It is believed that around 3000 B.C. Malay people—or people that evolved into the Malay tribes that dominate Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines—arrived in the Philippines. About 2300 years ago Malay people from the Asian mainland or Indonesia arrived in the Philippines and brought a more advanced culture; iron melting and production of iron tools, pottery techniques and the system of sawah's (rice fields). Additional migrations took place over the next millennia.

Many believe the first Malays were seafaring, tool-wielding Indonesians who introduced formal farming and building techniques. According to Lonely Planet: “ It's fair to assume that this bunch was busily carving out the spectacular rice terraces of North Luzon some 2000 years ago. With the Iron Age came the Malays. Skilful sailors, potters and weavers, they built the first permanent settlements and prospered from around the A.D. 1st century until the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived. The wave migration theory holds that the Malays arrived in at least three ethnically diverse waves. The first wave provided the basis for the modern-day Bontoc and other tribes of North Luzon. The second laid the foundations for the most dominant of modern-day indigenous groups - the Bicolano, Bisayan and Tagalog. The third wave is thought to have established the fiercely proud Muslim Malays.” [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Over time, social and political organization developed and evolved in the widely scattered islands. The basic unit of settlement was the barangay (a Malay word for boat that came to be used to denote a communal settlement). Kinship groups were led by a datu (chief), and within the barangay there were broad social divisions consisting of nobles, freemen, and dependent and landless agricultural workers and slaves. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The social and political organization of the population in the widely scattered islands evolved into a generally common pattern. Only the permanent-field rice farmers of northern Luzon had any concept of territoriality. The basic unit of settlement was the barangay, originally a kinship group headed by a datu (chief). Within the barangay, the broad social divisions consisted of nobles, including the datu; freemen; and a group described before the Spanish period as dependents. Dependents included several categories with differing status: landless agricultural workers; those who had lost freeman status because of indebtedness or punishment for crime; and slaves, most of whom appear to have been war captives. *

Written records and archeological artifacts from this period are few. “Migration is only one theory. “An alternative proposed by some Philippine scholars suggests that the early inhabitants of Southeast Asia were of the same racial group (the Pithecanthropus group, to be exact), with more or less the same traditions and beliefs. Over time, they say, divisions formed according to the demands of the environment.” =

Ancient People in the Philippines

Recorded Philippine history began in the 13th century when 10 datus from Borneo, each with a hundred of his kinsmen, landed in what is now Panay Island in the Visayas.

Ibaloi mummies placed in caves in central Luzon between 10th and 18th centuries still survive. Old or seriously ill Ibaloi who believed to be were on the verge of dying sometimes prepared their bodies for mummification by drinking a brine solution to cleanse their bodies. Thirty-two Ibaloi mummies in four caves near Kabayan, 200 miles north of Manila, are bring threatened by logging, vandalism and rodents. In 1998, the World Monuments Fund placed the Kabayan caves in their list of the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites.

The famous rice terraces in Banue are said to be 2000 years old. The Ifugao tribe that created them are believed to have arrived from China around 2000 years ago. See Minorities and Places.

Chinese and Tibetan Links to First Wave of Settlers to the Philippines

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese, Cambodians, Filipinos and Indonesians originated from southern China. This belief is partly based on linguistic evidence. The Austronesian family of languages—which are spoken as far west as Madagascar, as far south of New Zealand, as far east as Easter island and which all Philippine and Polynesian languages belong— most likely originated in China. A great diversity of these languages is found in Taiwan, which has led some to conclude they originated there or on the nearby mainland. Others believe they may have originated in Borneo or Sulawesi or some other place.

The ancestors of modern Southeast Asian people arrived from Tibet and China about 2,500 years ago, displacing the aboriginal groups that occupied the land first. They subsisted on rice and yams which they may have been introduced to Africa. In the Philippines, Austronesian-speaking people probably began arriving around 3000 B.C., most likely via Taiwan. After that they came in successive waves. The early people are believed to have migrated from south China through Taiwan and into Luzon and then followed he Cagayan River Valley.

Pottery and stone tools of southern Chinese origin dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found in Taiwan. The same artifacts have been found in archeological sites in the Philippines dating back to 3000 B.C. Because there were no land bridges linking China or Taiwan with the Philippines, one must conclude that ocean-going vessels were used to get to the Philippines. Genetic studies indicate that the closest genetic relatives of the Maori of New Zealand—which is very long way from any Ice Age land bridges— are found in Taiwan.

Southern Chinese culture, agriculture and domesticated animals (pigs, chickens and dogs) is believed to have spread from the Philippines through the islands of Indonesia to the islands north of New Guinea. By 1000 B.C., obsidian was being traded between present-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and present-day New Britain in Papua New Guinea, 2,400 miles away. Later southern Chinese culture spread eastward across the uninhabited islands of the Pacific, reaching Easter Island (10,000 miles from China) around A.D. 500.

