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THE ANCESTORS by Sylvia Mayuga

Austronesia Map (Out of Taiwan Model)
Filipino memory older than the Philippine Republic is linked to a world of far greater scale than its boundaries, by our ancestors - the Austronesians - who took to the seas from mainland Asia into these islands 6000 to 4000 years ago. Their coastal and riverine settlements came to be known in relation to bodies of water: the Tagalog (Taga-ilog, people of the river), Pampango (of the pampáng, shoreline), Bicolano (people of the Bico River), Pangasinense (people of the salt [asín]-producing coastline), Cebuano (people of the sug, water current), Ilonggo (people of iróng-irong, a nose-shaped islet in the middle of a river), Maguindanao (people of the floodplains), Maranao (people of the danao, lake), Subanën (people of the subà, wetland), and so forth.
Today most of them have forgotten their origins in a maritime civilization linking prehistory with recorded history in Southeast Asia, Oceania and beyond. Linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and, of late, geneticists, have formed a consensus that Taiwan, a.k.a. Formosa, was the Austronesian point of dispersal into the Pacific, with population pressure driving their southward migration. Evidence shows the grand sweep of their further migration - from 3000 years ago, west to Africa on the Indian Ocean, where they settled the island of Madagascar; east on the Pacific Ocean, settling Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the south through millennia.

Australian anthropologist Alan Christian Anderson writes that reconstructed Proto-Austronesian languages and archaeological evidence indicate their navigation through “hundreds of miles of open sea” in one of “the greatest feats of human creativity.” In this deep layer of Filipino cultural memory lies a different worldview awaiting rediscovery.

Like a Second Skin
It comes alive in the account by the 18th century geographer Alexander Dalrymple, the British Admiralty’s first hydrographer, who encountered Bahatol, a hundred-year old fisherman in Sulu. His ability to create accurate maps of the region from memory amazed Dalrymple, who wrote: “ ... the conclusion of this chapter, which are signs of weather and land, communicated by Bahatol, the old Sulu, may expose me to ridicule. However, few are so ignorant of human nature as not to know that experience exceeds the deepest reasoning ... that an illiterate fisherman shall often be found better acquainted with the signs which indicate changes of the weather than the most acute philosopher with his barometer.
Bahatol informed me that these signs have passed down from father to son through many successions, and that his long experience has warranted their veracity ... These signs are chiefly taken from lightning. When lightning explodes upwards, it shews there will soon be wind, though it does not denote a storm. A storm is predicted by a woo-ing sound in the water. Tremulous lightning very high is a sign of rain. The same, not so high, indicates a hill. When the lightning is red and fiery, it shews the hill to be rocky. When yellow, it is a sign the hill is earth. Low flashes upon the surface of the water denote a shoal under water.
A shoal above water has an atmosphere hanging over it, which appears like an island. Low long lightning upon the surface shews an island with trees; and when an island, or hill, is high at one end, and low at the other, the lightning will be in an inclining line like the hill.”
Detail illustration of a spirit boat from found objects in a Neolithic burial site in Manunggul Cave in Lipuun Point, Quezon, Palawan, dating 890 - 710 BC.

Modern Southeast Asian History professor James Francis Warren also discovered this worldview among the Iranun and Balangingi people in Mindanao: “ ... when the Iranun struck off across expanses of open sea, bearings were taken from the direction of the winds, the currents, and the position of the sun. At night they were guided by the stars, the moon and weather signs.

Even in the sky, the Iranun and Samal raiders saw the sea; every type of star, wave and current, every rock and navigational landmark had been given a name. There are at least a dozen words to describe the color of the sea and the varying tides. In deep haze and fog, the Iranun and Samal navigated by reading the currents, swells and sounds as if hunting a living creature. The ability to navigate in haze and fog - when no visible means of orientation are available - using only the action and sound of the waves and currents - mirrors the practice of navigation used by Micronesian Mau Piailug and other Pacific navigation.”

Filipino anthropologist Eric S. Casiño described Mindanao’s sea people, the Jama Mapun, living with Nature like a second skin: “When visible, the Jama Mapun use the stars, Sun and Moon to guide them. However, during storms and other conditions of limited visibility, they depend only on the currents and winds to know what direction they are traveling, and how far they have traveled toward reaching their destination. They know the difference between prevailing winds and currents, and those kicked up by storms and other weather conditions. One method they use to detect an original current as opposed to a current that arises from a squall ... is to dip their legs or paddles into the water so that they can feel the old current under the surface. In this way, they are able to calculate the boat's drift and changes in bearing. These seafarers have an advanced vocabulary for winds, currents, swells.”

