Debunking the widely believed age of the Ifugao rice terraces

Batad Rice Terraces, Banaue.

For almost a century, the Ifugao Rice Terraces were believed to have been built 2,000 years ago by the same ethnic group living in that part of the country today. This remained uncontested until archaeological investigations were undertaken by Stephen Acabado of the University of California Los Angeles and his team, starting from 2007 to around 2014 in the old Kiyyangan village, some four kilometers from the town center of Kiangan in the province of Ifugao.

Kiangan has the Nagacadan Rice Terraces, one of five serially inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site, collectively called Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. The others are in the barangays of Batad and Bangaan in Banaue and in the towns of Mayoyao and Hungduan, which are all in Ifugao.

These terraces were inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1995 as these “epitomize the absolute blending of the physical, socio-cultural, economic, religious, and political environment” and “it is a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty.”

Photographs by Edgar Allan M. Sembrano
for the daily tribune
The American and Philippine editions of the book ‘Indigenous Archaeology in the Philippines: Decolonizing Ifugao History.’

UNESCO says “the terraces illustrate a persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, since archaeological evidence reveals that this technique has been in use in the region for 2,000 years virtually unchanged.”

This detail that the terraces are that old is most likely going to be corrected not only in UNESCO documents but also in books and other publications. Still, the terraces remain the important engineering feat not only of Ifugao but the entire Cordillera region.

Photograph by Edgar Allan M. Sembrano for the daily tribune
Nagacadan Rice Terraces in Kiangan, Ifugao.

In the recently published book, Indigenous Archaeology in the Philippines: Decolonizing Ifugao History by Acabado and Marlon Martin, the interesting new finding is detailed together with other new details on the lives of the ancestors of today’s Ifugao people based on years of scientific studies involving stakeholders.

Prior to this, particularly from around 1050 CE, the Ifugao people used to cultivate taro in their fields, which was replaced by rice in the 17th century, enabling them to be involved in colonial economy and at the same time maintain their identity.
The intensive agricultural system, the book notes, expanded during the Spanish colonial period with rice remaining a staple to this day.

Archaeology also revealed how they buried their dead, particularly infants, which were placed in reused earthenware cooking and water pots.

These new findings have actually shaken the long-believed dating of the rice terraces since these were first made public more than 10 years ago through Acabado’s dissertation at the University of Hawai’i on Ifugao archaeology and its subsequent publication as a book.

That book, Antiquity, Archaeological Processes, and Highland Adaptation: The Ifugao Rice Terraces, related to the current one, was published by the Ateneo University Press in 2015.

Startling and intriguing these may be, the question of being old or new can be considered irrelevant here considering many factors —that the rice terraces are still an outstanding feat of engineering; that it’s the local adaptation to the environment; an ethnic response to colonialism; and they still provide a deeper understanding of the rich highland culture that thrives to this day.

Apart from these, other startling discoveries on how the ancient people of Ifugao lived were unearthed by Acabado and his team.

The people’s primary source of protein then was Philippine deer (Rusa marianna) with pigs, particularly native ones, eaten during feasts and rituals. Wild pigs were just for subsistence and not used for rituals. Carabaos, meanwhile, were not utilized as beasts of burden but as prestige animals, slaughtered and eaten only during events organized by the rich class called kadangyan.

Archaeology also revealed how they bury their dead, particularly infants, which were placed in reused earthenware cooking and water pots.

These and other interesting new details in the “revised chapter” of Ifugao history are presented in more than 200 pages of this landmark publication.

The book is a model for researchers and scholars not only in decolonizing but also in de-romanticizing indigenous histories. For this invaluable work, kudos to the authors as well as their team and partner organizations and institutions such as the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement, the Ifugao Archaeological Project, residents of Kiangan, and all stakeholders involved in this momentous undertaking.

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