12 Surprising Facts You Didn’t Know About Pre-Colonial Philippines

By | 04/13/2016

Raise your hand if you know too little about pre-colonial Philippines. Don’t feel bad if you do, because chances are you’re not alone. Before this, I knew more about Rizal than anything else. Heck, even some school kids today believe that our history started after Magellan ‘discovered’ the Philippines.

Also Read: 10 Reasons Why Life Was Better In Pre-Colonial Philippines

And you know what’s worse? It’s the fact that the little information we have about our ancestors were recorded by foreigners. Makes me wonder what would have happened had they not colonized us. We’ll probably never know, but for now, let’s learn some of the most interesting facts about our ancestors I bet you didn’t encounter in school.


1. They compressed their babies’ skulls for aesthetic reasons.

skull moulding philippines

Early human civilizations like the Mayans (see photo) and the Visayans intentionally reshaped their babies’ skulls to conform to their standard of beauty. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In ancient Visayas, being beautiful could be as simple as having a flat forehead and nose. But since humans are not usually born with these features, the Visayans used a device called tangad to achieve them.

The tangad was a comb-like set of thin rods that was put above the baby’s forehead, surrounded by bandages, and fastened at some point behind. Remember, babies’ skulls are the most pliable, so this continuous pressure often resulted into elongated heads.

Also Read: 15 Most Intense Archaeological Discoveries in Philippine History

Some of these deformed skulls were recovered from various burial grounds in the Visayan region. Two of them are actually on display today at the Aga Khan Museum in Marawi.

Upon close examination of these skulls, it was also discovered that their shape varies depending on whether the pressure was applied between the forehead and the upper or lower part of the occiput (i.e., back of the skull). Hence, some had “normally arched foreheads but were flat behind, others were flattened at both front and back, and a few were asymmetrical because of uneven pressure.”


2. Gold was literally everywhere.

Golden Kinnari of Surigao

A golden statuette of the Hindu-Buddhist goddess “Kinari” found in a Butuan archeological dig. It is among some of the Indian-influenced artifacts found in the country. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There was plenty of gold in the islands during the precolonial times that it used to be part of our ancestors’ everyday attire.

In the book by historian William Henry Scott, it was said that a “Samar datu by the name of Iberein was rowed out to a Spanish vessel anchored in his harbor in 1543 by oarsmen collared in gold; while wearing on his own person earrings and chains.”


Piloncitos, a type of coin used by the pre-colonial peoples of the archipelago. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the gold artifacts that have been recovered in the country are believed to have come from  the ancient kingdom of Butuan, a major center of commerce from the 10th up to the 13th century. Ancient Indian texts also suggest that merchant ships used to trade with people from what they referred to as Survarnadvipa or “Islands of Gold,” believed by many as the present-day Indonesia and the Philippines.

Related Article: Pinoy chef made the world’s most expensive sushi! – Covered with gold, diamonds

Precolonial treasures include ear ornaments called panika; bracelets known as kasikas; and the spectacular serpent-like gold chain referred to as kamagi. Since their discovery, some of these valued  gold artifacts have been looted, melted, and sold to God knows where.

It didn’t matter to the treasure hunters that these gold ornaments were originally part of our ancestors’ bahandi (heirloom wealth) and probably originated not just here but also from other places they traded with.


3. You could judge how brave a man was by the color of his clothes.

Philippine Clothing in Pre-colonial Philippines

Native couple in the Philippines, as shown in the Boxer Codex. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Clothing in precolonial Philippines reflected one’s social standing and, in the case of men, how many enemies they had killed.

In the Visayas, for example, basic clothing included bahag (G-string) for men and malong (tube skirt) for women. The material used to make these clothes could indicate the wearer’s social status, with the abaca being the most valued textile and reserved for the elites.

READ: The Controversial Origin of Philippines’ National Costume

The Visayan bahag was a little bit larger than those worn by present-day inhabitants of Zambales, Cordillera, and the Cagayan Valley. They usually had natural colors, but warriors who personally killed an enemy could wear red bahag. 

