Unity in Diversity: The Museum of the Filipino People

This essay echoes my personal thoughts on the Museum of the Filipino People, a special collection of the Philippine National Museum. This is aimed at bringing awareness to the deconstruction of Philippine history and culture; for it is only by deconstruction that we get to truly appreciate national treasures. 🙂

The National Museum’s Museum of the Filipino People presents a unilinear and Western-loaned concept of prehistory. It uses Christian Thomsen’s Three Age System, which divides materials into successive Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. It also divides materials based on seriation, which looks at patterns among artefact types (Renfrew et al. 2000). The MFP largely presents a descriptive narrative, which draws on culture history. This is not surprising though, considering that the exhibit was put up 10 years ago, where culture history still largely dominated the archaeological scene (Valientes 2009).

Our prehistory was divided into the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Metal, Protohistoric (or Age of Contact, or Ceramic Age), then, the Historic Period. This is largely based on differences in technology, subsistence strategies and settlement patterns among others.

The MFP emphasizes the Philippines’ role on the maritime trading map by devoting a large portion on underwater archaeology. This makes the audience realize the rich array of natural resources in the country, worthy of trading with the local products of India, China and mainland Southeast Asia. Finds from underwater archaeology also stresses the fact that the Philippines is not an island “discovered” by Magellan (as is usually written in textbooks), because we’ve been in contact with our neighbors for a long time already.

New Developments

Although early contacts include China, India and Mainland SEA, new evidences show that the Philippines had also been in contact with Island SEA, an example of which is the glass bead trade from Sungai Mas, Malaysia to Palawan, Philippines (Cayron 2006), as well as from East Java to the Philippines (Francis 2002). Based on these glass bead finds, Francis proposes three modifications in the dating of our prehistory: (1) extending the end of the Early Metal Age forward to about AD 1; (2) putting the start of the Early Phase of the Age of Trade a half century or so earlier; and (3) combining the Early and Middle Phases of the Age of Trade until more sites of the Early Phase have been excavated.

It would have been interesting to note that it was in Sung Shih (Sung Annals), in 972 CE, that the first historic reference to the Philippines appeared (Scott 1984). There was a mention of a certain Ma-i, believed to be Mindoro; San-hsu, a yet unidentified polity in the country; and P’u-tuan (Butuan), all of which exported cotton, beeswax, true pearls, tortoise shells, medicinal betelnuts and yu-ta cloth to China (Dizon 2004). In the MFP, the importance of these polities was not highlighted.

As was stated earlier, the MFP narrative shows the country’s history as unilinear, in that we go from one stage to another. Today, we know that history cannot be reduced to definite stages because there will always be overlaps. For example, hunting and gathering subsistence strategies were not totally replaced by horticulture, for in fact, all these strategies complement each other (Bellwood et al. 2003). As is asserted by Bacus (2004), “Rice cultivation was not necessarily the main focus of subsistence in the Neolithic.” She adds that in Guri Cave on Palawan Island, a 3rd millennium BC site was found, composed of a marine shell midden and remains of hunted wild pig and deer. The date of these finds actually coincides with evidences of rice cultivation in the archipelago. Rabel Cave, considered the earliest site for rice cultivation, is dated to mid-4th to late 3rd millennium BC; next is that of the Pintu Rockshelter, dated to around mid-3rd to mid-2nd millennium BC (Bacus 2004). Snow et al. (1985) found another evidence of rice cultivation in the country from a pottery found at the Andarayan site in Cagayan Valley, dated to around early to mid-second millennium BC.

The MFP was unable to give a rough picture of ancient settlements, probably due to scarcity in data. As Bacus (2004) asserts, one example of an early settlement is that of Dimolit on the northeast coast of Luzon, where at around early 3rdto late 2nd millennium BC, postholes of two square houses, each with remains of a hearth, were found.

