The Archaeology, Prehistory and Ethnohistory of Surigao Province in Northeastern Mindanao:

A Preliminary Report

By Leslie E. Bauzon and Eusebio Z. Dizon


In September 1990 the Panhutongan Primary School in Placer, Surigao del Norte, undertook the repair of its septic tank located at the back of its two-room decades-old school building. During the repair work the village laborers accidentally unearthed three dugout wooden coffins, each containing skeletons and associated cultural materials like Chinese trade ceramics placed upside down on the faces of the humans whose remains were found.

The accidental discovery came to the attention of Mr. Fernando A. Almeda, Jr., President of the Surigaonon Heritage Center and Port Manager of the Philippine Ports Authority in Surigao City, who then dispatched a wire to Leslie E. Bauzon requesting him to see for himself the finds and to inspect the site. Bauzon thus undertook a trip to Surigao del Norte in early November 1990. Prof. Mary C. Barrameda of the University of the Philippines went with Bauzon under the sponsorship of the Social Issues Committee of the Philippine Social Science Council. Bauzon and Barrameda recognized the potential of the site for an archaeological excavation based on the reported accidental finds and on the surface finds they made, such as blue and white ceramic fragments, celadon pieces, and human bones and teeth. They made a site report and subsequently invited Dr. Eusebio Z. Dizon of the Archaeology Division of the National Museum to come along during the next trip to inspect the place and the finds. In March 1991 Bauzon and Dizon went to Surigao del Norte together to inspect the Panhutongan site and to explore other sites like the Amoslog Cave in the Placer mountains and the Tinago Cave in nearby Tinago Island.

They both agreed to work together to formulate a joint project proposal to be submitted to funding agencies for assistance. Individuals like Dr. Estefania Aldaba-Lim and organizations like the Oriental Ceramics Society of the Philippines, Caltex Philippines, and Friends of UGAT (Ugnayang Pang-Agham Tao) responded favorably. The main support though came from the Toyota Foundation and the Daiwa Bank Foundation for Asia and Oceania, both of Japan. A Philippine government agency, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, contributed to the project in form of supplies and materials.

The project aims at two things: (1) to reconstruct the prehistoric chronology and culture of Surigao Province; and (2) to document the continuity of cultural patterns in Surigaonon society from prehistoric to historic times. In the process, the project expects to contribute toward our discovery and understanding of Philippine prehistoric society and culture as a whole, and thus help establish our roots and identity as a nation.

The Diggings

Thus in October-November 1991 the first field season pursuant to the aims of the project took place in Panhutongan village within the institutional frameworks of the Philippine Social Science Council, the National Museum, and the Surigaonon Heritage Center. During this field season the scientific team, observing the standard norms and methodology in archaeology, excavated five squares, four of which yielded a dugout wooden coffin, wooden posts, ceramic fragments, and portions of what would turn out later as stone structural foundations. One square was sterile.

The second field season occurred in April-May 1992, after the Northeast Monsoon rains in Surigao del Norte, during which the team exposed 28 squares, many of which yielded more cultural materials like ceramics, metal implements, beads, iron slags, and more dugout wooden coffins as well as human skeletal remains. It was during this time that the full extent of the stone structural foundations became evident.

Included among the ceramic finds were an intact white bowl of Swatow provenance and reconstructable blue and white ware shards belonging to the Mind period, while the blue, opaque and transparent glass beads have been traced by the team to the Dutch. However, according to a colleague and friend at the University of Amsterdam, Dr. John G. Kleinen, the so-called Dutch beads actually originated from Africa.

Embedded in this field schedule was the Summer Field School in Anthropology, Archaeology, and History, which was participated in by delegates from Mindanao State University, the University of the Philippines, the University of Santo Tomas, the Surigao del Norte National High School, the Surigao del Norte School of Arts and Trades, and the Surigaonon Heritage Center. The objective of the field school was to give the participants hands-on training in interdisciplinary research, and thus create a self-reproducing core of scholars committed to the task of carrying on the tradition of interdisciplinary field work in the country.

