In pre-colonial Philippines, we already had kinilaw and corpses smoked tobacco

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Early Filipinos already ate kinilaw, performed riddles as a way to teach folklore wisdom, and celebrated a girl's first menstrual period. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The quest for a distinct Filipino identity never seems to perish. There are various analyses, dialogues, literature, and works of art that always seek to answer the question: What makes a Filipino?

As a country infused with colonial practices for most of its recorded history, the Philippines’ pre-colonial past can oftentimes be viewed with an air of mystery, a long gone era where beliefs and traditions are nothing but a distant, almost unimaginable memory.

While most Filipinos’ way of life at the present time is largely influenced by the values of our colonial masters, there are still crucial parts of being Filipino — from how meals center around eating rice to the value put on females — that have come from the time before we were in the shackles of our colonizers.

Here are some surprising facts about pre-colonial Philippines, mostly referenced from the book “Kasaysayan: The Earliest Filipinos” and the essays by Filipino writers, scholars, and historians accompanying it.

Kinilaw is at least one hundred years old and one of the earliest food discoveries.

In cultural historian Doreen Fernandez’s essay, “Food At the Very Beginning,” she says that kinilaw, the seafood dish similar to a ceviche, has been in the country since 10th and 13th centuries AD.

During the 1987 Balangay excavation in Agusan del Norte, the researchers also found the tabon-tabon, which is a green fruit, and bones of yellowfin tuna. Fernandez says that both of these were cut in the same way as how the kinilaw is prepared today.

Since kinilaw was made through souring and not by fire, it was highly likely that they consumed this food as it was easy to make. “It was the discovery of seagoing, river-faring people who knew the richness of the waters, the flavors of their wealth, and the high value of freshness,” Fernandez wrote.

Rice has always been the center of meals.

Another essay by Fernandez, “The Staff of Life,” underscores the importance of rice for pre-colonial Filipinos. If people were eating without it, it was just considered a snack, not a meal.

Not only was rice important in the day-to-day meals of earlier Filipinos, rice was also used in weddings where couples would exchange balls of rice. This food staple was also used to express grief as no clean rice would be eaten for an entire year as a sign of mourning.

The many words Filipinos used for rice — palay is unhusked, bigas is husked, kanin is cooked — also mirrored the significance it had in their way of life.

Ancient Filipinos celebrated a woman’s first menstruation.

The Boxer Codex, a Spanish manuscript detailing the lives of pre-Spanish Philippines, includes details of how when a woman got her menarche or her first menstruation, she underwent a ceremony known as “dating,” where she was blindfolded and secluded in a windowless space for four days.

Once her menstrual period was over, she was led to a stream for a bath but her feet were not allowed to touch the ground, so she was either carried or made to walk on an elevated pathway.

When she returned home, oil or musk would be put on her body, which was then followed by two nights of singing. During this time, only females were allowed to be around her.

This ceremony also marked the woman as someone who can now be married.

Filipino women were on equal footing with men.

“In most aspects of life, pre-colonial women enjoyed the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as did men,” wrote activist nun Mary John Mananzan in her essay “The Pre-colonial Filipina.”

She also recounted how if females were to marry, they didn’t lose their names, and in fact, among the Tagalogs, if the woman was especially distinguished (in class or achievement), the husband takes the name of the wife. Females were also made to take charge when it comes to finances and landholdings, and contracts with Chinese merchants even required to have women’s signatures because women were proven reliable.

During that time, virginity was also not seen as a value that should be upheld. In the essay, Mananzan explained how when the Spaniards came in 1521, they were appalled by the freedom that women had, a freedom that did not coincide with their idea of how a woman should behave. Hence, the Spanish worked to transform Filipinas into how women were in Iberian society — sheltered and reserved.

The earliest coin was made of gold.

It’s no surprise that most pre-colonial Filipinos had no knowledge of money, but instead were trading through gold. In author Angelita Legarda’s essay “Small Change,” she noted that early Spanish chroniclers noted that Filipinos then were already experts at evaluating the quality of gold.

Coin specialists have also found the earliest Filipino coin, which was “a small gold piece no larger than a pea, shaped like a rounded cone, with a character stamped in relief at the base,” and called it ‘piloncito.’ They called it such because the gold bits looked the same as the sugar receptacle called ‘pilon.’

Further proof that the gold bits were indeed the coins used by early Filipinos surfaced when the largest piloncito was found to weigh 2.65 grams, which is equivalent to one ‘mas,’  the standard weight of gold that was used across Southeast Asia.

Pre-colonial inhabitants were already literate.

In 1663, Spanish missionary Francisco Colin noted that “the people cling fondly to their own methods of writing and reading. There is scarcely a man, nor a woman, who does not know and practice that method, even those who are already Christian in matters of devotion.”

Those who were living in coastal communities were said to be the most literate among early Filipinos — the Ilocanos, the Pangasinense, the Pampangos, the Tagalogs, the Samar-Leyte groups, the Negrenses, and the Butuanons.

However, as soon as the Spaniards introduced the Roman alphabet to the early Filipinos, the latter were made to look inadequate, which helped the Spaniards’ argument that the Filipinos at that time were not civilized.

Women underwent cranial reformation to be deemed beautiful.

Cranial reformation, a process by which the skull is made to be reshaped, was a type of body adornment in pre-colonial Philippines. Anthropologists during the excavation in Butuan City in the mid-70s found that the skulls were made to slant backwards. This then made the chin assume an upward position, which elevated the stance of early Filipinos.

Cranial reformation was done by wrapping the head of an infant with a cloth or attaching small wooden boards around an infant’s head, and then gradually taking these off upon maturity. The anthropologists at Butuan did not find any of these for male Filipinos, only with females, which contributed to their theory that the process was possibly done for beautification.

The earliest form of Philippine literature was the riddle.

In author and professor Damiana Eugenio’s essay, “Riddles to Tease and Teach,” she asserted that riddles were among the first and most common use of words. “Like proverbs, most are characterized by brevity, wit, and felicitous phrasing, and as such are effective ways of transmitting folk wisdom to succeeding generations,” she wrote.

Eugenio adds that riddles have been found in every ethnolinguistic group across the Philippines: bugtong in Tagalog and Pampango, patoto’don in Bikol, burburtia in Iloko, pabitla in Pangasinan, kabbuni in Ivatan, tigmo in Cebuano, paktakon in Hiligaynon, titiguhon in Waray, antoka in Maranao, and tigum-tigum in Tausug.

Nonsense words were also coined just so it can go well with a particular rhythm. A riddle was found with the title “Kukurukutong,” but this was only a fictitious name for a person that was used to rhyme with the sentence “Bumubula’y walang gatong.”

When someone dies, they make the corpse “smoke” strong tobacco.

When a person died, the family members constructed a chair that they then attached to the stilts of the house. The corpse, whose body was wrapped in a blanket, would then be placed on the chair, as if sitting.

The corpse was then made to “smoke” tobacco to avert bacteria from entering the body. One end of the tobacco would be inserted into the mouth of the corpse and then someone would puff the smoke into the dead body’s mouth. Water boiled with guava leaves were then used to wash the skin, and the washing continued until there was no fluid coming out of the corpse’s body.

On the third or fourth day after the washing, the dead body would be placed under sunlight and everyone in the community would help in peeling off the skin of the body before they’re put in a coffin.



“Kasaysayan: The Earliest Filipinos” by Cecilio G. Salcedo, Wilfredo P. Ronquillo, Eusebio Z. Dizon, and Fr. Gabriel S. Casal

“Isabelo’s Archive” by Resil B. Mojares [accessed online]