Pintados of the Visayas

Pintados of the Visayas (Leyte or Samar), as shown in the Boxer Codex. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The same rule applied to the male headdress called pudong. Red was and still is the symbol of bravery, which explains why the most prolific warriors at that time proudly wore red bahag and pudong.

Historian William Henry Scott writes:

 “A red ‘pudong’ was called ‘magalong’, and was the insignia of braves who had killed an enemy. The most prestigious kind of ‘pudong,’ limited to the most valiant, was, like their G-strings, made of ‘pinayusan,’ a gauze-thin abaca of fibers selected for their whiteness, tie-dyed a deep scarlet in patterns as fine as embroidery, and burnished to a silky sheen. Such pudong were lengthened with each additional feat of valor: real heroes therefore let one end hang loose with affected carelessness.” 


4. Our ancient warship was three times faster than a Spanish galleon.


Depiction of a naga-inspired “karakoa” warship of the early Filipinos. From Emma Blair and James Robertson, “The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, vol. 16, 1904.

When I posted this on Facebook, I remember a disgruntled follower saying: “Why compare the Spanish galleon with our ancestors’ primitive warship? It would be like comparing motorcycle and a tank: The motorcycle might be faster, but it’s not gonna win a war!”

But that’s exactly the point. They may be primitive, but our ancestors made the most of what they have and came up with an amazing marine architecture. The Visayan warship karakoa was the result of such ingenuity.

Also Read: An Ultimate Guide To Philippine Mythology’s Legendary Deities

Take note, though, that our early plank-built vessels were made in the same tradition as other boats  dating as far back as 3rd century BCE. And that probably explains why our karakoa is similar to Indonesia’s korakora.

In his paper “Boat-Building and Seamanship in Classic Philippine Society,” historian William Henry Scott described the karakoa as “sleek, double-ended warships of low freeboard and light draft with a keel on one continuous curve……and a raised platform amidships for a warrior contingent for ship-to-ship contact.”

The karakoa served not only as a warship but also as a trading vessel. In fact, accounts from 1561 Legazpi expedition described it as “a ship for sailing any place they wanted.” 

And sailed they did, reaching places as far as Fukien coast in China where a bunch of Visayan pirates pillaged the villages sometime in the 12th century.

The flexibility of its plank-built hull and the coordination of a hundred or so paddlers all helped karakoa generate its best speed of 12 to 15 knots–three times the speed of a Spanish galleon. It was so efficient that Fr. Francisco Combés once wrote it could “sail like birds.”


5. Homosexuals had an important role in pre-colonial society.


“Babaylan” by R. Aguilar at the Negros Museum.

Back then, there were no doctors or priests whom our ancestors could turn to when things went awry. The only hope they had was a spirit medium or shaman who could directly communicate with the spirits or gods. They were known in the Visayas as babaylan, while the Tagalogs called them catalonan (katulunan).

Also Read: The first same-sex marriage in the Philippines

More often than not, these babaylans or catalonans were women who came from prominent families. However, early Spanish missionaries reported of the existence of men who assumed the roles of a babaylan. That, of course, also suggests that these male versions may have existed long before the Spaniards arrived.

What’s more surprising is that some of these male babaylans dressed and also acted like women. Visayans called them asog while the Tagalogs named them bayugin. In the 1668 book Historia de los Islas y Indios de Bisayas, Father Francisco Alcina further described an asog as:

“…impotent men and deficient for the practice of matrimony, considered themselves more like women than men in their manner of living or going about, even in their occupations….”

The 16th-century manuscript Boxer Codex added even more intriguing details:

“The bayog or bayoguin are priest dressed in female garb……..Almost all are impotent for the reproductive act, and thus they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife and have carnal knowledge.”

As time went by, the term asog has taken on completely different meanings. In Aklan, for example, asog is now used to refer to a tomboy or a woman acting like man.