The third field season took place in July-August 1992, still dry months in Surigao del Norte. Our aim during this time was to conduct a transect excavation within the Panhutongan Primary School grounds. A transect excavation involves the digging of test trenches. In the case of Panhutongan, the test trenches would determine the archaeological significance of that portion of the school grounds recommended by the team to be the location of the new structure proposed to be built as replacement for the existing rundown building, which the team requested the government's Department of Education, Culture and Sports to be demolished in order to allow the excavation of the ground below its cement flooring.

Happily, the Department of Education, Culture and Sports Schools Superintendent in the Surigao del Norte Division, Mr. Eulalio P. Cortes, approved the team's recommendation for a new school building and for the corresponding demolition of the existing structure. Thus in May-June 1993 the project went through its fourth field season. With the go-signal from the Department of Education, Culture and Sports, the team carefully removed the cement slab which served as the floor of the old schoolhouse. The team decided to retain the roof and much of the walling for protection from the elements.

From 10 May to 30 June 1993 the scientific team conducted the excavation of the ground, suspected to be fertile and undisturbed, beneath the cement flooring of the Panhutongan Primary School, and the unexcavated squares on the northeastern and southwestern sides of the building. The excavated squares inside and outside the building indeed proved to be richly laden with archaeological deposits.

Inside the building, the team unearthed "in situ" entire assemblages of human remains in three different layers. Associated with these human remains were cultural materials like white and blue and white Chinese trade ceramics in perfect condition, as well as metal tools, spear points, metal ornaments, iron slags, charcoal, a medallion, and a smoking pipe. More dugout wooden coffins came out too. Significantly, plank-type coffins were also unearthed, revealing yet another prehistoric burial practice.

Meanwhile, the stone structural foundations continued into the ground beneath the school building, making a circular turn at the point where the newly-exposed stone walk toward the open sea begins.

Cultural Practices

The team observed two cultural practices associated with the burials: primary coffin burials and primary open pit burials. The former were found at the lowest layer and the latter at the upper layer. This means that the primary coffin burials took place earlier than the primary open pit burials. Except for one skeleton, all individuals were buried in a north-south direction. Every skeleton was found lying on its back, with most of the skulls facing upward.

In the squares where coffin burials were found, two types of coffins were observed, namely dugout log coffins and plank-type coffins. Outside the school building, the team found more dugout wooden coffins as well as more human remains associated with metal implements, tradeware ceramics, and other cultural materials. The squares excavated in the northeastern side of the structure yielded what appears to be a stone walk leading to the sea just a few meters away. The team did not find conclusive evidence that the site also served as a place for habitation.

This prehistoric habitation site, which the team believes to be within the village, should be the object of a search and when found, should be subjected also to a systematic excavation.

Who were these People

When the team unearthed the many human skeletal remains, the running total of which is now 63 individuals, the immediate question that we asked ourselves was "Who were these people?" We know now that the lowland and coastal areas of the two Surigao provinces are today inhabited by Christian migrants from the Visayan islands of Cebu, Bohol, Leyte and Samar. The uplands, which constitute the Pacific Cordillera running in a north-south pattern, are inhabited by non-Christians and non-Muslims like the Mamanwas ("People of the Forest"), the Manobos ("People of the Upstream"), and the Mandayas ("People of the Mountain"), all these being self-ascriptions.


Pursuant to the ethnohistorical portion of the project, the team did fieldwork in the Manobo settlement of Cabangahan, Cantilan, Surigao del Sur. The Manobos were chosen because available ethnographic evidence tends to show they have been around in Surigao since prehistoric times. Compared with the nomadic Mamanwas, the Manobos are a people with a sedentary tradition. The Manobos also have a metal industry, unlike the Mamanwas. In relation to the Mandayas, the Manobos tend to be culturally dominant, even if the former also possess sedentary and metal traditions. Thus the team decided to conduct the ethnohistorical research among the Manobos after a process of elimination in accordance with the archaeological and ethnographic data on hand.

