Quest for a Paleolithic Camotes III

(This concludes the follow-up to the special report entitled “Reviewing Cebu History” that I wrote for The Freeman and came out from Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 1993. This was published on Nov. 7, 1993–Candido O. Wenceslao)
It was a hot but relatively tranquil Thursday noon when the UP team of anthropologists that visited Poro in the Camotes Islands decided to head back to mainland Cebu. They were in the town since October 26 and, after more than two days, finally decided to leave.

There were two daily pump boat trips to the mainland, one at 3 a.m. and the other at 12 noon. But the digging the team supervised in Maktang, Esperanza in the morning of the 28th ate up time. So they missed the last trip by a few minutes.

Since the next trip was for dawn the next day yet, the team decided to visit the Buho resort in the poblacion of Poro and Lake Lanao (or Danao) in the municipality of San Francisco. The latter was the sight of previous diggings by pot hunters and was recently surveyed by a representative from the National Museum.

Buho, which means “hole” in the Porohanon dialect, is strictly speaking not a beach resort. It was carved out from a cliff where a cave, visible to the seafarer from afar like a gaping “hole,” is situated. Lacking amenities for foreign tourists, Buho was used exclusively by islanders and a few visitors.

The UP team, composed of Assistant Professor Jerome Bailen, archaeologist, curator and lecturer Israel Cabanilla, lecturer Lerma de Lima Yambot and research associate Mumtaz Mahal Veloso thought they would be in Buho resort to while away their time. They were wrong.

When we tug at a string, we always look for its tip. For an archaeologist, that tip is civilization’s beginnings, its root. Thus, given the pre-Spanish period, an archaeologist will always want to proceed to the pre-historic era, even beyond.

The discovery of the Tabon man in the southwest coast of Palawan in 1962 was a breakthrough in the sense that it pushed farther in time the beginning of the peopling of our archipelago. That tip was estimated in an era still within the Paleolithic or the Old Stone Age.

Paleolithic is one of the three periods of the so-called Stone Age, the other ones being the Mesolithic or middle Stone Age and the Neolithic or the new Stone Age. Of the three, Paleolithic is the oldest for it began with the emergence of man-like creatures thousands of years ago.

When the UP team visited the town of Poro, their purpose was not only to look into the contention that the clash between Lapu-Lapu and Magellan happened not in Opon but in Maktang, Esperanza. That time frame was expanded simply because the “Battle” should be viewed within a wholistic perspective.

Said Cabanilla: “our purpose is to make a chronology of the events that happened here in Camotes.” And that would mean looking far back in time notably to the Paleolithic Camotes.

The UP team began the search by first checking a small cave in Maktang near the burial ground where the treasure hunters did their thing. The cave was big enough to shelter people from sun and rain and provided a good view of sea.

The next day, October 27, the team proceeded to a few caves in the village of Kantaw-ang in barangay Cagcagan. The smaller cave still contained broken pieces of what appeared to be a very large burial jar. The other cave was large but suffers from flooding during heavy rain.

It was in the first, officially labeled as Kantaw-ang cave 1, that the UP team expressed interest. The place was relatively well lighted and, as Bailen emphasized, was much bigger than the cave where the skull cap and part of the jawbone of the Tabon man was found.

The site was relatively undisturbed, meaning, pot hunters did a few diggings but abandoned them after a ban was imposed by the Poro municipal government. Found inside the cave were fragments of human bones, pieces of broken earthen and porcelain wares and a heap of shells associated with a burial.

People living near the cave related that the area was used by their ancestors as a cockfight arena. It was also used as a shelter during typhoons.

There were actually two destinations for the UP team in the afternoon of October 28 when they failed to ride the boat to mainland, Cebu. But they were stalled in Buho resort simply because a more exciting find was waiting for them there.

There were two big shelters found on the cliff near the resort. The shelters were a few meters above the sea floor and faced south. They were both airy and well lighted from sunrise to sundown.

Residents told us that the bigger cave was about eight kilometers long and had another opening in the interior village called Pagsa. But when we went there, we found no opening inside except those dug by treasure hunters.

Here, it might be well to point out the damage done by diggers looking for the fabled treasure of the Japanese Admiral Tomuyuki Yamashita. With a more sophisticated equipment than the pot hunters, the diggers were able to go so deep that the damage to whatever archaeological find the cave must have held must have also been significant.

