Of Savages, History, and Archaeology: Re-Writing the History of Tinambac, Camarines Sur

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Bikol, as in other parts of the Philippines, rely on Spanish accounts (which we anthropologists call, ethnohistory) for information about our early history and culture. These accounts, usually unpleasant, constitute our only concrete (written) link to the past. Although archaeology provides us with another, more neutral, avenue, almost nothing has been done on Bikol preHispanic dynamics.

I was encouraged to write this short narrative when I read a short description of the history of my birthplace, Tinambac, Camarines Sur. Almost all of the historical information regarding this place is based on Spanish accounts and as an anthropological archaeologist, I feel mortified by the use of the terms savage and civilized, not because the former refers to the people I claim kinship with, but because these terms should not be part of our present-day vocabulary.

While skimming through the description of Tinambac’s history in a website created for Tinambaqueños, I was held off when my eye caught the term “savages” to refer to the Aeta groups that constantly attacked Christian towns in the late 1700s. I know that this term is a product of its time (classical and social evolutionists in the 18th and 19th centuries classified societies in a ladder-like development — savagery, barbarism, and civilization, where the civilized world is, of course, European colonialists). Since all non-Christians were classified as “savages”, they used these categories to justify colonization, thus the term “white man’s burden”, “manifest destiny”, etc. They thought that since they were in the apex of this evolutionary development, it was their responsibility to tow “savages” and “barbarians” to an inevitable progress. Anyhow, these terms has grown out of use — since the early 1900s! Today, the use of savagery and barbarism is ethnocentric and racist.

I used the above narration as a take off point to a probable thriving preHispanic interaction/trade between coastal and interior groups in present-day Tinambac – With Lupi River as the major transport route. I should have done this right after finishing college and contribute to local history-writing. If I did, I would have the right to criticize how my culture’s history was written.

I know that Tinambac had pre-Hispanic interaction/trade with other groups. In one of my treks the trail from Sogod to Union (through a river crossing) in my high school days, I noticed a lot of Chinese ceramic sherds that might date during the Ming (AD 1644-1368) and Yuan (AD 1279-1368) dynasties — blue and white wares (Brgy. Sogod is located near the estuary of Lupi River while the trail to Brgy. Union is on the other bank of the estuary – less populated today). We might even have some Sung dynasty (AD 960-1279) ceramics — celadon — though these might have been traded later. And of course, a lot of earthenware ceramics, which suggests significant population density.

Geologically, Poblacion, including Sogod, was probably formed by Himoragat and Lupi Rivers (though a geologist should correct me if I am wrong). If you look through Google Earth, yes Tinambac has a high-resolution aerial image, probably 2.5-meter resolution, the Poblacion is sort of an island between the two rivers.

Anyhow, Tinambac should be a rich source of preHispanic information for Camarines Sur. Its “discovery” and subsequent occupation (by Europeans) was late (according to the “history” – ca. mid-1700s). The amount of Chinese ceramics on that trail that leads to Union suggests that there was a trading post in the vicinity of Lupi River — and I expect that precontact settlements were scattered along the banks of Lupi River and its headwaters.

Hopefully, I would be able to carry out studies in Tinambac later in my career. I have to admit that I have limited knowledge on the history of Bikol. It’s a shame that I know more about northern Philippines than the place I call home.

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