Cabangahan, the site of the ethnohistorical fieldwork, is a small valley located deep inside the mountain ranges of the Pacific Cordillera. It is accessible by hiking along a precipitous mountain trail or by hiking on the dry portion of the Carac-an River bed, and crossing this river ten times because of its undulating course. On both sides of the river are thickly forested mountains where small clusters of Manobo dwellings are also found. Either way, the long hike is physically gruelling and energy-sapping.

The main purpose of the fieldwork among the Manobos was to establish a possible relationship between them and the people whose skeletal remains were found in the formal burial site in Panhutongan. Therefore, the team looked at the following things during the research among the Manobos in the Cabangahan Valley: their oral traditions and oral history, their migratory movements, their material culture, their burial customs and practices, and their general way of life. The idea was to look for any hint or information that might enable the team to answer the question, "Who were these people?" in relation to the Panhutongan skeletons.

There are good clues such as the burial practices of the Manobos corresponding to the cultural practices associated with the primary coffin burials found in Panhutongan. For example, the Manobos bury their dead warriors together with their weapons and spears. The migratory history of the Manobos also indicate many of them moved southward from Surigao del Norte to where they are now in Surigao del Sur. Place names in Surigao del Norte such as "Hayangabon" ("Foggy Place") are indelible imprints of Manobo presence in the province in the past centuries.

The Manobo theory though cannot be regarded tenable as yet because a deeper analysis is needed based on further fieldwork in Cabangahan and in other Manobo settlements in Surigao del Norte and in Agusan del Sur. For example, there is a felt need to conduct a physical anthropological research wherein physical measurements of the present-day Manobos should be taken to compare with the measurements of the Panhutongan skeletons. The process of comparing the DNA substances is also imperative, and this, the team believes, will serve as the clincher if the comparative analysis yields results favorable to the Manobo theory. Today, technology is available to enable the team to extract DNA substances from both the Panhutongan bones and the present-day Manobos.

Impact of the Project

In the academic field the project is contributing toward our knowledge and understanding of Surigaonon prehistory and ethnohistory. For one thing, the stone structural foundations are the first to be found anywhere in the country outside urban settings like Manila and Cebu. For another, the project is going beyond merely looking for ceramics, in that the team is looking at the whole context of Philippine prehistoric culture and society. Already, because our archaeological site in Panhutongan has turned out to be a formal burial site that was in continuous utilization from 140 AD to 1770 AD -- a period of 1630 years -- the project team has pioneered in undertaking the task of doing a detailed study of the skeletal population in terms of sex distribution, age distribution, paleopathology or the analysis of prehistoric diseases, prehistoric dietary habits based on the analysis of the human teeth, dental practices, and mortuary customs.

In fact the information obtained based on the unearthed deposition of the dead is already a major contribution toward our knowledge and understanding of prehistoric and early historic Filipino burial practices.

The ethnohistorical portion is contributing toward our knowledge and understanding of the Manobos, a fast-vanishing non-Christian and non-Muslim ethnic group in Northeastern Mindanao. This is the first serious academic study of the Manobos since John M. Garvan delved into Manobo culture and history at the beginning of the 20th century. So much change has taken place and the project is undertaking the reconstruction of the social reality of the Manobos over the past decades and centuries.

The ethnohistorical research will reinforce the archaeological fieldwork by showing us the continuity and change in the cultural patterns and practices of the inhabitants of Surigao.

In the social and cultural spheres, the project has had the positive impact already of infusing capital into the economy of the village by hiring local laborers, by renting their houses, by buying the catch of the local fishermen, and by patronizing their general ("sari-sari") stores for assorted goods, not to mention making generous donations toward the holding of different benefits and activities in Panhutongan, e.g., the improvement of the village chapel, the repair of the day-care center, the acquisition of instructional devices for the Panhutongan Primary School, and the purchase of balls and uniforms for the volleyball and basketball teams.

The project also made donations to the Panhutongan Mothers' Club for its activities as well as toward the purchase of nets for the basketball goal rings.

