Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tumbaga and Alchemy

Men marvel at the alchemy which converts copper into gold; regard the copper that every instant fashions alchemy!

-- Rumi

Although ancient alchemy involved attempts to change all types of base metals into gold, the transmutation of copper into gold stood out as the alchemist's ultimate goal.

Changing copper into gold was important in both metallurgical and spiritual alchemy. Democritus mentions such transmutations, but it was during the medieval age that the phrase "copper into gold" became closely equated with alchemy.

The Daoists of China, the Tantrics of both India and China, the Arabs, and the European alchemists during medieval times all used the copper to gold transmutation to stand for the highest accomplishment in their science. Even into modern times, many practitioners in yoga claim that their perfection of the art is proven by their ability to change the metals copper into gold -- apparently a sign of their spiritual transformation.

From the metallurgical standpoint, we know that such transmutation was impossible. Therefore many theories have been put forth as to what the alchemists were trying to achieve. The most frequent explanation is that "gold" had different meanings in early times and alchemists were simply attempting to make other metals appear like gold -- something known as "aurifaction."

However, I think the case of tumbaga needs to be examined quite closely in relation to alchemy and especially to the idea of changing copper into gold.

Tumbaga, gold-copper alloy

Tumbaga is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and copper, and also often of silver. What is unique about tumbaga is that goldsmiths in Insular Southeast Asia and across the Pacific in the Americas did perform a transmutation "trick" with tumbaga.

The process known as depletion gilding made it seem like non-gold was transmuted into solid gold. Basically tumbaga was an early form of gold plated object. The depletion gilding on both sides of the Pacific was accomplished using the acidic juices or saps of certain plants that dissolved the copper from the surface of the tumbaga. The coating was then burned away in the furnace leaving a pure or near pure gold surface.

Writing in 1577, then governor of the Philippines Francesco de Sande mentions that "there is a very base gold that has no name, with which they deceive." In fact, latter Spanish chroniclers mention the name as "tumbaga" or by related cognates. In "Relation of the Voyage to Luzon," (1569-1576) Juan de Salcedo mentions witnessing the local people had "given two hundred taels of impure gold, for they possess great skill in mixing it with other metals. They give it an outside appearance so natural and perfect, and so fine a ring, that unless it is melted they can deceive all men, even the best of silversmiths."

In his dictionary of the Kapampangan language, Bergano mentions this art:

Belatan -- Oro falso, alquimia, ó cosa mal dorada...(False gold, alchemy, or something of poor gold.)

Maŕcos de Lisboa's dictionary of the Bicol language of southern Luzon (1628) gives another related term:

Sombat -- hacer uno como oro de alquimia mezclando una parte de oro fino, otra de calongcaqui, y otra de tumbaga...(to make like the gold of alchemy mixing one part of pure gold with another of calongcaqui, and another of tumbaga.)

Sinombat -- este oro asi de alquimia...(this is the gold of alchemy.)

Whether tumbaga was made to actually deceive is unlikely. The fact that tumbaga was used to make barter rings as found on the island of Samar suggests the product was highly-valued.

Barter rings and coins used in the pre-Hispanic Philippines (Source:

In the Americas, the production of tumbaga was thought to awaken the camay, or living spirit of inanimate objects, which was seen in the form of the gold that appeared to rise to the surface. Tumbaga stood for the sacred and temporal power in both objects and people.

The fact that the word alquimia "alchemy" is used in the above definitions rather than the more ordinary definitions for metallurgy mentioning mixing or smelting of metals can be seen as indication that the process was considered magical or sacred in these regions. Unfortunately, there is little other information in this direction that I've been able to find so far.

In the Philippine context, two words may be related to the concept of transmutation -- mutya and tubo. Grace Odal-Devora in noting the different physical forms related to the word mutya states:

These forms of the mutya give birth to a concept of the mutya as an unusual natural occurrence. This concept seems to spring from a collective perception of something extraordinary emerging from nature, functioning as an offspring, a child, an outgrowth and an excrescence from nature. However, though it comes as basically a natural emergence from nature there is usually something unusual about its coming into being, something like a freakish appearance, a unique , rare and unusual phenomenon. It variously comes in the form of a round or spherical outgrowth, an excrescence, a seed, a kernel, a grain, a fruit, a child, a flower, a boil, a cyst, a bezoar stone, a fragment, piece, a pulverized or powder form of a whole stone, rock, plant, tree, animal, person or thing...the inherent powers and virtues of the various mutya objects can be the basis for conceptualizing on the nature of the self – that starts from discovering the innate powers and inherent virtues within and using them to transform oneself and one’s society – like the transformation of the pearl from slime, mud, sand or dirt into a gem of light , beauty, healing and purity.

While mutya refers to more unusual types of transformations, the words tubo or tubu as found in derived words like Pinatubo "causing to be born, grow," or tibuan "place of conception, birth, origin," speak toward the more natural concepts. Both mutya and tubo involve a form of vivification in which the life spirit arises.

Certainly, the apparent transmutation of tumbaga to gold, that would pass the test of a touchstone, could have been viewed in a manner similar to what was found in the Americas. Gold after all was among the most durable of metals -- resistant to corrosion and chemical reactions and dissolved mainly with mercury. Gold thus is a prime metal symbolic of longevity and immortality.

