Just how old are the Ifugao Rice Terraces?
By Marlon M. Martin
Entire generations of Filipinos grew up believing that the Ifugaos built the rice terraces 2,000 years ago. Classroom textbooks proclaim this as gospel truth. Even UNESCO’s website describes these World Heritage Sites as “…built 2,000 years ago and passed on from generation to generation.” “(T)he Ifugao Rice Terraces,” it adds, “represent an enduring illustration of an ancient civilization that surpassed various challenges and setbacks posed by modernization.”
How did the narrative about the age of the rice terraces start? Within academia, the origin of the 2,000-year narrative was based on the conjectures of two prominent anthropologists, Roy F. Barton and Henry O. Beyer, who worked among the Ifugaos during the early years of the American colonial period.
In his article on archaeological investigations in central Ifugao published in Asian Perspectives, archaeologist Robert Maher quotes Barton, a school teacher who came with the first wave of American officials for the pacification campaign in Ifugao: “One who stands on some jutting spur of the mountainside in Asin, Sapao, or Banaue can scarcely help being impressed with the feeling that he is looking upon a work of tens of centuries. Any calculation must be based on vague and hazardous figures of course, but, without having any theories to prove and making due allowance for increased rate of building during peaceful times and for the pressure of the needs of increased population, from a comparison of the estimated area of voluntary rice-field building with the areas already constructed, I come to the conclusion that the Ifugaos must have lived in their present habitat for at least two thousand years, and I believe that these figures are too small.”
Maher adds: “Beyer does not make clear all of the considerations which went into his estimates, but he came to the conclusion that it ‘took between two and three thousand years to cover northern Luzon with the great terraced areas that exist there now.’”
Later, in the same report, after advancing evidence that the terraces had once been more extensive than they are today, Maher states: “(I)t must have been some time before the terraces reached their maximum extent, because it took a really long time to build those terraces. And so I would rather think that it was a thousand or 1,500 years ago when the terraced areas were at their maximum.”
This is not to discredit the enormous contributions of Barton and Beyer to Ifugao ethnography, but it is baffling by modern standards how these simple guess works have become accepted facts and have made their way to mainstream literature. Using Maher’s words, “the 2,000-year old model is not based on even a shovelful of soil,” but it entered the national consciousness because of how history is taught in the Philippines.
Society’s desire for ancient things and our chronic romanticizing of indigenous societies, boosted by tourism-driven communication trends, perpetuated this myth in the face of overwhelming scientific proof to the contrary.
Moving now to historical perspectives, the Spaniards heard about the Ifugao and other highland groups as early as AD 1575 because of the famed Cordillera gold. In The Discovery of the Igorots, William Henry Scott wrote that Spanish, and later German, explorers provided the earliest historical reports on Cordillera agricultural systems. But it was not until 1801 that a description of wet-rice terracing appeared in Spanish documents.
The glaring absence of any reference to the Ifugao rice terraces in early colonial documents motivated Felix Keesing, known for his ethnohistory of northern Luzon, to argue that the terraces were younger than earlier proposed. To him it would be impossible for any explorer to not mention a ubiquitous cultural landscape that extends to the far corners of the Ifugao highlands.
Maher did the first archaeological project in the province, later resulting in the initial archaeological publications about the region. Sites at two localities were excavated, one in Banaue, central Ifugao, and the other in Burnay, southeast Ifugao. These sites provided radiocarbon evidence for site occupation, but not necessarily rice terrace construction.
Subsequent archaeological investigations of Ifugao province were carried out fairly recently in Banaue and at the Old Kiyyangan Village site in Kiangan. The Old Kiyyangan is most significant in oral history and folklore as the home village of the Ifugaos.
The ongoing Ifugao Archaeological Project, led by Dr. Stephen Acabado of the University of California, Los Angeles, in collaboration with community stakeholders, came up with several publications on the age of the Ifugao rice terraces. Bulk soil, chard residue, micro-botanical and macro-botanical datasets, pollen, phytolith, and starch analyses of sherd residues provided archaeological and ethnohistoric information. All these support a short history model for the inception of the terraces as agricultural monuments.
These pieces of evidence suggest that the rice terraces were built soon after the arrival of the Spaniards. Archaeological evidence that would support the 2,000-year old origin theory of the Ifugao terraces has remained completely absent from five major sites, including the Old Kiyyangan Village, Hapao, Nagacadan, Batad, and Banaue.
In conclusion, the short history narrative fits more in the wider historical and anthropological context of the region. It should help decolonize historical impositions and empower indigenous communities to assert their proper place in the nation’s history.
Marlon M. Martin is the chief operating officer of Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo) and co-chairperson of the Kiangan Culture and Arts Council. (firstname.lastname@example.org)