6.  Human sacrifice was a bloody, fascinating mess.

Skeletal remains and artifacts recovered at the Santa Ana excavations

Excavation in Santa Ana Church in the 1960s yielded skeletal remains and artifacts dating as far back as 11th century A.D. (Image found at www.skyscrapercity.com)

It’s not easy to be a slave in ancient Philippines. When a warrior died, for example, a slave was traditionally tied and buried beneath his body. If one was killed violently or if someone from the ruling class died (say, a datu), human sacrifices were almost always required.

Father Juan de Plasencia, an early missionary who authored “Relacion de las Costumbres de Los Tagalos” in 1589, provided us with a vivid portrait of an ancient burial:

“Before interring him (the chief), they mourned him for four days; and afterward laid him on a boat which serve as a coffin or bier…..If the deceased had been a warrior, a living slave was tied beneath his body until in this wretched way he died.”

Sometimes, as a last resort, an alipin was sacrificed in the hope that the ancestor spirits would take the slave instead of the dying datu. The slave could be an atubang or a personal attendant who had accompanied the datu all his life. The prize of his loyalty was often to die in the same manner as his master. So, if the datu died of drowning, the slave would also be killed by drowning. This is because of onong or the belief that those who belonged to the departed must suffer the same fate.

Related Article: Rare ritual burial may reveal cannibalistic ancestry.

Slaves from foreign lands could also be sacrificed. In fact, an itatanun expedition had the intention of taking captives from other communities. After being intoxicated, these captives would then be killed in the most brutal ways. Pioneer missionary Martin de Rada reported one case in Butuan wherein the slave was bound to a cross before being tortured by bamboo spikes,  hit with a spear, and finally thrown into the river.

They believed that the dying datu was being attacked by the spirits of men he once defeated, and the only way to satisfy the ancestors was to kill a slave.


7. It was considered a disgrace for a woman to have many children.

Abortion in Precolonial Philippines

Via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s no such thing as “family planning” in pre-colonial Philippines. Everything they did was based on existing customs and beliefs, one of which was that having many children was not desirable and even a disgrace.

Such was their fear to have more children that pregnant women were prohibited to eat kambal na saging or similar food. They believed that eating it would cause them to give birth to twins, which for them was a great insult.

Abortion was also practiced by almost everyone. The Boxer Codex reported that it was done with the help of female abortionists who used massage, herbal medicines, and even a stick to get the baby out of the womb.

READ: 10 Shocking Old-Timey Practices Filipinos Still Do Today

For others, the idea of having multiple children made them feel like pigs, so women who were pregnant to their second or third child would resort to abortion to get rid of their pregnancy. Poverty was another reason, as reported by Miguel de Loarca: “….when the property is to be divided among all the children, they will all be poor, and that it is better to have one child and leave him wealthy.”

The Visayans, according to historian William Henry Scott, also had a custom of abandoning babies with debilitating defects, a fact that made many observers conclude that “Visayans were never born blind or crippled.”


8. Celebrating a girl’s first menstruation, pre-colonial style.

First menstruation Rite of Passage in Precolonial Philippines

Painting by Manuel Pañares

Although menarche (first menstruation) is memorable for a lot of women today, rarely does it become a cause for celebration. In the precolonial era, however, this transition was seen as a crucial period in womanhood, so much so that all girls were required to go through an intricate rite of passage.

The said ceremony was known as “dating” among ancient Tagalogs. It was usually held with the help of a catalonan (babaylan), the go-to priestess-cum-doctor during that time. During the ritual, the girl who was having her first period was secluded, covered, and blindfolded.

Isolation usually lasted for four days if the woman was a commoner, while those belonging to the principal class had to go through this process for as long as a month and twenty days!

The Boxer Codex explains that our ancestors blindfolded the girl so she wouldn’t see anything dishonest, and therefore prevent her from growing up a “bad woman.” The mantles covering her, on the other hand, shielded her from wind blows, which they believed could lead to insanity.

The girl could also not eat anything apart from two eggs or four mouthfuls of rice–morning and night, for four straight days. As if that’s not enough, the girl was also prohibited to talk to anybody, for fear that she would become talkative. All of these while her friends and relatives feasted and celebrated.

