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Rethinking Philippine history: The Ifugao2011. Terraced hilltop in Ifuagao Province, Philippines. (Photo: Steven Acabado, assistant professor of anthropology, UCLA.)

Rethinking Philippine history: The Ifugao

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by Catherine Schuknecht

UCLA International Institute, June 2, 2014 — There is an “ethnocentric component to how we deal with the Ifugaos,” said Stephen Acabado at a recent event sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies as part of its spring 2014 colloquium series.

Acabado is an assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA, where he is currently teaching an undergraduate class on South East Asian archaeology. Under his direction, the Ifugao Archaeological Project (IAP) has discovered new evidence that the Ifugao province in the northern Philippines experienced massive economic and social change during Spanish colonial rule.

Acabado launched the IAP in 2012 and initiated UCLA’s involvement in collaboration with the University of the Philippines-Archaeological Studies Program, the National Museum of the Philippines, the Provincial Government of the Ifugao and the Save the Ifugao Movement, Inc. (SITMo).

In a detailed discussion of archeological data, the speaker outlined his initial findings, which suggest that much of widely accepted Philippine pre-history is based on outdated theories.

Refuting a false national narrative

Raised in the Philippines, Acabado’s interest in the region began in grade school after he learned about the Ifugao rice terraces — platforms carved into the mountainsides of Ifugao for efficient farming and irrigation of crops.

Anyone who goes through the Philippine educational system is taught that the Ifugao rice terraces are 2,000 to 3,000 years old. This is a racist theory, argued the speaker, because it suggests that
the highlanders remained stagnant and unchanging for over 2,000 years.

Although the terraces are considered an important part of Philippine cultural heritage, highland Filipinos are widely considered savage and uncivilized because of their isolated development outside of Spanish colonial rule. According to Acabado, this narrative of isolation became the basis of the label “original Filipinos” — a term that he argued was both racist and ethnocentric.

The first phase of IAP research and fieldwork refutes this popular narrative, revealing that the highlanders engaged in extensive and intensive interaction with other lowland and highland groups.

During the 2012 and 2013 field seasons, the team worked on an excavation site in the Old Kiyyangan Village, supposedly the oldest Ifugao village. According to mythology, it is also where the Ifugao gods send their children to procreate.

By excavating trenches level by level, excavators were able to determine when certain crops and artifacts were introduced into the village. Acabado’s findings date initial occupation of the village to 1,000 years ago and suggest that the rice terraces were not built until the early 1800s.

The first Spanish documents describing extensive rice terraces did not emerge until 1801— 60 years after the local people’s initial encounter with the Spanish. This points to the likelihood that the Ifugao retreated to the highlands and built the rice terraces in response to the arrival of the Spanish.

This discovery thus refutes the argument that the terraces were built 2,000 to 3,000 years ago — an argument based on H. Otley Beyer’s long-disproven theory of migration waves to the Philippines. “They couldn’t believe that the Ifugaos could have modified their landscape within 100 [or] 200 years,” explained Acabado.

The IAP’s 2012–2013 fieldwork also revealed that Ifugao society underwent increased social differentiation after the Spanish established a presence in the region.

Before the Spanish period, pottery was standardized, pointing to a non-hierarchical social structure in the region. However, stoneware, porcelain and exotic beads began to appear in only some of the village houses after Spanish arrival, suggesting the emergence of elite households with special access to these products.

These discoveries will require a serious re-examination of how Filipinos — and people worldwide — perceive Philippine pre-history, said the speaker.

Theory of resistance

During the upcoming field season, Acabado hopes to discover whether or not there was resistance to Spanish colonialism in the Ifugao region. He also plans to investigate two other possibilities: (1) that the highlanders endured colonial influence without succumbing to it, or (2) that elites within the community used the opportunities presented by the Spanish presence to solidify or legitimize their position in society.

Unfortunately for Acabado, proving that resistance took place will not be easy, at least in terms of archaeological evidence. “It’s very difficult to. . . investigate,” explained the speaker, “because we can’t find intentionality in the archaeological record.”

This second phase of research is less popular with the Ifugao elders, who are actively involved in the IAP, because the idea that the highlanders were “uncolonized” informs much of Ifugao identity.

However, the difficultly of convincing elders to accept his findings is part of what motivated Acabado to involve them in the IAP. By participating in fieldwork, community members are able to better understand the science behind the findings. They are also involved in planning, fundraising and developing research questions for the project.

The speaker noted that he is reliant on the oral histories that have been preserved within the community. Although certain stories are misleading, these histories have directed him to earlier excavation sites that he would otherwise have overlooked.

The project’s initial findings will encourage a total re-examination of Philippine history, said Acabado. Unfortunately, it will likely take more than a decade for the Philippine government to revise textbooks and replace outdated theories with the discoveries made by the IAP.