History professor Dante L. Ambrosio plumbed the winds, stars and sea with the Sama Dilaut a.k.a. Bajau, whose people once manned the ships of the Sultan of Sulu: “My informants said that the position of the stars, which form the rope used to ‘pull up’ out of the sea, indicated the strength of the current. These stars form the handle of the Big Dipper - the Bubu. When they are in the east, the current is strong but when they are in the west, the current is weak or there is no current at all.  Several stars, together with the wind, are used in direction-finding. Samas know that the morning star Lakag or Maga is in the east, Bubu and Mamahi Uttara are in the north, while Bunta is in the south. The western direction is reckoned with the stars Tunggal Bahangi and Mamahi Magrib ... The same goes for Mamahi Satan, the south star. Of course, the east-west direction is easily identifiable with the aid of the sun, which is also a star. For the same directions, the Samas also observe Batik and Mupu which traverse the sky from the east to the zenith to the west.

"Together with stars, winds are also used to mark direction. Satan or Salatan, the south wind, is associated with Bunta, the asterism (star group) named after a puffer fish. The heavenly fish releases the air from its puffy body once it ends its seasonal appearance in the night sky. That air is Satan or Salatan. When (the star) Anakdatu, which follows Bunta, has come and gone, the north wind called Uttara replaces the south wind. Another marker for Uttara is the appearance of Mupu in the east at nightfall. It is also Uttara that blows when the northern stars of Batik get dimmer. Its southern stars dim when it is Satan’s turn to blow.”

Both the Sama Dilaut, who call it Mamahi Uttara, and the Jama Mapun, who call it Sibilu, use the North Star to venture farther out on the Sulu Sea. A Sama navigator told Ambrosio: “Using this star as guide, one may reach Cotabato and Zamboanga by sailing northeast, Sabah northwest, Celebes or Sulawesi and Balikpapan in Kalimantan southeast with some necessary adjustments along the way. Bunta (the South Star) is used in crossing the Sulu Sea from Mapun near Palawan to the capital town of Bongao on the Tawi-tawi mainland. To reach Bongao, the pilot with an outstretched arm must keep Bunta one dangkál - from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the middle finger - to the left of the boat’s prow. If the prow veers to the left by a dangkál, it will reach Languyan instead ... at the northern end of Tawi-tawi. But if it veers to the right, the boat will land at Sibutu ... at the southern end of the archipelago.”

Correcting a vessel’s bearings by knowing the "relative position" of one's destination is a clue to how Austronesians directed their course in the open sea. Ambrosio found this tradition throughout the archipelago in more indigenous names for constellations - like the Tagalog and Bisayan Balatik , also known as Tatlóng Maria (Orion’s belt a.k.a. Pleiades); the Bikolano’s Moroporo and Samarnon Lusóng for the Big Dipper; and the Christianized Tagalog's Krus na Bituin (Bunta in Sulu) for the Southern Cross.

Stargazing with islanders was nothing new to the 18th century explorer James Cook. He, too, found indigenous star names throughout the Pacific, with Tupia in Tahiti drawing maps from memory like Bahatol in Sulu. Similar techniques have been found among the island-dwelling Bugis in eastern Indonesia. Bemused Europeans noted these native seafarers acquiring their compasses and telescopes but rarely using them. Confident in their own knowledge, they regarded Western instruments as mere prestige items.

In 1597 William Barlowe recorded an encounter with two “East Indians” brought back to England by Thomas Cavendish, who pirated the Manila galleon Santa Ana: “... one of them was of Mamillia [Manila] in the Isle of Luzon, the other of Miaco in Japan. I questioned them concerning their shipping and manner of sayling. They described all things farre different from ours, and shewed, that in steade of our Compas, they use a magneticall needle of sixe ynches long, and longer, upon a pinne in a dish of white China earth filled with water; in the bottome whereof they have two crosse lines, for the foure principall windes; the rest of the divisions being reserved to the skill of their Pilots.”