The excitement of the UP team reached almost fever pitch when bones of a quality different from those in Maktang were seen. Perhaps it was because they were in a different environment, which was near the sea. Still, what was important was that they were in the process of being fossilized and were therefore possibly older.

The bones were originally found by treasure hunters and placed in one of the smaller caves in the cliff. Other pieces of bones were placed in a tin can. Some of the bones were hard like stones but the others were white and chalky.

Samples of the bones and skull caps were brought by the UP team to Manila for further study.
“We are just scratching the surface here,” said Cabanilla as he summed up their three-day sortie to Poro.

He noted that what is needed to finally establish a chronology of events in the islands, which he believed were inhabited continuously for hundreds of years. Such a move would entail a good dose of time and resources to accomplish.

Another plan was to conduct a systematic survey, which the team said would take months. The potential of the area from Poro down to San Francisco, Tudela and Pilar was so promising and the area so vast a survey would take a longer period of time to finish.

Systematic excavation for sites like Maktang, Kantaw-ang and Buho would also take months. This is because, unlike treasure hunters with singular purpose, archaeologist dig, study and contemplate long.

“So our next move is to go back to Manila and try to look for some people who are willing to support the archaeological research dito sa Camotes,” Cabanilla said.

The team has acknowledged the support given to them by the residents and municipal government officials of Poro led by Mayor Isaar Rama and the assistance also extended by provincial government officials notably Provincial Board Member Agnes Magpale of the fifth district where Camotes belongs.

But given the political situation in the province, the UP team tended to favor the option of tapping the academe and the private sector to finance a research that they said would be “grand” in the sense that expense for a continuous archaeological survey and excavation in the three islands would reach millions of pesos.

One of the options was to seek assistance from UP itself by setting-up a field school in Camotes. But Cabanilla was quick to stress that UP funding was limited and thus there was still an urgent need to tap foreign funding institutions.

Added Yambot: “Malaking trabaho talaga. It will take several years. We can initiate a sort of cooperative work among the different universities. Maybe, to establish some kind of a consortium.”

Despite all the difficulties, however, the UP team was optimistic they could generate interest in the archaeological research in the islands. But while they were in the process of preparation, they called on the provincial government and the town officials in Camotes to make sure that the sites won’t be ravaged by treasure hunters again.

In the meantime, municipal government officials of Poro pushed through with their plan to set up a museum in Esperanza. The Freeman visited the site, which was still under construction, within the compound of the barangay’s elementary school.

Mayor Rama stressed that the area presently used for the museum was temporary since it will later be transferred to Maktang as requested for by the residents there. Cabanilla, who is the curator of the UP anthropology museum, promised to help the Porohanons in this endeavor.

Meanwhile, some positive things are beginning to come out of the continued quest for a history we almost never knew. The public’s perception of Poro and the Camotes islands is gradually changing for the better.

The creativity of its residents also showed up. Joselito “Boboy” Costas, a graduate in business administration planned to set up a souvenir shop in Camotes. He also entered into a joint venture with a friend, selling t-shirts with such messages as: “I went to Camotes to dig up artifacts but all I got was this lousy shirt.”

Prof. Bailen of the Tasaday hoax fame is convinced that there was enough basis to reopen the question on the actual place of the Lapu-lapu–Magellan encounter. He even toyed with the possibility of holding an international conference of anthropologists and historians to settle the issue.

While there are still so many questions that can be answered only after a systematic archaeological research, Bailen said that it would also be premature to immediately brush aside the claim of Maktang, Esperanza.

Said he: “We have evidence of a pre-Spanish settlement or the existence of a large population already existing before the Magellan-Lapulapu encounter. There is evidence of Spanish contact with the natives in terms of Spanish medallions. There is evidence of a group of people that waged war, as shown by spear points and daggers. And, more than that, present evidence shows that Camotes had a good agriculture potential to back a settlement led by Lapulapu.”

And so the review of Cebu history goes on…


One Response to Quest for a Paleolithic Camotes III

  1. John says:

    Very interesting. 20+ years ago but still vividly pictorial.

    Do you know of any online citations (other than here) for the Bailen / Cabanilla work? Even Freeman online archives would help.

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