Pre-historic Filipinos—the hunter and the hunted

Evidence from the last Ice Age and the Holocene period unearthed in Palawan’s Pilanduk Cave brings answers and more questions about our past

NATURAL WONDER A limestone outcrop where the Ille Cave in El Nido Palawan is located

I like zombie movies. I get a lot of satisfaction watching people survive the zombie apocalypse and, in the process, manage to acquire enough knowledge about zombies for future reference. When there were so many uncertainties at the beginning of the pandemic, I went full zombie apocalypse mode. Think on the level of cutting down clumps of full-grown bamboo in my garden with a machete to make spiky perimeter wall barriers! I read that the psychology behind enjoying zombie movies is the satisfaction one gets seeing people succeed against insurmountable odds. Having those clusters of bamboo shoots around the house on standby never felt so good. 

I find bamboo to be a noble member of the plant family. I have always had a healthy respect for them, although my mother detests them because the leaves become a menace for anyone who likes a tended garden and because she claims snakes just love to take shelter in them. 

Over 20 years ago, I enrolled myself in the Ayala Museum’s Docent Course, attending classes a few hours a week. The course prepares docents to give tours featuring the museum’s dioramas. The first diorama was in the country’s prehistoric past, where our ancestors used bamboo spears as weapons for hunting. I was so intrigued. We progressed because of our ability to fashion tools like stone to better hunt and build shelter and the like. Yes, we had stone tools and much more, including bamboo! Unfortunately, bamboo being organic and easily lost to our acidic soil does not survive the archaeological record as well as stone. 

FROM THE LAST ICE AGE Rare fossil find of a tiger (Panthera Tigris) among the archaeological materials recovered from Pilanduk Cave in Southern Palawan

Recently, findings from Pilanduk Cave in Southern Palawan have been making the rounds in the news because dates being released show human habitation in the cave dating back to the Ice Age or Pleistocene Epoch. The Ice Age started 2.4 million years ago and ended 11,500 years ago. During this time, the world experienced a number of glacial and interglacial events that saw modern human behavior adapt to the rapidly changing environment. Archaeological materials recovered from Pilanduk Cave were dated to be 20,000 to 25,000 years old, which tells us that, during the last great Ice Age or the Last Glacial Maxima (LGM) (30,000-19,000 years ago), a group of people inhabited Pilanduk Cave.

During LGM, sea levels dropped over 120 meters below the current sea level, creating what we now call land bridges. Southern Philippines was then connected to Mainland Southeast Asia via Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. To the north, the sea was significantly lower between the Philippines and Taiwan (which by this time was connected to what is now called China). During the time of habitation, Pilanduk Cave was 40 kilometers from the coastline. Today, it is only one kilometer from the shore. That is how much the sea receded during LGM. And this is why a lot of LGM sites in the Philippines are now underwater, except for a few, like Pilanduk Cave.

REMNANTS OF GLACIATION Pilanduk Cave in Southern Palawan, one of the last remaining Great Ice Age sites in the Philippines, dated to be around 20,000 to 25,000 years old

Based on bone evidence, we know that at this time inhabitants of the cave hunted large game animals like two large deer now extinct, the Sambar type deer and the Calamian hog deer. Archaeologists even found tiger bone!

I highly suggest you read Narciso C. Tan’s book, Pugot: Head Taking, Ritual Cannibalism, and Human Sacrifice in the Philippines, where he lists accounts of ritual cannibalism on the islands witnessed by Chinese and European travelers in the past.

There is evidence that these animals were hunted, butchered, and processed, their remains discarded on site. As climate changed, the environment changed and the type of animals being hunted changed as well. From large game, a few thousand years later you see the smaller game being caught and eaten in greater quantities. You also see evidence they harvested freshwater mollusks from inland rivers instead of from the sea, given the distance to the shore. During the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,500 years ago, people started using Pilanduk to bury their dead. Most of the ancient burial sites in the country are found in caves. One cave also in Palawan is Ille Cave in El Nido, where not long ago, the discovery of a burial site challenged what we knew about burial practices in the past.

