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Prehistoric Philippines

Some of the earliest written accounts of the Philippines can be traced back to chronicles from the Song Dynasty of China around the 12th century A.D.. Prehistory is usually the period previous to written accounts, but accounts of the Philippines previous to the Spanish period are sketchy at best, so here is a description of what archeologists have so far found from the earliest times of the Philippines up to the period near its discovery by Ferdinand Magellan.

The First Filipinos

The earliest evidence of human existence in the Philippines were found in the Cagayan Valley in the form of stone tools that date back to around 750,000 years ago, in the middle of the last ice age. This is the same period in which the Java man lived.

The Cagayan Valley is a fertile source of fossils of animals long extinct in the Philippines, such as the elepha, a kind of ancient elephant, stegodon, and rhinoceros. These animals are normally not found in islands, which leads many to believe that during the last ice age, when the level of the ocean was much lower, the Philippines was connected to the mainland through land bridges. It is hypothesized that these land bridges are also how the first stone-age Filipinos came to the islands.

Another area rich in archeological artifacts is the Tabon Caves of Palawan. The earliest human remains that have been dug up on the Philippines can be found here. The Tabon Man lived around 23,000 years ago. Along with the Tabon man, other artifacts were found, including a piece of charcoal datad back to 30,000 years ago, possibly the first use of fire in the Philippines.

Evidence from more than 100 archeological sites show that people had already sread through many different areas of the Philippines during the early stone age period.

Stone Tools

From 30,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago, stone tools began to develop in sophistication. The flaked tools found in the Cagayan sites began to give way to edge-ground tools, which then diversified into tools for specific purposes -- axe, gouge, chisel, etc. The tools then began to have the semblance of handles, and then soon transformed from crude implements to carefully polished artifacts.


From about 6,000 B.C. the first evidence of pottery can be found. And by 5,000 B.C., pottery was already widespread throughout the Philippines. The evidence from these pottery tell us a lot about how the people in the Philippines were living.

Embedded in a shard of pottery from about 2000 B.C. found in the Cagayan valley was a grain of rice. This provides evidence that the people during that time were already cultivating rice, the staple food of Filipinos.

But most impressive of the pottery are the burial jars. Placing their dead in jars and leaving them in caves seem to be a common practice in those days. However, the way this is done varies from place to place, some of the bodies are placed whole into the jars. In some areas, the body is buried first, and the bones are only later dugged up to be placed in the jar. One of the most beautiful burial jars found is the Manunngul Jar, dated around 900 B.C., an intricately desgined jar with a circular lid on top of which is two figures on a boat, journeying into the great beyond.

The different ways in which people buried their dead shows us that culture had begun to develop separately in different regions of the Philippines. The jars tell us that the earliest people of the Philippines had great respect for the dead, and probably believed in an afterlife. The differences in quality of the jars tell us that even back then, some people had greater means than others.

The Metal Age

A brass needle, found in the northern part of the Philippines, perhaps from around 2000 B.C. provide the earliest evidence of metal work in the Philippines. In Palawan, bronze tools and gold beads were found from around 500 to 200 B.C..

There is no evidence that metal was mined in the Philippines until the modern age, and thus the metal is assumed to have come from trade with the mainland. Evidence of trade with people outside the Philippines also comes from the excavation of boats. A boat dating from 320 A.D. was excavated in Butuan, in the northern part of Mindanao that is consistent in construction with other water vessel from other regions of Southeast Asia. This boat was strong enough and large enough to sail in the open seas.

Metal implements allowed for greater agricultural development. People living the plains and other low-lying areas now begin monocrop planting, that is, planting only one crop in a given area of land. Rice, particularly, was began to be planted throughout the country. People in the mountains, however still used the kaingin, or slash and burn technique, and used intercrop planting.

The Ceramic Age

The proliferation of ceramic artifacts from 1000 A.D. bear witness to the increased trade between Filipinos and other Asian nations. Chinese pottery distinctive of the five dynasties are found in Butuan, and Batangas. The earliest known high fired ceramics were found in Batangas, the glaze of which was analyzed to be of Egyptian in origin. There are also ceramics identified to be from Arabia and Persia.

Ceramics from Thailand and Vietnam were also found in excavations. But most of the ceramics came from China. The earliest ceramic shard with the distinctive blue under the glaze dates at around A.D. 1175, it came from a garbage mound in Manila.

By the 15th century, trade with China was so heavy that Chinese ceramics from this period is relatively common and found in numerous sites all around the Philippines.

During these times, the Philippines has developed its own cultures, different across regions of the Philippines. Large communities have developed along port towns -- Cebu, Iloilo, Manila -- cities that remain some of the most densely populated to this day.

While there was a large amount of trade, evidence suggests that it was mostly barter. A small amount of Chinese coins have been excavated, but it is not yet known whether they were used with any regularity to purchase goods.

Political structures have sprung up. In the northern parts these centered around large trading communities. But it was in the south, where Islam had been introduced, where the groups have become highly organized based on islamic structures, filtered by hindu-buddhist influences.

The Philippines was in this state when the Spaniards came and changed the face of the country.

Jesus H. Peralta, Prehistory of the Philippines, http://www.ncca.gov.ph/phil._culture/traditional_arts/glimpses/prehistory/glances/glances_prehistory.htm

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