The biggest and the most long-lasting impact of the project though can be seen in the success of the team in influencing the Department of Education, Culture and Sports -- through its Surigao del Norte Division -- to construct a new three-room school building with a built-in museum to house the Panhutongan artifacts, and thus elevate the village to the status of a tourist destination, which in turn should have the effect of stimulating economic activity among the villagers.

This social impact can also be seen in the success of the team in influencing the Provincial Government of Surigao del Norte and the Municipal Government of Placer, as well as the Manila Mining Corporation in Placer, to work together to repair the Panhutongan Bridge, and to grade and improve the road leading to the village from the national highway. In this connection the team worked through the staff of Senator Ernesto M. Maceda for the inclusion of an appropriation in the Public Works Bill of 1994, based on resolutions emanating from the village council of Panhutongan and the municipal council of Placer, for the asphalting of the said road by 1995. In any case, even before this asphalting is implemented, for the first time in decades, it is now possible for light vehicular traffic to enter Panhutongan, thus facilitating the transport of people, goods, and services.

More than these visible physical improvements, the now-operational and completed new school building will provide the Panhutongan school children with a better facility for their basic education, with the rare advantage of having a soon-to-be developed on-site museum containing the cultural artifacts unearthed in the open village archaeological site. Such a facility will create the proper atmosphere for their intellectual and cultural growth and development, and thus prepare them to meet the opportunities for educational advancement beyond their primary schooling. The team sees a better and brighter future for the children of the village.

Furthermore, the project influenced the Governor, Francisco T. Matugas, to issue a provincial ordinance creating the municipal and provincial historical committees, thus increasing the historical and cultural awareness and pride of the Surigaonon people. In fact this awareness was evident in the transformation of the attitude of the people toward the members of the team. In the beginning, the villagers were openly suspicious towards us. They regarded us as treasure hunters. But as they saw the openness and transparency with which we conducted the project, and as they realized the benefits coming to them because of the undertaking, they themselves protected the site and they accepted us fully into their homes and their community. At the end of the May-June field season in 1993, which coincided with the observance of the Panhutongan fiesta, Bauzon and Antonio Penalosa, a scientific illustrator of the team, stood as principal sponsors at the baptism of the grandchild of Barangay Captain Coleto C. Calimbo, thus symbolically completing our process of social integration into village life.

The project likewise influenced the Surigao City government under Mayor Salvador C. Sering to approve an allocation of half-a-million pesos for the restoration of the "Comandancia" (headquarters of the Spanish Civil Guards) and its conversion into the Surigaonon Museum. In Placer, the Municipal Government under Mayor Enrique N. Patino already set aside the Placer Tourism Building as another permanent display site for artifacts found in Panhutongan, to be shared with the Panhutongan Primary School Museum and the Surigaonon Museum in Surigao City.

With all these positive social, economic, and cultural changes taking place in the lives of the Panhutongan villagers, there is ground for optimism that their being on the margins of existence and their having to face desperate choices daily will ultimately be things of the past.

Their sun-burnt and rain-drenched bodies being the marks of their everyday struggle to eke out a living, the hard-working and well-meaning villagers of Panhutongan can look with a deep sense of buoyancy forward to a more joyful life and a brighter future.

Relationship with Development

An issue in Filipino academic circles is the relationship between history in particular and the social sciences in general on the one hand and national development on the other. Some Filipino historians prefer to remain in their ivory towers and cannot seem to relate their discipline to present social dilemmas in Philippine society. Others pretend to be radicals and they always engage in the rhetoric of "serving the people" while their deeds are incongruent with their words. In the Filipino language, we call this "ngawa ng ngawa, peru kulang sa gawa!"

We in the Surigao project categorically, in word and in action, take the stand of relating history, archaeology, and anthropology to development by providing the originating causes of current social problems besetting Filipino society and thereby give the empirical basis that will lead to the formulating of solutions to these problems; and just as important, in helping establish the roots of our cultural and national identity as a people.

