000 CE. Although lingling-o was mostly made from nephrite jade (whitish-yellow but also green), they were also carved from shells, gold, copper, and wood. The jade artifacts discovered in the Philippines were not only restricted to jewelry. Jade beads, adzes, chisels, and other items were also discovered, tens of thousands of which were in a single site in the Batangas (southwestern Luzon).


Examples of Filipino lingling-o jewelry currently housed in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, France.

Chaoborus, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The raw jade would also have come from mainland Southeast Asia, and cross-pollination of trade, as well as ancestry between the Asian continent and the islands, continued, often in stages, over the millennia. Another primary culture to influence the Philippines was the Sa Huỳnh of present-day Vietnam, who were also Austronesian. The Sa Huỳnh were prolific traders in items such as semi-precious gemstone beads, bronze mirrors, and other ornaments and items that they themselves imported and sometimes crafted themselves. Sa Huỳnh relics have been discovered in the Philippines as well as other Southeast Asian countries and islands. Ear ornaments were specifically found in the Tabon Caves of Palawan. More Sa Huỳnh evidence of pottery was discovered in the Kalanay Cave on the island of Masbate, dating to between 400 BCE and 1500 CE. These jars were presumably used for storage, cooking, and potentially for ritualistic purposes. Also, the Maitum anthropomorphic pottery, specifically Sa Huỳnh burial jars, in the Sarangani province of southern Mindanao are dated to approximately 200 CE. These burial jars are unique in that there are no other examples of their particular design in Southeast Asia. They were rediscovered in the 1990s in the Ayub Cave located in Maitum, and to date, a total of twenty-nine burial jars, thirty-three baskets, and four cubic meters (141 cubic feet) of archaeological material have been amassed. The average total height of the jars is seventy centimeters (eight inches), with its widest diameters at approximately thirty-six centimeters (fourteen inches).


An example of one of the anthropomorphic Maitum burial jars from Mindanao, c. 200 CE.

Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Tabon Caves are dubbed the “Philippines’ Cradle of Civilization,” and the Philippine government has made great efforts to protect this site on the southwestern extent of the elongated Palawan Island. Towering above the ocean, the caves and their surrounding dense forests are part of a protected reservation and a living cultural museum. Of the 215 known caves, only 29 have been excavated, and 7 are open to the public. Tabon is a location of immense cultural and historical value and another one of the Philippines’ seemingly endless national cultural treasures! It is one of the locations on the tentative list for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Human habitation in the caves is estimated to have lasted from fifty millennia ago to approximately 1,300 CE. Other items in the caves include tools, jewelry, animal bones, and 1,500 burial jars! One of these jars, which is perfectly intact, is known as the Manunggul Jar. The exquisitely decorated ceramic jar dates from approximately eight hundred years before the Common Era and is topped with two figures rowing a boat. The jar was discovered near the Tabon Man in 1964 by Dr. Robert Fox and contains human bones painted red and multiple bracelets. Secondary burials were common throughout the Philippines during this historical period, with those who were not cremated being reburied at some point within the burial jars. The top third and lid of the Manunggul Jar are carved with curved wave-like designs that are painted with hematite (a black iron-oxide compound). The overall design of the jar reflects the nature-spirit (anito) belief systems of the early Filipinos, and the two figures are believed to be in convoy to the afterlife. The Sa Huỳnh people were known to have decorated their dead with agate, carnelian, and glass beads sourced in India and Iran. These, as well as similar jewelry of the Sa Huỳnh Vietnamese culture, were found in the caves.

The Tabon Caves are one example of the layers of human habitation in the Philippine archipelago over the millennia. Even though the exact timing of the influxes and origins of the early peoples cannot be pinpointed, nor their movements throughout the archipelago definitively mapped, the remains of eras past indicate an abundant and complex populating of the islands. The most likely patterns of Iron Age Austronesians would have been via maritime trade networks between the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Borneo, and southern Thailand. (The Sa Huỳnh route between 500 BCE and 1500 CE was known as the Sa Huỳnh-Kalanay Interaction Sphere after the Masbate findings.)

It was only in approximately the first millennium BCE that metallurgy was believed to have reached the archipelago as a result of trade with India. Evidence of metal tools from approximately 500 BCE exists, although stone tools used by proto-Philippine societies (the first societies) stretch from at least 50,000 BCE to past the start of the Filipino Iron Age. Anthropologist Felipe Landa Jocano (a Filipino anthropologist, author, and educator) refers to this Stone Age period as the formative phase, in which stone tools and ceramics were the most important elements that the early Filipinos used to interact with their environment. Jocano refers to the period of 500 BCE to the start of the Common Era as the incipient phase, when metallurgy and pottery were developing across the archipelago, making life more industrious and trade more propitious. Unlike most other ancient civilizations, it is very difficult to approximate when a “Bronze Age” or a “Copper Age” existed in the Philippine archipelago. The Iron Age finds from the 10th and 9th centuries BCE indicate the importation of iron tools and weapons, and there is only rudimentary evidence of ironmongery on the islands themselves. Whether most of the iron products were imported or mined and smelted on the archipelago itself, the use of metal brought an end to the Philippine Stone Age.

By 1000 BCE, Filipino societies were ordered into four approximate groupings: hunter-gatherer tribes confined mostly to the forests; warrior societies that practiced ritualized warfare and roamed the plains; highland plutocracies, mostly of the Cordillera highlands (controlling wealthy classes or families); and port principalities of the harbor estuaries who participated the most in trade. Two thousand years later, by the first millennium of the Common Era, some of these societies were so advanced that they could have been considered as states in their own right. The major conglomerations reflect some of the biggest cities of today, such as Maynila and Tondo (Manila); Caboloan (Luzon); Cebu; Madja-as and Panay (Panay); Bohol; Butuan, Cotabato, and Lanao (Mindanao); Sulu; and Ma-i (southern Luzon or Mindoro). Development of the archipelago had been mostly influenced by trade from approximately 300 to 700 CE, with the seafaring peoples of the Philippines using balangays (or barangays) to navigate the trade routes. The balangays were specialized Filipino boats, the oldest evidence of which dates to the 4th century CE and was the first wooden watercraft excavated in Southeast Asia. Access to Indianized kingdoms (such as Java), the Malay Archipelago, and East Asian principalities became more accessible and brought not only commercial opportunities but cultural and religious ones as well.



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