Breaking myths about the Ifugao Rice Terraces

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Research has asserted that the earlier Ifugao generations used indigenous rice terrace farming to resist Spanish colonization. Photo by MARIE LOUISE SIOCO

Editor’s note: Kathleen Tantuico is a lawyer and a candidate for a Master of Arts in Archaeology from the University of the Philippines Archaeological Studies Program. She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of the Philippines in 2019, and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences, specializing in Cultural Heritage and Minor in History from the Ateneo de Manila University. She participated in the Ifugao Archaeological Project as a trench supervisor in Kiangan, Ifugao in 2012, and in Hapao-Hungduan in 2014. After working as a litigation lawyer for one of the Philippines’ top law firms, she is currently a policy and public interest lawyer for two non-government organizations.

In the age of social media, fake news and disinformation, one needs to wear an extra lens of discernment to separate facts from myths. For archaeologists, myths are busted through decades of research, excavations, materials analysis, and a constant drive to validate, and even invalidate, existing beliefs and theories.

In the Philippines, Ifugao Province in Northern Luzon is known for numerous rice terrace clusters that are scattered along the whole province. Each cluster has their own distinct manner of shaping the earth into terraced landscapes that can accommodate complex irrigation systems that can sustain traditional rice farming.

For decades, there has been a long-standing belief that the Ifugao terraces are over 2,000 years old. This notion was published in the early 1900s by H. Otley Beyer, one of the earliest known anthropologists who specialized in Philippine culture. Beyer’s “waves of migration” theory. This hypothesized that Ifugaos were part of the second wave of Malays, who migrated to the Philippines around 2,000 years ago. These groups of Malays, according to Beyer, were a more sophisticated and technologically advanced group, as compared to the previous migrants, the Negritos and Indonesians. Pegging the construction of the Ifugao terraces at 2,000 years ago would have been a perfect fit for Beyer’s theory of migration.

Beyer’s celebrated theory was disseminated into textbooks, publications and other channels, enough to penetrate the consciousness of the world. Even movies adopted the “2,000-year-old” theory in their storylines.

Archaeological evidence, however, has consistently revealed otherwise.

In 2007, Filipino archaeologist Stephen Acabado used radiocarbon dating methods to estimate when the Ifugao terraces were created. The analysis of charcoal samples from the Bocos rice terrace system in Banaue, Ifugao revealed that terrace building in the area dates to around 1585 — the period of Spanish colonization in the Philippines. Acabado asserted that this indicates that the earlier Ifugao generations used indigenous rice terrace farming to resist Spanish colonization. In fact, it was pointed out that the Spanish only penetrated Ifugao in 1793, over 200 years after they first set foot in the Philippines in 1521.

Archaeology students at the first IAP excavation in Kiangan Ifugao in July 2012. Photo by MARIE LOUISE SIOCO

Hopeful that more archaeological data from more areas in Ifugao could further support these findings, Acabado and Marlon Martin of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMO) went on to lead the Ifugao Archaeological Project (IAP), a series of archaeological excavations in various locations in Kiangan and Hapao-Hungduan, Ifugao, from 2012 to 2016.

Over the five-year period, the data from each field-excavation season revealed that rice planting in the areas appeared only in 1640 to the 1800s. No evidence of rice planting was obtained in the sediment layers from the year 940 to 1020, which was around 1,000 years ago. How now could there have been such indigenous technology for rice terrace farming 2,000 years ago if 1,000 years ago, there was not a single piece of evidence that rice was already being cultivated in the area?

There is really no way.

It took over a decade for various teams of archaeologists from the Philippines and all over the world to obtain archaeological evidence, conduct scientific analysis, write peer-reviewed research papers and present their findings to local communities, to come up with these findings, and the end is not yet in sight. A summary of the findings can be viewed in a video by Joshua David

The outdated belief that the Ifugao Terraces are 2,000 years old has prevented us from seeing how the earlier generation of Ifugaos had used their ingenuity and indigeneity in resisting Spanish colonization. Instead of staying in vulnerable lowland areas, they climbed to the unreachable highlands and shaped the mountainsides into an irrigation system and complex rice paddies that are still functional today.

Through persistent archaeological research, the demystification of age-old myths can breathe a new understanding in Philippine history and culture, so much so that the extra lens of discernment that separates facts from myths transforms into a voice that encourages change.

In late May, the University of California- Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Philippine Consulate General in LA launched an ethnographic exhibit entitled “Breaking Myths: Food Feasts and the Ifugao” at the Philippine Consulate’s General Community Hall.

Archaeological excavations in Hapao-Hungduan, Ifugao in 2014. Photo by MARIE LOUISE SIOCO

Organized by Acabado, who is now the director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the Ifugao Exhibit displayed photos of the Ifugao Terraces and other Ifugao ethnographic materials. This exhibit aimed to curb racially motivated discrimination targeting Asian communities by promoting a better understanding of Philippine history through archaeological and ethnographic research conducted by the Ifugao Archaeological Project.

Speaking at the exhibit launch, Philippine Consul General Edgar B. Badajos emphasized that awareness of culture can fight racial discrimination while honoring the bravery of previous generations.

“We need to push back against these racially motivated hate crimes not through an equal dose of violence but by promoting a greater awareness of our culture. The Ifugao Archaeological Project provides interesting insights and while it debunks the long-held belief that the terraces are 2,000 years old, it does affirm at the same time that we know about our Cordillera brothers and sisters, their resistance and tenacity to great adversity.”

The author with archaeology students from the IAP taking measurements to create scale drawings of the stratigraphic layers at the IAP archaeological excavations in Hapao-Hungduan, Ifugao in 2014. Photo by MARIE LOUISE SIOCO

Acabado also asserts that these types of community engagement could contribute to a better understanding of marginalized Indigenous peoples.

“Exhibits like this provide a venue to highlight the experiences of marginalized Indigenous peoples. In the Philippine case, we hope that it spurs proactive policies that empower IP groups to learn more about their history and heritage. Studies have shown that youths who are more secure about their ethnic identity are more likely to succeed later in life. It’s the least that we can do to redress centuries of oppression.”

The Ifugao Rice Terraces’ new narrative of being created by the Ifugao to resist Spanish colonization shows that a tenacious drive to question long standing beliefs is what makes archaeologists the “myth-busters” who they are today. In the age of digitization, this type of myth-busting can give us a brand new lens on how to see the world.

View the digital exhibit here.