In the Surigao project, we see something that will definitively set the theme for archaeological and historical research in the Philippines in the next ten years, while at the same time having a beneficial social and cultural influence on the lives of humble village folks.

Amoslog Cave

To complete the reconstruction of Surigaonon prehistory, the Amoslog cave site in the Placer mountains must be excavated with its extensive midden deposit. This undertaking requires careful planning and a substantial financial outlay, not to mention the use of heavy equipment to remove the huge boulders that collapsed on the mouth of the cave. The Amoslog cave site has already yielded Neolithic pottery pieces with different ornamental designs accomplished skillfully through a variety of artistic procedures. If the Amoslog cave site is excavated, it is possible that Neolithic and Paleolithic tools, as well as other cultural artifacts, will be found. Amoslog is in the same ecological setting as Panhutongan, and is connected by a river (Amoslog River) to Panhutongan. During the field season of April-May 1992 the team took a banca from Panhutongan to the Amoslog cave site in order to explore the river as well as to "feel" how it must have been in the past to maintain upstream-downstream links between the two villages.

Further Research

The ethnohistorical research among the Manobos in the upland areas of Surigao, especially in Surigao del Sur where many of them are still found, must be continued. In the succeeding field seasons among them, with proper funding and adequate security precautions, a physical anthropologist must come along to help in taking anthropological measurements and compare them with those of the Panhutongan skeletons. The comparison of the DNA substances extracted from both the Panhutongan bones and the present-day Manobos should also be conducted to answer definitely the question of "Who were these people?" in relation to the human remains the team unearthed in the coastal village site in Placer. This physical analysis will enrich the qualitative comparative analysis based on the cultural practices in the prehistoric past and in the present day.

Moreover, the remaining portion of the Panhutongan Primary School grounds, especially the unexcavated squares at the back of the building where test trenches were made during the May-June 1993 field season, should be systematically subjected to digging to reveal the full extent of the formal burial site, which has actually turned out to be a multicomponent site as well, according to the periodization which we have been able to establish based on the evidence:

1. In the mid-20th century, the site has come to serve as the location of the Panhutongan Primary School under the Placer District, Surigao del Norte Division, Department of Education, Culture and Sports.

2. In the Spanish colonial period, the stone structural foundations-- the first to be found outside and Cebu urban settings -- were most likely erected.

However, this needs to be re-examined carefully in view of the Carbon-14 dating made by Prof. Kunihiko Kigoshi of the Gaku- shuin University Radiocarbon Laboratory involving a wood sample Gak-17632, X-91-L3-439) Post # 5 found embedded in these same stone structural foundations. The wood sample was dated at 1260 A.D. indicating that a structure once existed on the same ground 261 years to the coming of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.

3. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the site served as a place for open-pit burials containing grave furniture in the form of Chinese tradeware ceramics of Ming provenance.

4. In the prehistoric period, as early as 140 A.D. based on the earliest dating obtained by Professor Kigoshi from a bone sample (Gak-17636, X-91-L3-1308) found in Burial # 36, the site served as a place for pit-grave burials containing dugout coffins plank-type coffins, which are by themselves significant findings.

With regard to the historical component of the project, research should be conducted in the archives of the Recollects and the Jesuits in Spain, as well as in the Portuguese and Dutch archives, in order to find out what the documents there have to say about Surigaonon culture and society at the point of contact between the Europeans and the people of Surigao in the 16th century and in the succeeding centuries. The Jesuits and the Recollects were the religious orders responsible for the early Christianization of Surigao, while the Portuguese may have visited Surigao from Ternate as part of their colonial territory during the decades between the Magellan voyage of 1521 and the Miguel Lopez de Legazpi expedition of 1565. These archives in Spain and in Portugal may yield documents shedding light on Surigao during those early centuries, and may help clarify the presence of the stone structural foundations, not to mention one skull belonging to a person already identified by the archaeozoologist in the team as a Caucasian. Meanwhile, the Dutch archives will help explain the presence of Dutch beads in the burial site. Dutch expeditions may have landed in Panhutongan in particular and Surigao in general during the early colonial years.