Before 1521: A dive into precolonial culture

“We were uncivilized, basically,” so says our average Juan.

This vista in retrospect of the ancient Filipinos descended from our colonizers to us modern-day Juans, where “uncivilized”, “savage”, and “pagans” prevail as the most common reflex to describe our ancestors. Such is an effect of the Western-influenced contemporary mindset that leads us to discriminate anything categorized as ethnic or indigenous.

However, comparing our pre-colonial history to those of our neighboring countries, we are to realize that much were leached from history books about the Philippines prior to 1521.  Oddly enough, you might find that on taking your average Juan on a blast to the past, he will be faced with a panorama of the gold and colorful woven thread that decorated our heritage.

“There is a discrepancy between what is actually known about the Philippine prehistory and what has been written about it,” as William Henry Scott, a renowned historian, described our national conundrum. The retelling of our history begins with the Spanish colonialism, when there is in fact much to be told of the days prior. One of the earliest human remains discovered in the Philippines are of those of the Tabon Man in Palawan, carbon-dated to circa 24,000 years ago, recently discovered is a single bone fossil at Callao cave which if proven to have come from a human will predate the Tabon Man at 67,000 years old.

Many wonder what the archipelago looked like and was called prior to the Spanish expedition. In the period that spanned between colonization and the era of the Tabon Man, the islands flourished and established their own forms and systems of writing and art, and were organized into social classes that elevated warriors and centered on maritime and agricultural practices.

Evident facts point out that ancient civilizations were aware of our land. The Greeks called the Philippines as “Golden Chersonese” together with the rest of the Malay Archipelago. The Chinese called Luzon as “Liu-sung”, Palawan as “Pa-lao-yu”, and Mindanao as “Min-to-lang”. The Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, called the islands as “Suvarnadvipa.”  Lastly, the Indo-Chinese kingdoms called our dear land as “Mahardlika”, which means “Noble”. And noble in fact we were, because those of the Philippine islands were known and respected for so much more.

Studies and the discovery of artifacts illustrate the eminent skills with which the ancient Filipinos handled gold as well as pottery. Rich in natural resources, gold was abundant in virtually all regions, and became a symbol of wealth as well as a means of barter. This paved the way for the excellence exuded by goldsmiths, having intricate designs that even the smallest gold buttons on a headpiece or the thinnest of coatings could be engraved. The use of gold went as far as even being melted on teeth that was tainted black or red, which was another common image of beauty during that time. Pottery, meanwhile, was of such superior quality that it forged and strengthened trade relations with countries like Japan, China, Arabia, and Borneo – these traders came to the Philippines seeking to take home with them several potted pieces. In fact, ancient Japanese records describe the jars made in Rusun (Luzon) to be so highly prized, even more so than gold.

The scarred and tattooed warriors were some of the most feared in the region, employed with practical fighting styles – constituting the fundamentals of the modern day Arnis or Eskrima, the national sport of trhe Philippines. To celebrate the success of their warriors, and to entertain them as well in their everyday, several types of music and a great variety of instruments were developed and thrived in the many islands.

Women occupied themselves with weaving, aside from pottery, which entailed the laborious process of transforming extracted plant fabric from abaca and pineapple, among others, into clothes, bamboo or other soft wood into hats and baskets, and painted leaves into mats and other decorative items. Many of these woven items were also sought after in trade.

With trading, the exchange of beliefs, knowledge, and art among the traders and the locals was inevitable. The Ancient Philippine scripts, for instance, were systems of writing that developed and flourished in the Philippine islands around 300 BCE. It arrived to our shores from the South Indian Brahmi scripts used in Asoka inscriptions and Pallava Grantha, a type of writing used in palm leaf books (grantha). To our great loss, by the end of 17th century the use of baybayin script was almost non-existent, as were many other practices of the pre-colonial Filipinos.

But while many are now at home in the urban jungles of today, taking Juan for a country ride, he will find that many of these practices still thrive in several ethnic groups who for so long resisted colonial influences, and for centuries have lived by the true traditional standards. The B’laan and Higaonon of Mindanao, the Tausug, the Visayan Mangyan, and the Ifugao and Ilongot of the North – these are only a few of the dozens that populate the archipelago. These tribes have so much to boast of in terms of culture and heritage, trading in their kanggas and nose flutes for faded jeans and guitars and yet the younger generations shun it away.

Bridging the gap between history and today has proven to be a struggle of the Filipino youth. Confusion of our national identity has far gone out of hand – we are more proud to associate ourselves with foreign cultures rather than hold pride in being Filipino. It is not other people that laugh and condemn but it is we ourselves who do so, and this continuously poses a challenge to the preservation of the culture, inherently and undeniably Pinoy. Until Juan takes the first step to getting to know our true and full past, and only if he embraces all of its uncharacteristic beauty, this heritage of ours will continue to slip away, until there is none of it left for us to embrace.


Kauthar Usop

By Kauthar Usop

Dana Uson

By Dana Uson

Gio Gloria

By Gio Gloria

20 replies on “Before 1521: A dive into precolonial culture”

Leave a Reply