10 Fascinating Facts About Life in Pre-Colonial Philippines

Human sacrifice was a thing.

Pre-colonial Filipiknow


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. There are many things from Philippine history that you might have missed during history class, so here are some interesting facts to take you back through time.


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They compressed their babies’ skulls for aesthetic reasons.

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 in elongated heads.


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.”


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Gold was everywhere.

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


In the book by historian William Henry Scott, it is 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.”


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.



Pre-colonial 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 different unknown places.


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.


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

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


In the Visayas region, 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.


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



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.


Pre-colonial Filipiknow


Homosexuals had an important role in pre-colonial society.

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). 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



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.


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Human sacrifice was a bloody, fascinating mess.

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.


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.



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.


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

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.


For others, the idea of having multiple children made them feel like pigs, so women who were pregnant with their second or third child would resort to abortion to get rid of the pregnancy. 


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.”


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

Although menarche (first menstruation) is memorable for a lot of women today, rarely does it become a cause for celebration. In the pre-colonial 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 20 days!


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.


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.


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Whatever happened to our ancient writing system?

To refer to our ancient script as alibata is 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 ancient India.


Upon their arrival, some of the Spanish chroniclers didn’t believe their eyes when they realized the natives were so literate.


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, et cetera) while pointed weapons or saps of trees served as their ink.


The Spaniards also contributed to the early death of our ancient syllabic writing. Historian Teodoro Agoncillo said, “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.” 


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Social classes were not as permanent as we thought.

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


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.


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.


In the case of the alipin, he could improve his social status by marriage. 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.



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Courtship was a long, arduous, and expensive process.

Paninilbihan or the custom requiring a guy to work for a 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.


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.



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.


Read the full article, "12 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About Pre-Colonial Philippines" on Filipiknow.net. Minor edits were made by the SPOT.ph editors.

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