Also Read: 35 Outrageous Filipino Superstitions You Didn’t Know Existed

Each morning throughout the duration of the ceremony, the blindfolded girl was led to the river for her ritual bath. Her feet weren’t allowed to touch the ground, so a catalonan or a male helper assisted her. The girl would be either led to the river through an “elevated walkway of planks” or carried by a male helper on his shoulder.

After immersing eight times in the water, the girl was carried back to the home where she would be rubbed with traditional male scents like civet or musk. Father Placensia, who was among those who witnessed the ritual, discovered later on that the natives did this in order that the girl might bear children, and have fortune in finding a husband to their taste, who would not leave them widows in their youth.”


9. Whatever happened to our ancient writing system?

Doctrina Christiana

A page from Plasencia’s “Doctrina Christiana en lengua Española y Tagala.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

First things first: You’re not supposed to call our ancient script “alibata” because it’s a misnomer. The word (from ‘Alif-bata,’ the first letters of the Arabic script) was actually invented by Paul Versoza who thought our earliest writing system was of Arabic origins.

The thing is, the baybayin (which is the correct term) is believed to be one of indigenous alphabets in Asia that originated from the Sanskrit of the ancient India.

READ: 5 Historic Lies You Were Taught In School

Upon their arrival, some of the Spanish chroniclers didn’t believe their eyes when they saw some of the natives being so literate. Father Chirino observed that there is “hardly a man, and much less  a woman, who does not read and write,” while Morga wrote that there were very few who “do not write it (baybayin) very well and correctly.”

Composed of 17 symbols, the ancient baybayin has survived in a few artifacts and in Father Plasencia’s Doctrina Christiana en lengua Española y Tagala, known as the only example of the baybayin from the 16th century.

As to why the baybayin quickly disappeared, there are few possible reasons. First, we were not like China which was miles ahead when it comes to writing and record-keeping. Instead, our ancestors used anything they could get their hands on as their writing pad (leaves, bamboo tubes, bark of trees, you name it) while pointed weapons or saps of trees served as their ink.

The Boxer Codex also suggests that the content of whatever our ancestors wrote was relatively insignificant: “They have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of any length but only letters and reminders to one another.”

Of course, the Spaniards also contributed to the early death of our ancient syllabic writing. Historian Teodoro Agoncillo believed so: “Aside from the destructive work of the elements, the early Spanish missionaries, in their zeal to propagate the Catholic religion, destroyed many manuscripts on the ground that they were the work of the Devil himself.” 


10. Social classes were not as permanent as we thought.

Datu Class in Precolonial Philippines

Depiction of a pre-colonial noble Filipino couple in the Boxer Codex. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When the ancient Filipinos started trading with the outsiders, economy also started to improve. This is when social classes began to emerge, and life suddenly became unfair.

As you may recall from the HEKASI subject that bored you as a kid, the pre-colonial Filipinos were divided into four: There was the ruling datu class; the wealthy warrior class called maharlika; the timawa or freemen; and the most ‘unfortunate’ of them all–the alipin or uripon class.

Also Read: 11 Things From Philippine History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly

The alipin was further divided into two sub-classes: the namamahay or those who owned their houses and only served their masters on an as-needed basis; and the saguiguilid who didn’t own a thing nor enjoyed any social privileges.

You might think that being born a slave at that time was tantamount to being doomed for life. However, that’s not exactly the case, as there were reports of those who either moved up or down in the pre-colonial social ladder.

Timawa Class in Precolonial Philippines

A Visayan freemen (‘timawa’) couple, as shown in the Boxer Codex. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the case of the alipin, he could improve his social status by marriage. For example, as recorded by Father Plasencia, “if the maharlikas had children by their slaves, the children and their mothers became free.” Of course, this thing didn’t happen all the time, neither was it applicable to all social classes.

An alipin could also buy his freedom from his master if he was lucky enough to obtain gold through “war, by the grade of goldsmith, or otherwise.” Take note, however, that inter-class mobility could only happen one step at a time. In other words, an alipin could never bypass other classes to become a datu overnight,  and vice versa.