Chinese researchers Feng Zhang, Bing Su, Ya-ping Zhang and Li Jin wrote in an article published by the Royal Society: “There has been controversy regarding the origin of Polynesian populations, which have been classified as a part of the Austronesian linguistic family. The express train hypothesis, a well-accepted theory on the origin of Austronesian (Diamond 1988), postulates that Proto-Austronesian originated in Taiwan and began to expand southward ca 5000–6000 years ago, by way of the Philippines and eastern Indonesia, and eventually navigated eastward to Micronesia and Polynesia. The ‘express train’ refers to the swift migration in the last leg of this journey starting from eastern Indonesia. Pertaining to East Asian diversity studies, the hypothesis of Taiwanese origin (referred to as the Taiwan homeland hypothesis) requires careful examination. [Source: “Genetic studies of human diversity in East Asia” by 1) Feng Zhang, Institute of Genetics, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University, 2) Bing Su, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, 3) Ya-ping Zhang, Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-resource, Yunnan University and 4) Li Jin, Institute of Genetics, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University, 2007, The Royal Society ***]

“To test the Taiwan homeland hypothesis, Su et al. (2000a,b) examined 19 Y-SNPs in 551 males from 36 populations living in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Surprisingly, there is a virtual absence of the Formosan haplotypes in Micronesia and Polynesia. However, the presence of all the Polynesian, Micronesian and Formosan haplotypes in Southeast Asians suggested that Southeast Asians might be the ancestral population for Formosan and Polynesian (Su et al. 2000a,b). Recently, Jin and colleagues examined 20 Y-SNPs and 7 Y-STRs in 1325 males from 29 Daic, 23 Polynesian and 11 Formosan populations, and showed that Taiwan is unlikely to be the homeland of Austronesian; and that Austronesian is not a genetically monophyletic group. Furthermore, the NRY evidence supported the idea that Polynesian and Formosan derived from Daic separately (Li Jin 2005, unpublished data). ***

“By assessing mtDNA variations in 640 individuals from nine tribes from Taiwan, Trejaut et al. (2005) showed the prevalence of several haplogroups (B4, B5a, F1a, F3b, E and M7) in the Formosan populations, which indicated that Taiwan was the common origin of the Austronesian populations. In addition, a new sub-haplogroup (B4a1a) was defined according to the sequence data, which supported the origin of Polynesian migration as being from Taiwan (Trejaut et al. 2005). One explanation for the inconsistent results, mainly between the NRY evidence and the mtDNA data, is that the migration pattern of the Proto-Austronesian populations may be different for the paternal and maternal lineages.” ***

Chinese Culture Displaces the Indigenous Culture

Inventions such as the animal harness and iron-making gave the ancient Chinese a technological advantage over their Stone Age neighbors. As people of Chinese origin moved across Asia they displaced and mixed with the local people, mostly hunter-gatherers whose tools and weapons were no match against of those the Chinese. It is also likely that many of the indigenous people died form diseases introduced by the people from China just as the original inhabitants of America were killed off by European diseases for which they had no resistance.

Even these Negritos adopted Chinese-influenced languages. The ancestors of the hunter-gatherers lives on in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and other Pacific islands. Seafarers that originated Southeast Asian colonized Philippines, Indonesia, Pacific islands such as Hawaii and Easter Island, New Zealand and even Madagascar in the first millennium A.D.

Not everyone agrees with these theories. Based on links between ancient Chinese history, the early Thai language and archeological discoveries in Southeast Asia, the scholar Paul Benedict has argued that Southeast Asia was a “focal point” for the cultural development of ancient man. There is some evidence that the earliest known agriculture and earliest metal working took place in Southeast Asia. Benedict is author of Austro-Thai Language and Culture .

Over the centuries, Indo-Malay migrants were joined by Chinese traders. A major development in the early period was the introduction of Islam to the Philippines by traders and proselytizers from the Indonesian islands. By A.D. 1500, Islam had been established in the Sulu Archipelago and spread from there to Mindanao; it reached the Manila area by 1565. In the midst of the introduction of Islam came the introduction of Christianity, with the arrival of the Spanish. *

Ancient Trade with China

The people in the Philippines had been trading with the Chinese over a long period of time long before the Spanish arrived. Phil Greco, a Los-Angeles-based entrepreneur, has salvaged more than 10,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain—some of them 2,000 years old and others from the Song and Ming dynasties— from 16 ship wreck sites off the Philippine islands of Panay, Mindanao and the Calamian Group, and auctioned them off in New York. Many of the pieces are in surprisingly good condition.

Greco has insured his collection of porcelain at $20 million but their value is unknown. He found the sites with the help of local fisherman and harvested the pottery using divers with weights and lines rather than tanks. In many cases the shipwrecks were embedded in coral reefs and required a considerably amount of work to extract. Archeologists and the Philippine government accuse Greco of plunder.