Austronesian navigational skill extended to seacraft. Contemporary Australian scientist Adrian Horridge observed: “Boats of different sizes and shapes are found in every Austronesian culture, from Madagascar, Maritime Southeast Asia, to Polynesia ... Although the origins of the basic structures and rigs are lost in the prehistoric past, a survey of a wide variety of examples and their known history shows that Pacific outrigger canoes were originally as homogeneous as the Austronesian people ... The earliest transport was probably a raft of large bamboo stems, with a rig consisting of a two-boom triangular plaited mat sail supported on a loose prop, as survived into modern times in several places. The canoe hull evolved from a dug-out tree trunk, to which side planks and stem and stern pieces were sewn. The interaction between the raft and the dugout produced the outrigger canoes and the double canoes that made possible the conquest of the Pacific.”

Horridge writes that voyages were always launched upwind, returning downwind as“the Austronesian triangular sail spread westwards across the Indian Ocean and became the lateen, which continued to the Mediterranean and eventually to Portugal by the 14th century." 


In the late 20th century, diggers building deep canals for drainage in flood-prone Butuan City in Mindanao struck wooden coffins and antique ceramics in Sitio Ambangan along the mighty Agusan River. Two years later in 1976, pothunters stumbled on an almost intact wooden boat of substantial dimension. Local excitement matched the international maritime scholars’ own. It was the first of the oldest extant boats in the world to be unearthed. This  seacraft is the balanghaí, recorded by Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan's voyage in 1521.

Spelling barangay in Italianate balanghai, Pigafetta described its “100 rowers on one side commanded by proud warriors and chieftains.”  Fr. Ignacio Francisco Alcina, S.J., himself a master shipwright, reporting to the Spanish king in 1668, described “a 15-meter long wooden boat built with planks expertly carved from a tree with an ax."  Among its virtues was its hardwood :"abundant, excellent, of a great variety... Perhaps there is no land in the world that would, I do not say exceed, but even equal it," Alcina wrote.  But there was more. “Its planks were laid before the ribs were fastened after the ship took shape ... its edges perfectly fitted with wooden pegs” in masterful construction, unlike Western ships whose keel and ribs were laid before planks were fastened with iron nails or spikes. Caulked with indigenous fibers and native resins, propelled with a square or rectangular sail on a tripod mast, the balanghai was both an oceangoing ship and a versatile warship easily maneuverable in shallower inland waters.

"The care and technique with which they build them makes their ships sail like birds, while ours are like lead in comparison,” wrote the missionary Fr. Francisco Combes, S.J. in 1667-70. Austronesian spirit matched mastery of seacraft. Rowers seated two to three on each side of outrigger platforms paddled at high speeds - 12 to 15 knots to the galleon’s 5 to 6 knots. With a singer setting the rhythm, they sailed the wind from dawn to dusk, paddling, singing and chanting of their people’s heroes in unison.

Three of the nine balanghai discovered deep in Butuan mud confirmed Alcina’s description of Austronesian handiwork. The first was carbon dated to 320 AD, the second to 1250 AD, the fifth, large enough for a boatload of 60 at 25 meters long, to 900 AD. In 1986 President Cory Aquino declared the balanghai National Cultural Treasures. Balanghais 3 and 4 are due for excavation at this writing.

In 2006, with archaeological reports completed, UNESCO recognized their“tremendous historical impact in the Asian region.”  Although “boats with the same construction were recovered in Sumatra and Pontian in Malaysia... there is no other known site in the Southeast Asian region’s archaeological recoveries (with) a concentration of large, openwater-going boats ... of Neolithic marine architecture ... very unique.” Also unique was an “entire village site (with) evidences of specialization in the purification of gold and manufacture of gold ornaments, dating at least to the Ming Dynasty,” lead(ing) UNESCO to conclude that “an extensive gold ornaments industry was located in these areas,” with “no report of a similar find in the rest of the region.”

In a nearby site were found “deformed skulls in underground coffin burials...with frontally flattened skulls ascribed to the 14th-15th century.” Unlike similar relics found in caves along Philippine coastlines and in Sulawesi, these were buried in the ground.  Another “significant feature” were “tremendous amounts of high-fired trade ceramics ... from China, Cambodia, Thailand and other southeast Asian countries, distinctive white stamped pottery from Thailand, Persian glassware suggesting prehistoric links as far as the Middle East and other notable discoveries like the Ivory Seal and the Silver Paleograph ... altogether demonstrat(ing) that Butuan was a thriving international trading port a thousand years ago.”

All that summoned back what historian William Henry Scott once described as a "vigorous and mobile population adjusting to every environment in the archipelago, creatively producing local variations in response to resources, opportunities and culture contacts, able to trade and raid, feed and defend themselves, in sharp contrast to the passive Philippine population ... formless cultural clay ready to be stamped with patterns introduced from abroad."