The oldest known pre-Hispanic wooden boats found in Butuan, dated to 320 CE, 990 CE and 1250 CE (Dizon 2004) were very important archaeological finds, but the only thing about Butuan highlighted in MFP. But, recent excavations suggest that Butuan is not just about boats. According to Bacus (2004), Butuan would have been the 1st Philippine polity to have sent a mission to Champa, as recorded in the Chinese “Song Shih,” evident in a Middle Eastern polychrome glass jarlet, Chinese tradewares, spindle whorls, wooden tools, more than 100 clay crucibles and ear ornaments, dated to the 9th– 10thcentury. As Ronquillo (1989) adds, “These boats… suggest that Butuan was on the map of a thriving maritime trading network in Southeast Asia.”

MFP highlights the many burial sites excavated in the country, which gives us a picture of the belief and cultural systems of our ancestors. In Pinagbayanan, along Laguna de Bay, a unique burial practice was also found, wherein the corpse was bundled together with grave goods in some type of matting (Tenazas n.d.).

Recent and very interesting bioarchaeological finds are worthy of being included in the MFP, among them the evidence of tiger in Ille Cave in Palawan (Piper et al. 2008), as represented by “a complete basal phalanx of the 2nd digit of the left manus and the distal portion of a subterminal phalanx of the 2nddigit of the left manus.” Also worthy of being added to the collection is the Callao “Man” (not yet sure whether the find is a man or a woman) found in Cagayan Valley, represented by a metatarsal, which is given an age of 67,000 years old, now having the distinction of being the oldest evidence of human occupation in the Asia-Pacific (Tan 2010).

On the Origin and Movement of the Filipinos

The MFP takes a seemingly neutral stand on the origin of the Filipinos, but it cannot be denied that it relies heavily on Bellwood’s (1997) theory on the Austronesian origin, which states that before 3,000 BC, people from South China came to Taiwan, then moved on to the Philippines at around 2,000- 1,500 BC. This is further asserted by Bellwood and Dizon (2005), stating that the origin for the Batanes Neolithic points to eastern Taiwan, as is strongly evidenced by pottery similarities between Torongan and Chaolaiqiao. The similarities are so strong that “one is tempted to link this movement with the linguistic establishment of Proto-Malayo-Polynesian and the origins of the Extra-Formosan subgroups of Austronesian languages.”

On the other hand, Solheim (2006) argues that Bellwood and Dizon’s assertion could not be possible because of the Kuroshio current that flows northwards up the eastern coastlines of Luzon and Taiwan towards Japan, discouraging any direct sailing from Taiwan to the Philippines. Solheim (2006) believes that there is “no simple direct route to and through the Philippines… bringing people in many directions over many different routes.” He also hypothesizes that the beginning development of Pre-Austronesian is in the general area of the Bismarck Islands south and east of Mindanao.

Meanwhile, Szabo and O’Connor (2004), in their study of the relationship between language and material culture, suggest that the Austronesian expansion models put a stress on vertical processes of cultural transmission (i.e. generational transmission through time) over horizontal processes (i.e. cultural exchange across space). This is problematic because, “while historical linguistics can give insights into cultural traits of Austronesian-speakers, it cannot tell us about the culture of earlier non-Austronesian groups whose languages have not survived.”

Since MFP was put up 10 years ago, no genetic studies were incorporated in the exhibit. In 2006, research headed by Dr. Corazon de Ungria, entitled “Genetic Studies of Selected Philippine Populations,” released the preliminary results of the study, which is aimed at tracing the history of human movement within the archipelago. Dr. de Ungria’s team collected over 2,000 Filipino regional samples, and through comparison with the available genetic data of our Asian neighbors, it was seen that the Philippine population can be clustered with the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese populations. The team plans to embark on a follow-up research, wherein they will consider cultural practices like inbreeding and migration rate, which are strong influences in the mixing of populations.