Tumbaga trail

Tumbaga has been found at pre-colonial sites in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. In the Americas, tumbaga seems to appear first with the Moche culture that lived along the coast of Peru. And the coastal bias of the distribution of tumbaga in the Americas has led some researchers to suggest a mainly maritime diffusion to other countries throughout South and Central America.

Wilhelm Solheim has proposed that the Nusantao seafaring network extended to the west coast of the Americas staring in 3000 BCE and that voyages across the Pacific occurred periodically for "hundreds of years." Whether this would take us to a date for the transmission of tumbaga is not clear, but in earlier works Solheim has discussed Heine-Geldern's theory that tumbaga, along with the mise en couleur technique (depletion gilding), cire-perdue casting, and granulation were carried across the Pacific by Dongson seafarers.

Actually the dates of tumbaga might be older in the Americas than in Southeast Asia, but the practice of gold granulation appears to originate from early pottery practices in the latter region. In both regions, small gold balls or spheres were used to create decorations or designs on a gold base plate. These gold balls may be the origin of the piloncitos, tiny gold coins that like the barter rings were used as a type of currency in the pre-Hispanic Philippines. As depletion gilding is not archaeologically attested for Dongson culture, and granulation was a characteristic of both the Sa-Huynh-Kalanay and the entire Philippine goldworking tradition, the Sa-Huynh-Kalanay culture would seem to be a better candidate as an agent for this cultural transmission.
Piloncitos, gold coins from pre-Hispanic Philippines. (Source:

Alchemy Isles

According to the Shiji, the Qin Emperor sent missions to Penglai in search of alchemists skilled in the "transmutation of cinnabar and other substances into gold." I have tried to show that Penglai was an island nation located to the southeast or south of South China. The Biblical and Muslim traditions place the origin of alchemy in Nod or Mount Budh to the east of Eden where it was brought by Adam.

I have suggested earlier that alchemy was originally linked with a "yin-yang" type of philosophy that sought to harness the creative or life-giving principle to extend longevity or to attain immortality. Seafarers and merchants in the Nusantao network came to connect these concepts on a cosmic scale with the volcanoes Pinatubo and Arayat, which I have suggested constitute the alchemical Mt. Penglai of Chinese texts.

The seeming transmutation of a metal like copper -- subject to corrosion and reactive to the acids of plants -- into gold, the durability and stability of which can be equated with long life and immortality, may have been seen as a fitting allegory for the process of vivification. The vivifying or revivifying concepts of mutya and tubo could have been viewed as symbolized by the transmutation of tumbaga.

At a latter date, this symbolism may have evolved into an idea that transmuted metals themselves conveyed immortality through a confusion with what I suggest was the Nusantao belief that volcanic ejecta from the sacred mountains was a form of life-giving cosmic placenta.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Far-Eastern Prehistory Association. Asian Perspectives v. 22, 1979. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1957, 179, 194.

Hosler, D., 1988, Ancient West Mexican Metallurgy: South and Central American Origins and West Mexican Transformations, American Anthropologist, 90(4), pp. 832–55.

The Philippine Islands 1493-1803: Explorations by Early Navigators, Descriptions of the Islands and their Peoples, their Hist. and Records of the Catholic Missions, as related in contemporaneous Books and Ms., showing the Political ... Conditions of those Islands ... ; Transl. from the originals : With maps, portr. and other ill. Cleveland, Ohio: A. H. Clark Co, 1903, vol. 3, 81.

Miksic, John N. Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium on Premodern Southeast Asian Earthenwares. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003.

Shimada, Izumi. Pampa Grande and the Mochica Culture. Austin, Tex: Univ. of Texas Pr, 1994, 105.

Villegas, Ramon N. Hiyas: Philippine Jewellery Heritage. Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines: Guild of Philippine Jewellers, 1997.

__. Kayamanan: The Philippine Jewelry Tradition. Manila: Central Bank of the Philippines, 1983.


"the Dude" said...

Hi Paul, that was interesting about tumbaga. Perhaps ancient cultures which had easy access to high-temperature burning fuels (saltpetre, dry guano, as opposed to typical wood burning) might have done a lot of experimenting with stone metal ores. I hadn't thought about the saps (I wrote a post at my blog about natural mosquito repellants, including peppermint and lemongrass, being important in the past among waterside people.)

On another topic, does the word tombolo sound Austronesian? It is a sandbar linking 2 islands or a natural low dam separating the sea from a freshwater lagoon. I found it while looking here:

ayer/air {Malay/Indonesia} laut
ayre {Manx/Scotland} loch
aqua {Mexico/Spain} laguna

(google: kampong ayer, ayre (landform), laguna)

Seems to me that the Philippines must be rich in inter-connected islands with sandbar bridges, maybe some similar words. I've found that the word root of water is definitely universal, (eg. Ainu wakka, Gaelic uisge, Russian voda, Nepal Kusunda wide, Hawaiian wai)

"the Dude" said...

I'm wondering if this is all just coincidental...

tombolo: sandbar bridge linking islands or separating ayre (lake) from sea

tumbaga: bonding metal, gilding in SEA and Peru

tomolo: hand sewn plank canoe of Chumash

Hawaiian words similar to Chumash? Paul, do you have the articles about the similar words etc. of Hawaiian and Chumash handy?

Paul Kekai Manansala said...

Hi Dave,

Check this link out:

I have the ref to the actual published article, but I still if to dig it up.