The Rarely Told Story of Pre-Colonial Philippines
The Philippines were ruled by Western powers - first the Spanish and later the United States, for some 350 years. Except for a few religious minorities, the Philippines has also become thoroughly Christianized and boasts of being the only country in Southeast Asia with a Christian majority. This leaves few traces of its pre-colonial history, in which the culture of the archipelago was influenced by India, China, and Southeast Asian civilizations. The pre-colonial Philippines was also influenced by spiritual traditions from indigenous animism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
The Earliest Humans in the Philippines
In 2018, evidence was found suggesting that early humans may have reached the islands as far back as 700,000 years ago. Skeletal remains of an extinct rhinoceros dating to the mid-Pleistocene have been found at an archaeological site on the island of Luzon. The bones show evidence of having been cut with stone tools. Stone tools were also found adjacent to the bones. This is a definite indication that a tool-using species was present on the island at that date.
Although no associated human remains have been found, paleontologists think that the makers of the tools were most likely related to Homo Erectus , one of the earliest human species. This date would be too early for these tools to have been made by Homo Sapiens .
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Four of the 13 Rhinoceros Philippinensis bones, with cut and butcher marks, were analyzed and presented in the article "Earliest known hominin activity in the Philippines by 709,000 years ago” by Dr. Thomas Ingicco, et al. The fossils are now on display at the National Museum of Natural History. ( Public Domain )
Based on archaeological knowledge of the technological capabilities of Homo Erectus , it is considered unlikely that these early humans arrived there by intentional navigation. They more likely reached it by way of a natural raft, expelled into the open ocean by a typhoon, that happened to wash up on the island. Nonetheless, it is still a remarkable find that humans may have been present in the Philippines for almost a million years because they were previously believed to have only inhabited the islands within the last 100,000 years.
The earliest evidence of a regular human presence in the Philippines dates to about 50,000 BP. By the 2nd Millennium BC, agriculture and sedentary living had been introduced to the archipelago and at least some of the indigenous inhabitants of the islands were living in settled villages, making pottery, and cultivating rice.
Rock carvings (petroglyphs) from the Philippines. Photo Lloyd Intalan, 2005. The carvings pictured are located at Angono in Rizal, Philippines. (LFIntalan/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Ancient Interactions Between the Philippines and Southeast Asia
Beginning in the first millennium AD, indigenous chiefdoms emerged on the islands and had regular trade contact with Southeast Asia and China. Archaeological evidence shows that the chiefdoms could support craft specialists such as metalsmiths and textile workers. Chieftains also distributed long distance trade goods and plunder from war raids to both their elite and non-elite servants. Over time, these chiefdoms became full-fledged kingdoms.
Trading at Port of Sugbu, circa 1521 modern day Cebu, Philippines by Manuel Pañares. Chinese, Anamese, Cambodian, Europeans and Arabs entered and traded at the Cebu Port. Gold, cotton, and slaves were bartered in exchange of silk, porcelain, beads, and other metals. Traders paid tribute to the King of Cebu. (Liane777/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Writing was also prevalent in the Philippines during this time. The scripts used on the islands were influenced by writing systems from India and Indonesia. Unfortunately, very few texts survive from that period, although there is one known precolonial Philippines artifact that contains writing, the Laguna Copperplate , from about 900 AD.
This plate bears what appears to be an official inscription written in a script used across Maritime Southeast Asia at the time. This script was ultimately derived from an Indian script. It also references a date using a lunar calendar that was common across Southeast Asia. The Laguna Copperplate demonstrates that the islands were not isolated and suggests that they had significant contact with the rest of Southeast Asia as early as the 10th century AD, if not earlier.
Laguna Copperplate inscription. ( Public Domain )
Religion in the Pre-Colonial Philippines
Religion has often been an important part of defining the identity of the inhabitants of the Philippines. Before the arrival of foreign religions from the West, such as Christianity and Islam, the predominant religious system in the Philippine archipelago was a type of animism.
The ancient inhabitants of the Philippines, as well as some modern Filipinos who still practice the old religion, believed that gods and spirits guarded natural features such as mountains, rivers, and forests. Sacrifices would regularly be offered to these entities to appease them.
An Itneg shaman renewing an offering to the spirit shield (1922, Philippines). ( Public Domain )
Every village or town had shamans and priests who were believed to wield power over the supernatural world. While foreign religions largely replaced indigenous animism, many elements of the old religion were carried over into the new.
