By Juan Escandor Jr.
CAMALIGAN, Camarines Sur --- From the archeological diggings in the old graveyard in this town, archeologists confirmed that shards of burial jars found are more or less 1,500 years old, hundreds of years before the coming of the Spaniards.
“It is confirmed that there are pre-Hispanic deposits. The shell midden is definitely hundreds of years before the Spanish arrival. A burial jar with human remains was turned over to us. Compared to the burial tradition in the Philippines, it is about 1,500 years old,” according to lead archeologist Dr. Stephen Acabado, professor of the University of California Los Angeles’ Cotsen Institute of Archeology.
Acabado and archeologist Dr. Zandro Villanueva are leading a group of archeology students from the UCLA and the University of the Philippines to dig and collect artifacts in Barangay Sto. Domingo here which they started last year.
Acabado and Villanueva, both from Camarines Sur, completed an archaeology course from the University of the Philippines and took their doctoral degrees at the University of Hawaii and the University of Arizona, respectively.
Under the Bicol Archeological Project, in partnership with the Archdiocese of Caceres and local government units, the archeological diggings in Camaligan is one of the series
of activities the team will undertake in different towns in the region to gather direct evidence of the life and culture of the Bicolanos, from prehistory, historic time and the contemporary time.
“We want to help the local government units’ heritage management for them to have better understanding and awareness of their local history for the development of culture and the arts,” Villanueva said.
Acabado said the project also wants to know the Bicol identity, its roots before the Spanish conquest.
He said the project has already proven the settlement of people hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish, emphasizing conquistador, with the existence of shell midden, or the heap of shells in the digging site.
“Our knowledge of the history and culture of the pre-Hispanic people in our country were all based on the writings of the Spanish chroniclers, like the etymology of one place. But we don’t have knowledge of pre-contact population,” Acabado said, emphasizing the need to gather direct evidence of the population before the Spanish conquest.
He said the research could expand to know the validity of the dominant narrative that the conquest of the archipelago was relatively bloodless.
“We know that the conquest of the New World had decimated the population of the conquered down to 10 percent of the population at worst, out of diseases, warfare or violence,” Acabado said.
But, he said, the initial report regarding the Bicolanos by the first group that conquered the region narrated that the Bicolanos were one of the fiercest groups the Spaniards encountered so far.
“However, within three years Bicol had been pacified and placed under the umbrella of the colonial government,” Acabado said.
He said they are collecting samples of shell midden because these artifacts are “sensitive to social, economic and environmental perturbation.”
“The shell midden is a proxy indicator of the population growth. When you observe the shells deeper into the diggings, they tend to be bigger and growing smaller going up the diggings. It indicates the exploitation of this food resources which means the people then would not wait for the shells to grow bigger to harvest and consume them,” Acabado explained.
He said they have collected at least 15 human remains in which they would conduct isotopes analysis in the bones and determine diet and nutrition, whether marine or terrestrial sources.
Acabado said the isotopes analysis would provide them information whether they were local and migrants which he said could be seen in the water signature they drank.
“The signature of the water is retained in the teeth which gave difference of the source of the water they drank. With isotopes analysis, we can at least determine whether these human remains are homogenous which means they all come from here. Or, if there is variability, they are of multi-origin,” he said.
Villanueva said they have collected juvenile bones and even unborn child on one side and adult bones on the other side.
He said they will conduct test and corroborate with historical documents from the church and other sources if there were epidemic during that time.
Acabado said they have collected samples of the food the early people in the archeological site consumed in their lifetime like bones of shark, stingray, pig and deer.
He said they can reconstruct the diet of the people from the shells collected and determine whether their food source came from local or they were trading with communities by the ocean.
Acabado said they can also determine the pattern of resource utilization, the specific types of shell and their preference.
He said the archeological site is about 20 km down the river to the nearest place by the ocean which is the town of Cabusao.
Villanueva said they were able to find a belt that seems to be made of abaca which may give hint on the burial practices of the people who once lived there.