Monday, January 26, 2015

Ancient History of the Philippines: An Introduction

Sculpture Ifugao. XV century. Northern Luzon, Philippines. Figure of 
"Bulul" sitting holding a cup. Wood. The Ifugao grant anthropomorphic
representations of rice  deities, called "Bulul" the power to ensure the
seeds before sowing and piles of fresh beans after harvest…
by Alan S. Cajes

If the story of the universe is told in a calendar year[1], the following events happened from January to November: separation of the gravitational force from the infinite singularity; formation of a thick mixture of hydrogen and helium; birth of the galaxies; explosion of a star that spewed forth heavy elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, and then the birth of the solar system. In the 12th month, December, the first microscopic forms of life emerged. On the last day of December, the first shell appeared. At the last minute of the last day of December, life emerged from the sea. During a tiny fraction of the last second of December 31, the first hominid ancestor of humans and apes and chimpanzees appeared.

The universe is 13.75 billion years old.[2] About 3.8 billion years ago, the first microscopic forms of life came into being[3]. How these forms of life emerged can be attributed to the right conditions created by a combination of factors, such as cosmic dust, water, light, gases, geology, climate, and the forces of the universe, namely gravity, electromagnetism, weak force, and the strong force.

Nature managed the evolution process in such a way that higher and more complex and diverse forms of life inhabit Planet Earth. Between 7 and 6 million years ago, the Sahelanthropustchadensis, “one of the oldest known species in the human family tree” lived in West-Central Africa.[4] About 200,000 years ago, the modern human beings, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa.[5]

Sometime between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago, the “early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia and then “populated many parts of the world much later.”[6]It is estimated that farming, which was an impetus for the rise of civilizations, started around 12,000 years ago.

Island Arcs, Land Bridges

More than 50 million years ago, before India moved rapidly northward and violently fused with Eurasia, the landmass of the Philippines was composed of arc-shaped volcanic islands or island arcs situated away from the current location of the archipelago. The movements of the Asian and the Australian continents gave rise to volcanoes that eventually rose, scattered, moved and merged incompletely to become what is now known as the Philippine islands.[7] The geological story of the archipelago is largely responsible for the “odd patterns of distribution and diversity in the region.”[8] 

To be specific, during the Eocene (55.8 to 33.9 million years ago) and Oligocene (33.9 to 23 million years ago) periods, the northern part of the “archipelago was said to have been linked with Formosa.”[10] During the Pleistocene (from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago), the western connection linking Palawan to Borneo was “dry land.” But the eastern connection linking eastern Mindanao to Celebes and New Guinea was “a series of islets”.[11] 

The eastern and western connections made possible the link of the Philippine islands to river systems in Asia. These “riverine connections” were the pathways of “species of fish, fauna, as well as other animals” that are “related with those found in the mainland of Asia, eastern Malaya, and Indonesia.”[12]

During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), around 21 thousand years ago, the ice sheets grew and covered continents like Asia. This resulted in drought and desertification, as well as caused the sea level to fall. At this time, Palawan was part of Sundaland, a landmass that joined the Indonesian islands, including Borneo and Bali, to the Asian continent. However, Sathiamurthy and Voris (2006) said that the rest of the Philippine islands was a single island that was not attached to the continent.

Peopling of the Philippines

There are two views on the peopling of the Philippines. In the first view, according to Jocano (2001), humans inhabit the islands “as a result of the continuous process of human evolution, radiating to a number of directions as differentiation in ecological setting occurred, following changes in the climatic conditions in the area (p.52). The second view assumes that there were no humans in the Philippine archipelago at a certain point, roughly before 40,000 years ago. As part of the continuing movement of the early homo sapiens from one place to another, they reached the islands that encompass what is now known as the Philippines.[13] Based on evidence, the oldest human fossils (skullcap and two jaws) found in the Philippines dated between 24,000 and 22,000 BC.

