A fascinating prehistory

Author’s note: I wrote this column piece in 2002, under the same title. It was published in the Nov. 29 issue ( vol. 14 no. 8 ) of the Baguio-based Northern Dispatch Weekly. My son, mentioned as a third-grade school boy in the essay, is now a second-year college student. I often wonder but forget to ask him whether college history textbooks still contain the story of Indonesian-A and Indonesian-B, or have they been expunged. Anyway, my take on the story still stands, and I hope my dear readers will learn something new once they finish reading this piece, which I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting nearly 10 years later.
Cagayan warrior ca. 16th century from the Boxer Codex
Did our ancient ancestors really arrive in the Philippines in waves? Image of Cagayan warrior drawn circa 16th century as part of the Boxer Codex doesn't seem to provide a good answer to this puzzling question of Philippine prehistory.

My younger son is in Grade 3, and sometimes I’m called upon to help him do his homework or review for his periodic exams.

A month ago, as I was checking his homework, we fell into a heated argument.

He claimed that the people of the Cordillera were descended from the first wave of Malays that came over here, while the rest of Luzon lowland peoples (e.g. Kapampangan, Tagalog) and the Visayans were descended from a second wave of Malays. He proceeded to lecture to me that the Malays were preceded by Indonesians, who also came in two waves–Type A and Type B.

I tried to explain to him, in terms an eight-year-old mind could grasp, that the wave migration theory of how our country was populated — most elaborately developed by Dr. H. Otley Beyer — has been debunked by most scholars of Philippine prehistory for quite some time now. But no, my son insisted, I was utterly wrong, and how dare I question his teacher and his textbook!

Okay, I said, show me where this is taught in your book. He pulled out his Pilipinas: Bayan Mo, Bayan Ko (3), which was the school’s designated textbook for Third Grade “Sibika at Kultura.”

And, to my utter incredulity, there it was indeed — on pages 66-71. It even had a drawing of the “first-wave Indonesians” (tall, lean, with thin lips, aquiline noses and large eyes) side by side with the “second-wave Indonesians” (smaller stature but stockier build, with thick lips and flat noses).

It appears that many grade-school tetbooks continue to perpetuate unfounded myths and obsolete theories about our country’s prehistory, not to mention about our history.

The effect is not just a superficial understanding of how our peoples were constituted, but an overblown depiction of how incremental or even imagined racial and ethnic distinctions among Filipinos today are supposedly rooted in mass migrations from other countries.

From 1916 to 1953, Beyer, then head of the Anthropology Department of the University of the Philippines, had developed an elaborate theory in which he tried to explain physical and cultural variations among the Filipinos by attributing them to a series of racially different migrant peoples who came in waves into the country.

The first wave was supposedly the “Java men,” followed by pygmies (such as what we now call the Negritos), then two Indonesian waves (Type A and Type B) and a minor Papuan wave, then separate Northern and Southern Malay waves, and finally the so-called “Jar Burial People,” the Orang Dampuan of Sulu, and the Bornean settlers under the legendary Ten Datus led by Datu Puti.

But, as William Henry Scott explained in the introductory chapter of his Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society: “It is probably safe to say that no anthropologist accepts the Beyer Wave Migration Theory today.”

Scott explained that “most prehistorians today only postulate two movements of people into the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific” — the Australoids (generally characterized by very dark skin, such as the Negritos), followed by what anthropologists call the Southern Mongoloid or Austronesian peoples.

Let me quote extensively from Scott:

“It is important to note that these migrating populations are not considered to have been physically homogeneous. This means that Austronesian settlers arrived in the Philippines with considerable variations in stature, pigmentation, and facial features, though it is not now possible to identify these differences.

“Settlement and intermarriage in small communities would cause such genetic traits, as well as those of any strangers marrying in from the outside, to be shared by an increasing portion of the population in each generation. Thus inhabitants of a whole valley might come to exhibit a kind of family resemblance, and even to be regarded by outsiders as a separate race.”

Where did the Austronesian peoples come from? Let’s delve a bit into prehistory. There is a very fascinating and scientifically probable theory described in Robert Blust’s Prehistory of the Austronesian-Speaking Peoples: A View from Language (a copy of which Dr. Patricia O. Afable of the Smithsonian graciously sent me).

The theory is supported by much linguistic, archeological, and other cultural evidence.

According to the theory, prehistoric peoples who spoke a hypothetical ancient language (called “Austric” by linguists), from which all Austronesian, Austro-Asiatic, and Sino-Tibetan languages are derived, originated in the region of western Yunnan bordering with Burma.

In this rugged mountainous region where three major Asian rivers (Salween, Mekong, and Yangzi) run parallel, a semi-sedentary pre-Neolithic culture that relied heavily on wild rice collection is postulated to have spread outwards to the lower-lying valleys, starting around 9,000 years ago.

Some branches of this pre-Neolithic culture would have expanded to the Brahmaputra valley of eastern India and to the Salween and Mekong valleys of mainland Southeast Asia, where the Austro-Asiatic languages (Munda, Mon-Khmer) evolved.

Another branch moved into China’s middle Yangzi basin, where rice was domesticated in the marshy or seasonally flooded lakelands.

Around 8,000 years ago, the mid-Yangzi rice farming cultures divided into two branches. One branch — peoples speaking Proto-Tai-Kadai — moved south into western Guizhou. Another branch — peoples speaking Proto-Austronesian — moved east around Hangzhou Bay.

From there, the proto-Austronesian peoples expanded to Fujian by about 7,000 years ago, and across the strait to Taiwan around 6,000 years ago.

From Taiwan, Austronesian-speaking peoples with distinctive Neolithic cultures sailed into northern Philippines — probably in rafts with sails, or maybe even in canoes with outriggers — perhaps 5,500 years ago. Their productive capacity at that point already included cultivation of rice and other grain, root crops, tree crops and sugarcane; domesticated dogs, pigs, chicken, and perhaps carabaos; hunting and fishing; metal-working; cloth-weaving; and sea-faring as well as warfare skills (including the practice of head-hunting).

From northern Philippines, it is theorized, such peoples and their cultures spread into other parts of the archipelago, and from there branched into the rest of Southeast Asian and Pacific archipelagos.

Later, there would have been other migrations in opposite directions and cultural diffusion through trade, but the basic population stock in the Philippines would already have been established.

Going back to Scott, in his Prehispanic Source Materials, it is theorized that the descendants of these Austronesian-speaking peoples expanded throughout the Philippine archipelago during the succeeding millennia, absorbing or replacing earlier populations and languages.

“In the process,” Scott said, “their original language diversified into dozens of mutually unintelligible languages, and replaced earlier ones.”

If this scenario is correct, Scott explained, “all present Philippine languages [with a few exceptions] were produced within the archipelago, none of them was introduced by a separate migration, and all of them are more like each other than any of them is with languages outside the Philippines.”

In short, as  tried to explain to my son, we Filipinos had already much in common among ourselves long before the Spanish and American colonizers came.

We do not need to invent artificial “waves of migration” to explain variations and exceptions within a basically common racial, cultural, and linguistic Austronesian heritage.

Reading the arguments supporting this theory, I realized that we here in northern Luzon have a big responsibility to rediscover, cherish, and perhaps relearn these precious legacies of Austronesian lifeways, cultures and languages, nearly lost in the hazy fog of past millennia and in the colonial destruction of past centuries.

So there, dear children. Next time your teacher gives a lecture or quiz on whether your ancestors belonged to Indonesian A or B, or to Northern or Southern Malay, show her a clipping of this column. Or better yet, politely ask her to please read Scott and Blust. #


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