By Dr. Jesus T. Peralta
When research on the past continues and new data are found our notions about prehistory can change. We might have to surrender the old, and once commonly accepted ideas in the light of newly discovered evidence.
The story of man in the Philippine islands that took place before writing was used to record events is about 1500 times longer than the historic period. History of the Philippines thus far can only be pushed back to the hard edge of the past to the 10th century when places in the islands were first recognized in a copper plate inscription accidentally found in Siniloan, Laguna.Two centuries later, the islands were among those mentioned in the Song Dynasty chronicles in China. It was not until about 700 years later that the Spanish explorers started the recording of events that took place in the islands, slowly at first, then more frequently as time went on.
Even then, tremendous gaps existed since not all aspects of what transpired were recorded, nor were all events documented. There was also human error and bias. The larger part of the story of man, his culture, the manner with which he obtained his daily needs, his beliefs and values, how he progressed through time from the earliest periods, the changes that he and his manner of living underwent as he met with other peoples not only of these islands but the larger region of Southeast Asia and the rest of Asia and the Pacific, lies far beyond living memory and therefore difficult to recall or even to imagine. The reason is that past events before the use of writing are recorded in a manner difficult for untrained people to read. These records are bits and pieces of man-made things left behind as waste materials, and the effects that man himself has made on the things around him as the land, the plant life, the animals and other aspects of nature that man changes merely because of his presence. The splintered piece of a stone already with a dulled edge and covered with the patina of age among other pieces of ordinary stones may well be a man-formed object once used as a tool and later on left behind after its use to lie on the ground to gather dust and regain an almost naturally-formed appearance. The patch of grassland in a mountainside forest may have been formed by the early farming work of man. If the soil of this grassland is dug the presence of ashes may suggest the clearing of the forest by fire and the method of farming. The different kinds of plant pollen and spores left in the soil will indicate the kinds of plant cultivated. Evenly spaced round dark spots may be the remains of posts that would indicate areas where people lived. The garbage left by people are treasure troves that will yield large amounts of knowledge about the cultures that produced them. All of these are some of the unwritten records of the past which can be read by archeologists.
As the research into the past continued, changes continually take place in the prehistoric story as new data are uncovered. Old and commonly accepted ideas are discarded as existing information are studied and interpreted in the light of the other discoveries. One of these early theories about Philippine past is that of the waves of migration explanation of how the islands of this country were populated starting with the so-called aboriginal Negrito. This idea has been greatly revised and the timescales adjusted. A better and more realistic picture of the past is now emerging and replacing what has been at times stories of what might have been and other rather imaginative models.
What is probably one of the major stumbling blocks towards a better understanding of developments in the unwritten past is the idea that events follow a single line of movement through time and that these developments moved in the same manner at the same rate through a region or for an entire population. For instance, one of the models for the cultural development of Philippine prehistory starts from the earliest period, the Paleolithic, and on through the Neolithic, Metal Age and then the Proto-historic period. One would be led to think that the entire country went through all these stages more or less at the same time, at the same rate, and degree. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Even present events will show that when one part of the country is already benefiting from some technological development a larger part of the country still remains in the backwaters. The major cities, for instance, have been enjoying the use of electricity earlier in the century, but even today there are still large areas of the Philippines that have not been so lighted except probably through the use of resin impregnated wicks. This is all the more astonishing since we are already at an age where communications, transportation, road systems are well improved such that is would seem that no corner of the country would any longer remain untouched. How much more difficult it would be for changes to reach far-flung areas during the prehistoric times!
Closer to reality is that developments come in the form of patchwork or in a checkerboard fashion. Where networks of contact exist certain areas will more or less be in the same level of development, but to a greater extent, large areas remain behind in cultural progress, while still fewer others will be more advanced. Different areas and peoples progress through time in different manners and directions. The model is “multi-linear”, that is, events move in many lines each of which has its own character.
In this age when man has already stepped on the surface of the moon, in 1971 a group of people, the Manobo Tasaday, was discovered still using tools made of stone and with no knowledge of agriculture. Yet, the Tasaday went through the same periods of time as the Tagalog, Maranao, Kapampangan and other ethnic groups of the Philippines, without reaching the same stage of development as many other groups of people in the same country.
What is obvious is that there is not just one story of the past for the entire of the islands but many, and a number of these are connected while others, completely separated. This makes prehistory or any history difficult to tell because one will be narrating in several ways at the same time – which is not possible. The prehistory or even the history of the whole Philippines is actually the individual histories of the various ethnic groups that comprise the entire population. The prehistorian merely glosses over the landmarks through time that depicts progressively developing events.