Tangible proof of Butuan’s Austronesian origin fired modern Filipino imagination. Generations of antique ceramic collections from their global sea trade merged with scholarship and legend. One enduring myth had ten Bornean datus and their families datus escaping by sea from a tyrannical sultan, landing in the island of Aninipay (today’s Panay). During the Marcos presidency in the 20th century, the smallest unit of political governance in the islands, was given the name of the datus’ balanghai - “barangay,” boatload. This ancient boat just had to be reconstructed!

The last Philippine community to retain the craft, the Sama of Sibutu and Sitangkai in Tawi-tawi, were asked to build a flotilla. Replacing the hadlayati (teak) of the original, they used scarce hardwood - lawaan, dungon, molave, kalantás and yakál along with non-hardwood acacia, for various parts of the new balanghai. The results were Diwatà ng Lahì (Spirit of the Race), 18 meters long and 3 meters wide, Masawa hong Butuan(Radiance of Butuan), 25 meters long and 6 meters wide,  and Balangay Sama Tawi-Tawi, the lead boat named after its shipwrights, 23 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. Built like a kumpít, the trading boat of Southern Philippines, it was the only one with an engine. Tiririt, a 3-meter long boat, was for scouting and tugging.

A 40-man team was organized with Filipino mountaineers (who had recently scaled Mt. Everest), Sama boatbuilders, historical chroniclers, members of the Philippine Coast Guard, Navy and the Joint Manning (Seafarers) Group for an expedition launched from Manila Bay in September 2009. It retraced Austronesian migration and trading routes with their own navigational methods - monitoring cloud formations, wave patterns, bird migrations and positions of the sun and stars through interisland waters and open sea. After covering 2,108 nautical miles (3,908 km) around the Philippines, it proceeded to Sabah, Brunei, Sarawak, Kalimantan, Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia, the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia and the coast of Vietnam. They crossed the world's heaviest sea traffic in the South China Sea and returned to Manila in December 2010. News of the third leg west to the Indian Ocean, homeward through the Pacific in 2013 is awaited.

Age of Discovery and Loss

As a native saying goes, the Philippines was "cooked in its own fat," when Western “discovery” led to colonization of Southeast Asia, Polynesia and Oceania. The Fil-American marine biologist Jonathan R. Matias looks back to the irony:“The later conquest of the islands was made possible not by Spanish warships... too big, too slow and the draft too deep to navigate close to the coast to make effective use of their cannons. The conquistadores’ ships were mostly anchored in the natural harbors of Cebu or Iloilo from where they boarded hundreds of balanghai, referred to by the Spanish as caracoa, manned mostly by native allies to attack the next island.

After consolidating their conquest, the Spanish colonial government banned the building of balanghai, interisland trade and communication. The natives were redirected to building churches and forts, and serving in mines and plantations.”  Bisayans, the most skilled boat-builders in conquered territory, were set to building galleons with hardwoods of their own forests. Two centuries after the lucrative Galleon Trade that helped keep the ailing Spanish imperial economy afloat, Matias was “struck” by gravely denuded mountains and 5% remaining forest cover on a first visit to Panay in 1994. A local historian told him that recent logging was not solely to blame: “The center of shipbuilding was in the old city of Iloilo in Panay because of its natural harbor and thick forests. The Spanish colonial government had consumed all the big hardwood trees 200 years earlier to build the ships that served the Galleon Trade.”

In those times, “the old borderless world of Southeast Asian trading was replaced by the new overlords’ arbitrary frontiers,” writes Mindanao historian Greg Hontiveros. Filipino boat-building skills were progressively lost in changing technology. With commercial logging introduced by Americans in the early 20th century, those "abundant, excellent” Philippine forests of yore began to vanish until their massive decimation in the Marcos years. With their primary wealth gone, precious few of 103 million Filipinos even remember their own accomplished origins in a vast, pre-Conquest maritime world.

A Maritime Future

Meanwhile Austronesian remains “the most geographically widespread of any language family prior to the European colonization,” as anthropologist David Blundell writes. Wikipedia estimates that 387 million people speak its mutually intelligible variants in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Madagascar, indigenous Taiwan, minority areas in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Mergui Archipelago off the coast of Burma and, except for the farthest coasts and inland areas of New Guinea, Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea, nearly all of Oceania.