These views support the contention that the Filipinos are not “racially Malays,” but belong to the “brown” race.[14]

Pearl of the Orient Seas

Before humans inhabit the Philippine islands, the archipelago was literally the Pear of the Orient Seas. Jocano (2011) says that the “archipelago was covered with unbroken forest, from sea level to the highest mountaintops (pp.90-91)” and that there were “big animals that formed part of our mammalian fauna, like elephants, rhinoceros, and steno dons.”

Even the studies done during the American occupation showed that the natural resources of the Philippines were “unquestionably vast”[15] with the country’s “fifty-four thousand square miles of forest” a “potential source of great wealth.”[16]Edwards (1905) claimed that there “is probably no country of equal size in the world having a greater variety or wealth of vegetable fibers than the Philippine Islands. These fibers are of every class and of every description. They are obtained from the best of the largest forest trees and from the slender stems of twinning ferns (pp. 222-230.”

The pristine lowland rain forests of the Philippines were a blend of big trees that have large woody prop roots and straight trunks that could extend up to more than 30 meters. The stems and leaves of trees that stand 20 to 40 meters shielded the forest floor from sunlight and dampened rain and wind. Numerous climbing plants, shrubs, small trees, ferns and vines thrive in the understory or the dark, cool space between the leaves and the ground. The forest floors, which were covered with fallen leaves and rotting plant matter, teemed with smaller flora and fauna. The country’s montane rainforests grew starting at an elevation of 1,000 meters with the high montane forests or cloud forests (elevation of 2,500-3,000 meters) harboring a rich variety of epiphytes or air plants. These forests were “always wet because of year-round rainfall, storing enormous volumes of water, and humidity was always high, from 70-100%, even during dry periods.”[17]

In the Philippines, humid air or air that has high amount of water or vapor cools at an “an average rate of 6° Centigrade for every 1,000 meters that it rises.” The higher the elevation, the cooler is the air. The cooler the air, the higher is the rainfall. In addition, about 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility every year, of which 8 to 9 make a landfall bringing strong winds and rain. Heavy rains on rain forest are cushioned by the leaves of trees, thereby landing softly on the forest floors that absorb the water and release it to springs and tributaries.[18]

According to Conservation International (2007), the Philippines has 9,253 plant species (with 6,091 endemic species, 167 mammals (with 102 endemic species), 535 birds (with 186 endemic species), 237 reptiles (with 160 endemic species), 89 amphibians (with 76 endemic species), 281 freshwater fishes (with 67 endemic species).[19]

Filipino Ancestors

The human inhabitants of the country started using stone tools around 500,000 B.C. Around 1,500 B.C., they started the ceramic industries. Although there is no evidence how the early settlers discovered fire, archaeological sites that have edible shells mixed with charcoal indicate that fire was used to cook food. In terms of rice farming, Jocano (2011) says that the settlers practiced it between 1,720-1,380 B.C. based on evidence found in Andarayan, Solana, Cagayan Province.

The period covering the first to the fourteenth centuries A.D. was characterized by the growth of communities, development of writing, political fragmentation, and foreign trade. There is no record yet of any serious environmental degradation attributed to humans around this time. The systematic human-induced destruction of nature started with the Spanish period, although there were policies that aimed to manage the natural resources.

When the Spaniards came to the Philippines, the population of the islands was less than one million.[20] Houses were typically built near the sea or rivers where people survived mainly by fishing. The water systems also served as the principal means of transportation, says Jocano (2001).

According to Jocano (2001), the Pre-Hispanic settlements were mainly “far from each other, with houses of renewable materials (p. 28).” For areas that did not yet shift to wet-rice agriculture, the houses “were regarded as temporary shelters rather than life-long homes (p. 28)” since shifting cultivation required people to move from one place to another. This means of livelihood – subsistence agriculture – provided the settlers “with barely enough for their needs.”

Constantino (1994) said that the wet agriculture among some lowland communities, however, could produce “an abundance of rice in a short time (p. 29).”[21] The upland method of planting rice basically involved clearing a portion of a mountain, making holes in the soil, and putting grains in the holes. Through this technique, the famers “obtained very heavy crops (p. 29)."[22]

The early farmers soon learned that planting crops is dependent on the quality of the soil. As a result, Hornedo (2000) says, some of them came up with a cultivation calendar that allowed the soil to recover its fertility.