Other classes could also be demoted to the slave class for various reasons. Save for the datu or chiefs, anyone who committed a crime and failed to pay the fine would become a slave.

As for the datu, he could end up a low-ranked individual either because of poor leadership, which would prompt his followers to abandon him, or through an inter-barangay war, during which the captured and defeated  datu as well as his family would lose some of their social privileges.


11. Courtship was a long, arduous, and expensive process.

Marriage in Pre-Colonial Philippines

Painting by Botong Francisco

Paninilbihan or the custom requiring the guy to work for the girl’s family before marriage was already prevalent during the pre-colonial times. From chopping wood to fetching water, the soon-to-be-groom would do everything to win his girl’s hand.

READ: The bizarre, painful sexual practices of early Filipinos

It often took months or even years before the parents were finally convinced that he was the right man for their daughter. And even at that point, the courtship wasn’t over yet.

The man was required to give bigay-kaya, or a dowry in the form of land, gold, or dependents. Of course, he needed the help of his parents to raise the required amount. Spanish chronicler Father Plasencia reported that a bigger amount of dowry was usually given to a favored son, especially if he was about to tie the knot with the chief’s daughter. In the case of the Visayans, this dowry was usually given to the father-in-law who would not entrust it to the couple until they had children.

Also Read: A Photo Of Ifugaos in Wedding Dress (1900)

In other areas of the country, the dowry was just the beginning. According to historian Teodoro Agoncillo, there was also the panghimuyat or the payment for the “mother’s nocturnal efforts in rearing the girl to womanhood”; the bigay-suso or payment for the girl’s wet nurse (if there’s any) who breastfed her when she’s still a baby; and the himaraw or the “reimbursement for the amount spent in feeding the girl during her infancy.”

As if that’s not enough to make the would-be groom go bankrupt, there was also the sambon among the Zambals which was basically a “bribe'” given to the girl’s relatives. Fortunately, through a custom called pamumulungan or pamamalae, the groom’s parents had the chance to meet the in-laws, haggle all they could, and make the final arrangements before the marriage.


12. They used a “life or death” method of judgment.

Trial By Ordeal in Pre-Colonial Philippines

An example of a “hot water ordeal” in the Ifugao culture, early 20th century. Source: Ifugao Law (In American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 15, No. 1)

You may have first encountered “trial by ordeal” while reading stories from the medieval Europe. It’s basically a method of judgment wherein an accused party would be asked to do something dangerous. If he luckily survives, he would be considered innocent. Otherwise, he would be proclaimed guilty.

Our ancestors–and even some of today’s indigenous peoples–had a similar custom. The difference is that our version didn’t usually end up in a life-or-death situation.

READ: 6 True Stories From Philippine History Creepier Than Any Horror Movie

The ifugaos, for example, subjected the involved parties into either a “hot water” or “hot bolo” ordeal. The former involved dropping of pebbles in a pot filled with boiling water. The accused was then asked to dip his hands into the pot and take out the stones. Failure to do this or doing it with “undue haste” would be interpreted as confession of guilt.

The “hot bolo” ordeal, as the name suggests, required both suspects to have their hands be touched by a scorching knife. The one who suffered the most burns would be declared guilty.

Other methods included giving lighted candles to the suspects; the one whose candle died off first was the guilty party. There’s also one which asked both persons to chew rice and later spit it out, the guilty person being the one who spits the thickest saliva.


Want more amazing Pinoy trivia?



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Burton, R. (1919). Ifugao Law. American Archaeology And Ethnology, 15(1).

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Geremia-Lachica, M. (1996). Panay’s Babaylan: The Male Takeover. Review Of Women’s Studies, 6(1), 54-58. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/DOlMZ7

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Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms. (2015). Asia Society. Retrieved 8 April 2016, from http://goo.gl/LwL6iA

Remoto, D. (2002). Happy and gay. philSTAR.com. Retrieved 9 April 2016, from http://goo.gl/Tt8tB1

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Vega, P. (2011). The World of Amaya: Unleashing the Karakoa. GMA News Online. Retrieved 8 April 2016, from http://goo.gl/uhyHPg