Built on rice, root crops, fruit trees, domesticated pigs and chickens, pottery-making and trading, like most Philippine barrios, Austronesian civilization spanned two of the world’s largest oceans. Traces of their intimacy with the maritime world endure in a prevailing world “order” alienated from Nature. Anthropologist/ historian Zeus Salazar recently recalled key concepts that built their civilization encoded in language.

The first is the Proto Malayo-Polynesian barani-bagani  (Tagalog bayani) meaning “leader.” Paired with it is the concept of pangángayáw - “caring for the welfare of thecommunity,” the banua (bayan, home country in Tagalog). Onland pangángayáwmeant agriculture for sustenance; at sea, it meant trading, even raiding, for more resources for the banua.  A third key concept, mana - divine creative power in Nature and humans - underlies surviving rituals venerating a departed bagani’s skull with ceremonial ornaments ornamented with symbols of bird and sun. Granted to the bagani to wield for his banua in life, mana is transmitted to the living upon his death.Mana is believed to flow from the gods and departed ancestors in an unbroken unity of life through the balian-bailan-babaylan or shaman/healer.

Mana means “inheritance,” material and otherwise, in Tagalog. Strange that the Hebrew name of the substance that fell from heaven to sustain the Jews wandering in the desert is manna, streamlined to mana today.  The British geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer offers a possible explanation in his book, ‘Eden in the East.’ Citing ethnography, archaeology, oceanography, creation stories, myths, linguistics and DNA analysis, he stands present history on its head. His thesis: the world’s first civilization that fertilized the great cultures of the Middle East 6,000 years ago was not Mesopotamian but Southeast Asian. By this theory, the word manna  may well have spread west to the Middle East from Austronesia.

Whatever the case, its traces endure in its descendants. Salazar suggests thatpangángayáw is really what over a million Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers do in roaming the world for jobs to sustain their banua.  Among them are Filipino seamen, now 30% and growing in a total 1.5 million seafarers worldwide. Not only have their remittances shored up the Philippine economy: 4.34 billion dollars, 21.58% of a total 20.12 billion-dollar OFW remittances in 2011. With the Philippines second only to far more populous China as a global supplier of seafarers now, NEDA chief Cayetano Paderanga projects a boost in the country’s status with recent maritime developments.

UNCTAD reports that 90% of world trade today is transported by sea, with the “center of maritime gravity” shifting to Asia in recent years. Global demand for seafarers is rising. On the international Day of the Seafarer in June, International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu said: “To meet the growing demands of the world trade and the needs of the shipping and related industries, some 20,000 additional trained seafarers are required every year."  The Centre for International Transport Management in the London Metropolitan Business School projects the demand for naval officers to grow to 499,000 in 2015, from 476,000 in 2005, some 4.7% over 10 years. With it is a growing demand for ratings (basic seamanship) - from 586,000 in 2005 to 607,000 in 2015, or 3.5%. Candice Gotianuy, chancellor of the University of Cebu-Maritime Education and Training Center has remarked: “Vessel owners opt to hire Filipinos because of excellent communication skills, intelligence and adaptability.”

Department of Trade and Industry statistics show that the Philippines also ranks fifth in the world’s shipbuilding industry, with 2 percent of the total market. Paderanga projects: “With good management and skilled human resource matched with capital, technology and global market opportunities, the industry is moving forward to make the Philippines the fourth largest shipbuilding country in the world in the next five to 10 years."

Scientist Matias reflects: “There are so many more island nations with similar economies, yet with little participation in the maritime industry. Perhaps the Philippine psyche is still tied with the sea despite the ban that Spain imposed ... The thousands of years of riding the balanghai cannot be erased by such a brief interlude.” As more lives are lost in progressively frequent extreme weather and natural disasters in relentless global urban spread, fossil-fuel dependence, deforestation, thoroughgoing pollution and resource extraction changing the planet’s climate are imperilling mankind’s very life-support system. The cry for a global paradigm shift has never been louder.

Former Philippine Navy chief Eduardo Santos observes that most Filipino seamen are also music lovers, if not musicians themselves. Filipinos who remember their Austronesian roots are heirs to a maritime world, present and future. This harks back to a pre-Conquest past paddling a balanghai and singing in unison. Is this precisely what the whole world needs today? ●
THE ANCESTORS. Posted in Facebook by Sylvia Morningstar (Sylvia L. Mayuga) on Sunday 14 October 2012 at 1055a. Content reproduced here will soon be part of a book in print about Philippine maritime history.

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