Change in Landscape

The ancient way of life of the Filipino ancestors drastically changed when new cultures reached the Philippines, especially at the beginning of the 16 century. At the time of the Spanish conquest, it its estimated that the country’s forest cover was about 90 percent. The plantation economy that the Spaniards in the Philippines introduced, such as tobacco and sugar plantations, decimated forest areas. Around 1870, for instance, Cebu island experienced severe deforestation. Ponting (1991) says that by the end of the “nineteenth century about a fifth of the forests had been destroyed (p. 256).” 

The Americans introduced modern logging to the Philippines in 1904 after the establishment of the Bureau of Forestry in 1900.[23] Around that time, the remaining virgin forest was 80 percent. This was reduced to about 40 percent in the early 1950s. In the 1980s, less than 26 percent virgin forest remained. 

The Philippines, just like the other countries that became independent, viewed forest as a source of timber, which was a source of revenue given the increased demand for tropical hardwood by the high-income countries, says Ponting (1991).

Modern logging and farming have scarred the country’s landscape. Ponting (1991) claims that “in the Philippines, a third of the agricultural land suffers from serious soil erosion” as a result of modern agriculture (p. 258).

[1] Carl Sagan (1986) introduced this technique that has been used by other scientists. I replicated this technique while teaching an Environmental Management Course at the Master in Public Management Program of the Development Academy of the Philippines in 2002-2003.
[2]This is derived “from a cosmological model based on the Hubble constant and the densities of matter and dark energy.” Retrieved July 26, 2014 from
[3] The Holy Bible describes the creation of the world. In science, there are at least three theories how life began, namely through the tide pool, hydrothermal event, and lightning.
[13] Jocano (2011) argues that the islands of Southeast Asia were “clean slates, demographically, until peopled by groups of humans who immigrated (or drifted) into the region (pp.52-53)
[14]Jocano (2001) claims that “to say that Filipinos are racially Malays or that Filipino culture is derived from the Malays is to create a myth of origin that has no basis in fact (p.55).”
[15]See Dean Worcester, The Philippines Past and Present retrieved July 29, 2014 from
[16]See Dean Worcester, The Philippines Past and Present retrieved July 29, 2014 from inspired Worcester to declare: “We must teach them that agriculture comes before art; that a public office is a public trust; that the enormous potential wealth of their forests is worth preserving…(p.970)”
[17] Angel C. Alcala in his Foreword to Heaney and Regalado (1998) retrieved July29, 2014 from
[20] Renato Constantino put the population (pre-Spanish settlements) at 750,000. See A Past Revisited, p. 27
[21]See also Francisco de Sande, "Relation of the Filipinas Islands, June 7, 1576," BR, Vol. IVE, p. 67
[22]See also Diego de Aduarte, "Historia de la Provincial del Sancto Rosario de la Orden de Predicadores," BR, Vol.XXXII, p. 199
[23] The U.S. Military Governor renamed “Inspeccion” into the Forestry Bureau on April 14, 1900. Retrieved July 29, 2014 from

[1] The U.S. Military Governor renamed “Inspeccion” into the Forestry Bureau on April 14, 1900. Retrieved July 29, 2014 from

Hornedo, Florentino H. (1997). Pagmamahal and Pagmumura Essays. Quezon City: ADMU-Office of Research and Pub.
Hornedo, Florentino H. (2002). Pagpakatao and Other Essays in Contemporary Philosophy and Literature of Ideas. Manila, Philippines: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.
Jocano, F. Landa. (1988). Filipino prehistory: rediscovering precolonial heritage. Philippines: Punlad Research House.
Sathiamurthy, E.; Voris, H.K. (2006). Pleistocene Sea Level Maps for the Sunda Shelf. Chicago IL: The Field Museum.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2014, August 14). Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Retrieved from
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2014, August 19). Homo sapiens. Retrieved from
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2014, August 19). Introduction to Human Evolution. Retrieved from
Tan, Samuel K. (1997). A History of the Philippines. Quezon City: Manila Studies Association, Inc. and Philippine National Historical Society, Inc.

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