CONTEMPLATION OF THE NOT-SO-DISTANT PAST Pugot, a book about our grizzly and fascinating past

Twenty years' worth of continuous archaeological excavation in Ille Cave has yielded so much forensic archaeological materials that it is now considered to be the best-dated archaeological site in the Philippines. Unearthed animal and human remains and an assortment of cultural artifacts were found to date back 14,000 years or more. One particular find stands out to date. It consists of seven human burials in small pits or stacks near each other, some possibly held together in some organic basket-type material that has since dissolved. The human remains show a highly complex and specialized burial ritual of cremation. Based on tests from one burial (the burials are believed to be contemporaneous), the remains were found to be about 9,000 years old. In the Philippines, the only other cremation site discovered is in Pila, Laguna, found to be from the 13th to 14th century AD.

What makes the Ille Cave find significant is the manner in which the remains were prepared for cremation. Upon study, the bones showed marks of scraping, cutting, and smashing, indicating that the body was defleshed, disarticulated, and smashed before being cremated. The practice of cremation in the world may have been around for 47,000 years. The defleshing, disarticulation, and smashing of bones (to extract marrow or brain) could suggest ritual cannibalism before cremation. Or quite simply the remains were prepared to make them fit in a container. I highly suggest you read Narciso C. Tan’s book, Pugot: Head Taking, Ritual Cannibalism, and Human Sacrifice in the Philippines, where he lists accounts of ritual cannibalism on the islands witnessed by Chinese and European travelers in the past. Back to Ille, to prepare the body in such a ritualized manner described above, cremation is a bit novel even for the region. Researchers will be debating about this Ille Cave find until more pieces of evidence are found to shed light on this practice.

LET'S LEARN ARCHEOLOGY The author (left) and her mentor UP-Archaeological Studies Program (UP-ASP) professor Dr. Victor Paz

Speculating how human marrow and brain are extracted from the bone at breakfast can only be done with a very select few. I had this conversation with my mentor, University of the Philippines Archaeological Studies Program Professor Victor Paz, a guiding intellectual light when I embarked on my master’s degree in archaeology eons ago and, recently, when I was organizing the personal effects of my uncle, the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos, in his old home in San Juan. 

Paz was a street parliamentarian during the Marcos years but he has remained level-headed, open-minded, and nurturing throughout our discussions about life. Here are snippets from one of my elucidating conversations with him.

If you were asked about the common denominator among CM Recto, JP Laurel, and Amang Rodriguez, what would your answer be?

They were all politicians, lawyers, and more or less the same generation. Older than FM (Ferdinand E. Marcos). All Tagalogs.

TEACHERS BEYOND THE CLASSROOM Mentors like UP-ASP professor Dr. Victor Paz are guides who help people like me achieve personal, academic, and professional growth

Collectively, what would they have taught you?

How to be a politician of their time. From nationalist to self-serving. Everyone became an icon.

Isn't ‘self-serving’ a bad thing?

Yes, it is. But you balance it with other stuff. They had to be self-serving to be good politicians. Very few get to the very top by accident.

These three were Marcos’ mentors. President Elpidio Quirino might have been too.

Not surprising. They were at the top of their game and were older than him.

STATESMEN The young congressman from the north, Ferdinand E. Marcos (center), with Presidents Ramon Magsaysay (left) and Carlos P. Garcia (Marcos Presidential Center)

The author would like to thank the dedicated archaeologists and researchers involved in the archaeological digs discussed in this story. Sources: Tropical Island Adaptations in Southeast Asia during the Last Glacial Maximum: Evidence from Palawan (Co-authors: Janine Ochoa, Jane Carlos, Myra Lara, Alexandra de Leon, Omar Choa, Patricia Cabrera, Maria Rebecca Ferreras, Dante Ricardo Manipon, Trishia Gayle Palconit, Gaddy Narte, and Ame Garong), Cambridge University Press, Aug. 1, 2022; Bone Modifications in an Early Holocene Cremation Burial from Palawan, Philippines (Co-authors: M. Lara M, V. Paz, H. Lewis, W. Solheim II), International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Sept. 1, 2015.