Buddhist and Hindu Influences in the Philippines’ History
The first foreign religions to make a mark on the archipelago may have been Buddhism and Hinduism. Around 900 AD, several of the island polities were vassal states of the Empire of Srivijaya. Srivijaya was a city-state on the island of Sumatra and a center of Buddhist learning that flourished roughly from 700 to 1100 AD.
Vairocana Buddha, 9c, Srivijaya, National Museum, Bangkok, Thailand, National Museum, Bangkok, Thailand. (Anandajoti Bhikkhu/ CC BY 2.0 )
It is possible that Buddhist missionaries may have gone out from this center to bring their faith to the islands of the Philippines. Although there are no historical records that describe a significant Buddhist presence on the islands before the colonial period, there is evidence of Buddhist as well as Hindu influence from the use of a lunar calendar that developed in an originally Hindu and Buddhist context.
Islam in the Philippines
By the 14th century AD, Islam had spread to islands of Mindanao and Sulu. Not long afterwards, powerful sultanates grew on these islands and Islam became entrenched so strongly that areas on these islands still remain Islamic today, in the otherwise Christian Philippines. But it is unclear how Islam first spread to the Philippines.
It has been suggested that it might have been spread by merchants from Indonesia and India. It has also been proposed that some Filipino rulers converted to Islam to strengthen political ties with powerful Islamic trading partners in Southeast Asia. Others have suggested that Sufi scholars and other Muslim teachers went to the islands to intentionally spread Islam.
Native commoners wearing simpler clothes and with little or no gold jewelry (possibly Muslims). ( Public Domain )
Whether Islam spread primarily by trade, politics, or by deliberate proselytizing, Islam had a significant influence on the culture of the Philippines. The Islamic polities that developed on the southern islands were centralized and influential. It is possible that, had the Spanish not arrived, it would not have been long before the Philippines became predominantly Islamic.
These alien religions did not, however, completely replace indigenous traditions. Indigenous Muslims were able to incorporate their native beliefs and practices into Islam just as easily as indigenous Christians have done with Catholic Christianity.
The Santo Niño de Cebú, one of the oldest Christian relics in the Philippines. (Ellismendez/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The islands of the Philippines have a varied and diverse human history possibly going back 700,000 years and involving multiple cultures and even species ( Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens ).
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The culture of the Philippines has been influenced by many civilizations, such as China, India, and Srivijaya. It has also been influenced by many religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.
Nonetheless, the indigenous people of the Philippines have remained distinctive. Even those who converted to Islam or Christianity incorporated their cultural individuality into their adopted faith and made it their own. This pattern will likely continue as the people of the Philippines continue to fuse all that is authentically Filipino with new ideas and cultural influences.
Tagalog maginoo (noble class) wearing blue (the distinctive color of his class) and his wife. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Representations in the Boxer Codex of two of the ethnic groups of people living in the Pre-Colonial Philippines - A Zambal Couple ( Public Domain ) and Pintados of the Visayas (Leyte or Samar). ( Public Domain )
By Caleb Strom
Majul, Cesar Adib. Muslims in the Philippines . Asian Center, 1973.
“How the Philippines became Catholic” by Jayeel Carnelio (N.D.). Christian History. Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2018/february/philippines.html
Bacus, Elisabeth. "Later prehistory of the Philippines: colonial images and archaeology." Archaeology International 2 (1998).
“Ancient humans settled the Philippines 700,000 years ago” by Lizzie Wade (2018). Science. Available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/05/ancient-humans-settled-philippines-700000-years-ago-new-fossils-reveal
“Religion in the Philippines” by Jack Miller. Available at: https://aboutphilippines.ph/documents-etc/Religion-in-the-Philippines.pdf
Snow, Bryan E., et al. "Evidence of early rice cultivation in the Philippines." Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 14.1 (1986): 3-11.
Jocano, F. Landa. Filipino prehistory: rediscovering precolonial heritage . Punlad Research House, 1998.
“The Laguna Copperplate Inscription: An Ancient Text That Changed the Perception of the History of the Philippines” by Dhwty (2015). Ancient Origins . Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-ancient-writings/laguna-copperplate-inscription-ancient-text-changed-perception-history-020630