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The Sadness of Things That Are There Since Time Immemorial

An archaeologist is making many of us unhappy about his findings. The cause of that unhappiness (in us) and the controversy is what he is positing: the Ifugao Rice Terraces are some 500 years in existence only. That it is not ancient the way our history and social studies teachers made us to believe. That, in fact, it has not been there since time immemorial.

The archaeologist is Dr. Stephen Acabado. From Cagliliog, in Tinambac, he went to the University of the Philippines, then to the University of Hawai’i to finish his graduate studies in Anthropology. His dissertation is titled “Ifugao Agricultural Terraces: Antiquity and Social Organization.”

He arrived at the date of the terraces through varied and combined methods of archival research, ethnography or full description of culture, archaeological and ecological approaches. The fieldwork also employed the use of drones and geographic information system (GIS), and engaging the communities to tell their story and traditions.

The findings of Acabado run against the more accessible historical approach, which supremely dates achievements and generally relies on monumental markers like significant battles and heroes of immense power. History relies heavily on archives, which in the case of the Philippines are located abroad – in the colonial repositories of Spain and the U.S. The data are couched also in the languages of the colonizers.

There is a point for this comparison of the two approaches: History, the more popular source of dates in our cultures, has given the ancientness of a site, which is now being debunked by archaeology/anthropology.

I like this: I like the idea that the contentious artefact/geofact is the famous rice terraces, structures that are not unique to the Philippines. Indonesia has terraces in Tagalalang; Vietnam has its own Sapa terraces. China has its own terraces.

To push this cultural consciousness deeper, it should be good to know that the Murut of Kota Kinabalu have their own bamboo dance called “Magunatip.” Filipinos tend to call this dance less graceful although many would admit it is a hundred times more exciting than our dance. But have we asked if the Murut value being “graceful?” Maybe they have their own notion of gracefulness.

In the Murut bamboo dance, the male dancers hop in and out of bamboo poles as they shoot live arrows against each other. In one of the trips I made with other writers to a Murut village, I recall how, after the frightening exhibition of skill and precision, the two journalists beside me whispered: Our Tinikling is still the best.

There is no “best” culture, as there is no best historical juncture or moment. Each of these elements play a singular, significant function and meaning in a particular society. The next lesson, of course, is the gift of anthropology to humanity – that capacity in humans to praise their own life and traditions not at the expense of the other human group’s life and tradition. This is a plea against essentialism and a voice versus the ethnocentric.

I like what Stephen Acabado is doing, exposing Filipino – and Bikolano – societies to that discipline, which ultimately describes differences, as it negotiates the tension between the conclusion of science and framework from outside and the perspectives from within.

As an anthropologist, I am constantly reminded that I possess my own problematique, my own sets of nets to catch bits and pieces of what Marcel Mauss calls “the total social facts.”

As a Bikolista, I face no terraces but I will always contend with hills and dales of the Bikols in us. With due respect to my philosopher-friends, I will not belabor any continuing search for the Filipino or Bikolano Philosophy. My point: this philo or love of knowledge may not exist in our culture. The absence of that love for inquiry, however, does not diminish our culture and identity in much the same way that the relative youth of the Ifugao rice terraces does not devalue the bravery of the people in the Cordillera and their resistance to colonialism, as the esteemed archaeologist puts it. And while I am at these issues of identities: why be passionate about the veracity of a pre-Spanish epic in our midst? If it is not as old as Masaraga, so be it. The model of epic is Greek and the desire to be as “ancient” as that civilization reeks of the strong smell of the colonies (somewhere in this sentence is a cheap pun because puns are always cheap.)

Perhaps, our telling a story is not by epic but by poetic jousts, like “Tigsik,” or by dances, as when we imitate birds in “Sinalampati” or “Pantomina.” Or by long prayers chanted. Or by drunken devotees struggling over a tiny Marian image.

Online, the words of Stephen Acabado appear and they are sincerely assuring: “It is important to know our history but equally important is our recent history because it humanizes our culture…that authenticity is within us, not with the long-gone history.”

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