Chinese traders from what is now Fujian province began arriving in the Philippines in the 10th century. Natural resources from the jungle interior of the Philippines were traded for goods from China and Southeast Asia.

According to Lonely Planet: “The Chinese became the first foreigners to do business with the islands they called MaI as early as the 2nd century AD, although the first recorded Chinese expedition to the Philippines was in AD 982. Within a few decades, Chinese traders were regular visitors to towns along the coasts of Luzon, Mindoro and Sulu, and by around AD 1100 travellers from India, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Siam (Thailand) and Japan were also including the islands on their trade runs. Gold was by then big business in Butuan (on the northern coast of Mindanao), Chinese settlements had sprung up in Manila and on Jolo, and Japanese merchants were buying shop space in Manila and North Luzon. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

“For several centuries this peaceful trade arrangement thrived. Despite the island's well-known riches, the inhabitants were never directly threatened by their powerful Asian trading partners. The key, particularly in the case of China, was diplomacy. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the tribal leaders of the Philippines would make regular visits to Peking (Beijing) to honour the Chinese emperor.” =

Islam Introduced to the Philippines

Islam came to the southern Philippines in the 15th century from Malaysia and Sumatra via Brunei and Borneo. The religion spread to Palawan and Manila but was halted by the arrival of the Spanish. Islam has endured on the southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago between Borneo and Mindanao.

Islam was brought to the Philippines by traders and proselytizers from the Indonesian islands. By 1500 Islam had gained a foothold in much of coastal Philippines and was established in the Sulu Archipelago and spread from there to Mindanao; it had reached the Manila area by 1565. Muslim immigrants introduced a political concept of territorial states ruled by rajas or sultans who exercised suzerainty over the datu. Neither the political state concept of the Muslim rulers nor the limited territorial concept of the sedentary rice farmers of Luzon, however, spread beyond the areas where they originated. When the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, the majority of the estimated 500,000 people in the islands still lived in barangay settlements. *

Philippine Muslims regard themselves as descendants of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu. The Royal Sultanate of Sulu was an Islamic kingdom that ruled the islands and seas in the southern Philippines and northern Borneo long before the arrival of the Spanish. The Muslim sultanate of Brunei was a very powerful kingdom in the16th century. It ruled over all of Sarawak, Sabah and Borneo as well as part of the Sulu Islands and the Philippines.

The Spanish viewed the Muslims as natural enemies, identified with their Muslim rivals at home, the Moors of Morocco. There was some Muslim-Christian elements to the early conflicts with the Spanish. The “Moro Wars” continued off and on for 300 years after the Spanish arrived. The Christian Spanish had drove Muslims off the northern islands by the early 1600s. Later the Spanish attacked Muslim city-states on Mindanao and established a Jesuit base in eastern Mindanao in Zamboanga. The Muslims were excellent boatmen. After declaring jihad (holy war) against the Christians, they were able to defend their Islamic territories and raid Christian outposts. It wasn’t until the introduction of steamships in the 1800s that the power of the southern Muslim sultanate was brought under control by the Spanish.

Philippines Before the Spanish

Before European colonization, different parts of the Philippines at different times, were parts of or outposts for Southeast Asian kingdoms, most notably the powerful Majapahit Kingdom in East Java, which ruled over the islands of what is now Indonesian from 1294 to the 15th century. The Philippines was influenced by the Indian-based Majapahit and Srivjaya Kingdoms. The latter thrived from the 8th to 13th centuries and was centered in present-day Palembang, Sumatra.

When the Spanish arrived in 1565, the Philippines did not have a national identity. Instead, the archipelago were comprised of hundred of territories occupied by different tribal groups who fought and traded with one another. It was already a major cultural and trade crossroads. For hundreds years, Chinese, Japanese, Malays and even Hindus traded here.

In pre-colonial Philippines the Tagalogs had a writing system based on Sanskrit and an advanced metallurgy technology. They lived in loose “confederations” under a complicated social system with hierarchical ranking and a religion system that varied regionally. Chinese traders passed through the region with some regularity and Islamic sultanates were established in some areas, mainly in the south. Under the Spanish, the Tagalogs converted to Christianity and adopted more Western ways

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in the region. Magellan was Portuguese. They built trading bases in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, to the south of the Philippines in present-day Indonesia to exploit supplies of cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg found there.

In 1508, Spain began maneuvering for a stake in the spice trade. King Ferdinand, the leader of Spain at the time, held a meeting with the leading Spanish navigators of the time, including Amerigo Vespucci, and developed a plan to claim part of the spice trade. Conquistadors, including Hernan Cortes and Pedro de Alvarado, who had great success in Latin America, set off on expedition across the Pacific that ultimately was unsuccessful.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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