I think it’s high time that the National Museum revamp its exhibit on the archaeological finds in the country because apart from the new evidences that are worthy of adding to in the collection, a periodization that is more appropriate in the Philippine context should be used instead. As proposed by Jocano (1975), it would be far better to divide Philippine prehistory into five phases: Mythic, Formative, Incipient, Emergent and Baranganic; where the Mythic Phase is dominated by animism, and by beliefs in Bathala, Sicalac and Sigavay, Malakas and Maganda, and the like; the Formative Phase (50,000- 500 BC) which overlaps with the Palaeolithic and Neolithic; the Incipient Phase (500 BC- 1000 AD) which is the Metal Age; the Emergent Phase (1000- 1400 AD) where international contact and trade, and a system of writing developed; and the Baranganic Phase (14th– 16th century) which commemorates the arrival of the Spaniards.

Another periodization is proposed by Casal et al., (1981), wherein Philippine prehistory would be divided into the Formative Period, which includes human adaptation to Pleistocene and postglacial Holocene environments, lasting to around 500 BC; Incipient Period, from 800 BC- 1 AD, where the archipelago becomes less isolated; and the Emergent Period, wherein international contacts and “Filipino” cultural patterns are finally emerging.

These proposed periodizations can be used because they are more applicable to the Philippine setting. In fact, Thomsen’s Three-Age System cannot be used to explain the scarcity of tools with modes 2, 3 and 4 in Southeast Asia (Ochoa 2010). This is unfortunate because it may be wrongly assumed by the audience that prehistoric Filipinos were “backward” and “primitive” owing to the fact that they were not able to produce tools more sophisticated than Mode 1. Today, many explanations are proposed to explain this phenomenon, and the most widely-accepted is the “Bamboo Hypothesis” wherein stones could have only been used as expedient tools to make more complex ones (Oxenham et al. 2006).

It is recommended that the MFP should not only revitalize its periodization, but also, its use of an evolutionary perspective, wherein an implication of “newer is better” is put into context. For example, in “The Age of Horticulture,” it was stated that the quality of life improved during this time. Recent studies show that this is absolutely untrue, for many infectious, more so non-infectious diseases, were introduced during this period of increased sedentism (Kottak 2002).

Although the exhibit is quite globally-focused, in that it also paved the way to present the country’s place in the maritime trade between other Asian nations, it would be better if a move towards anthropological archaeology will be in place. We cannot get away with culture history (Gamble 2001), but through this approach, culture history shall not be the only thing that would be emphasized, for, more importantly, the social, economic and political significances of these finds will be highlighted as well (Orser 1995).

For example, the gold death mask in Oton, Iloilo, and the gold pegs riveted to the teeth found in Bolinao, Pangasinan, are not just “gold finds” amusing to look at. These could be reminders of the existence of social stratification, or, of an emerging polity (Manguin 2004). Manguin also adds that materials made of precious materials like gold and silver are most probably status markers of social elites; and are markers, too, of links with distant sources of knowledge for use in the creation of social and economic obligations. This, in turn, could be an evidence for an emerging complex society.

Another example where anthropological archaeology fits suitably is the burial markers in Batanes. These markers are reminders that burial practices have already existed in the country thousands of years ago. But, they can be more than that. According to Bacus (2004), mortuary practices suggest small, sedentary corporate groups with internal status differentiation, who controlled stable, localized resources such as land for farming.

Based on these two examples, a difference in the audience’s outlook on these finds would be very apparent had they been given these kinds of descriptions. The finds would seem more alive, for they become more representative of the people and the culture they once lived with. Giving the social, economic and political significances of these finds would make these material cultures more alive and valuable, and would make the larger Filipino public appreciate them more, not only as artefacts, but more so as pieces of a history they are a part of.

This exhibit does not only show the emerging field of archaeology in the country, but also, the continuing political and social strife in the country, as is evidenced by the paucity of excavations outside Palawan and Luzon, especially in the South. It is hoped that more excavations could be done in the South, because linguistically, it is very diverse (de Ungria et al. 2006). In the end, it is hoped, too, that National Museum, as a vanguard of Philippine ideals, culture and history, could close these differences and make us realize the value of “Unity in Diversity” through powerful narratives aided largely by the growing field of Philippine archaeology.
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