Friday, January 01, 2010

The Balance of Nature

The Philippines has distinguished itself as an excellent location to study the special relationship that some indigenous cultures have with nature.

For example, the forest-dwelling Hanunoo of Mindoro are well known in this field of research. Harold C. Conklin found that the Hanunoo had a very deep knowledge of the natural world around them especially the plant world. They classified plants into 1625 categories -- more than the number found in the modern botanical taxonomy --which were further grouped into 890 taxa. In comparison, modern botanists recognize 1,100 species and 650 genera in the same area.

Of the Hanunoo's 1625 plant species about 93 percent had some use for the people. From 500 to 600 were considered exclusively edible while 406 were considered exclusively medicinal. They grew 413 different types of plants including 280 food crops, and they recognized 92 different types of rice. Crops were rotated, and from 40 to 50 crops -- or up to 125 cultigens -- could be found growing on a single swidden.

The Hanunoo realized the delicate balance that must be maintained between agricultural and forest land. They preferred to clear secondary forest rather than virgin forest, and they protected their secondary forest and fallow land with firebreaks.
Hanunoo farmer uses bamboo torch to create a firebreak (Source:

The Pinatubo Ayta

The Ayta of Pinatubo are another forest group noteworthy for their knowledge and relationship with nature. The Ayta continue to study and learn about their natural world to this day.

They have an intricate understanding of their environment and according to Robert Fox, writing in 1952, an average Ayta could easily name at least 450 plants, 75 birds and more than 20 species of ants. Although they had no use for many of these plants, they still found it important to know about them as they understood the ecological "relationships of the plants with the animal and insect world."

Thus, the Ayta know when each plant flowers and fruits, and they recognize the calls of birds and many intricacies of the behavior and life cycles of animals, insects and other wildlife. In their belief system, they know of two types of "environmental spirits" -- the beneficient anito spirit , and the malefic kamana spirit. These environmental spirits inhabit "the forest, trunk of a huge tree, bamboo thicket, rock, stream, cave, and other places or objects."
Batak on Palawan crossing forest on aerial rattan bridge, 1998 (Source:

In order not to offend the spirits of a place, the Ayta took create care not to harm or desecrate the environment. Mount Pinatubo, in particular, was held holy and the entire sacred geography of that mountain from gully to tree formed part of the prodigious indigenous knowledge of the Ayta. They were careful not to over-exploit or harm the natural resources of Mt. Pinatubo or any other area for fear of angering the anitos or even the Supreme God, Apo Namalyari.

The forests were not only important for swidden agriculturalists in the Philippines, but also for those who used transplantation agriculture. The Igorots of northern Luzon maintained their muyong or secondary forests for collecting wood and other forest products, but also for the purpose of replenishing the soil of their agricultural terraces. The muyong woodlots were not primary forest, but old swidden fields converted into secondary forest.

The tidal rice agriculture and fish pond system of Lower Pampanga also depended on the forests of Upper Pampanga and Zambales to provide water and new silt for the land. The old dike or pampang system consisted of "water towns" in which the buildings were all placed on stilts and boats were parked in front of every house. During the flood season, the rivers and canals deposited a new layer of sediment over the entire region. While mangrove forestry was practiced on the dikes and on the bay's shore, most forest and swidden products had to be collected from outside the tidal system.

Much of the area between Mt. Pinatubo and Mt. Arayat before modern times was heavily forested, and there was a brisk trade for timber, deer meat and other products. According to Bergano's dictionary, venison was once the greatest delicacy among meats for Kapampangans and widely-consumed, but today most have never tasted the flesh of the native usa. Bergano also mentions the term caqueuan which meant both a "forest" and a "field that was turned into a forest." So the caqueuan may have been the Kapampangan equivalent of the muyong secondary forest of the Igorots.

The destruction of the forests in Upper Pamapanga helped cause the usa sambar deer to go extinct in this area. Indeed most of Upper Pampanga acted as a type of muyong for the rest of the region, but it's modern agricultural and urban development has had serious environmental repercussions. When the Spanish arrived, the area Lower Pampanga and a bit of Upper Pampanga alone supplied not only its own rice and food supplies but also the needs for the large and growing city of Manila and the surrounding environs as well. Whenever there was a shortage of rice in Pampanga, a famine would occur in Manila.

One with nature

A factor that may have lent to the respect for nature among certain groups in this region is the belief that human souls transmigrated and were reborn as animals, plants, other living things, or even as inanimate objects and places.

Some of them worshiped a certain bird, others the crocodile; for holding the same fancy regarding the transmigration of souls as was held by Pythagoras in his palingenesis, they believed that, after certain cycles of years, the souls of their forefathers were turned into crocodiles.

-- Pablo de Jesus Letter to Gregory XIII

The above quote is interesting in that Bergano's Kapampangan dictionary reveals that the word dapu (dapo) means both "crocodile" and "great-grandparent" or specifically "great-great-grandparent" (tatarabuelo). Among the Kapampangans, as among many other regional ethnicities, the clan or descent group is established to the fifth generation, and this clan/group is likened to a human body with each generation represented by a different body part. The dapu would be the ancestor four generations back from whom one determines clan relationships.

  | Man's cloth [hanggi]

The python skin pattern of the hanggi textile made by the Kodi of West Sumba, Indonesia. The python was widely seen in Southeast Asia as a symbol of rebirth due to its practice of shedding its skin. (Source: National Gallery of Australia)

Interestingly, the Hanunoo also determine their clans according to the great-great-grandfather who is known as 'apu -- an apparent cognate of Kapampangan dapu. They view their ancestors as dwelling in the land of the dead until four generations have passed at which time they become 'apu returning to the world of the living. If we apply this to de Jesus letter above in which he says "after certain cycles of years, the souls of their forefathers were turned into crocodiles," we could say that in the Kapampangan case after four generations one reincarnates into a crocodile.

We also know that there was a belief that humans reincarnated in later cycles as humans again also. Grijalba in 1624 writes that the ancient Filipinos believed in "transmigration from one body to another: and that the only the gods rewarded or punished in having them imprisoned in beautiful bodies, or ugly, poor or rich, good or bad."

In addition, we know that the early Filipinos often saw millenarian figures as divine incarnations, or as reincarnations of past heroes. Tapar, for example, who led a revolt in 1663, declared that he was an incarnation of the "Eternal Father," and that among his followers were incarnations known as the
Son, Holy Ghost and "Maria Santisima." In more recent times, the revolutionary hero Jose Rizal was considered a reincarnation of Jesus Christ by at least 14 different sects according to Leonardo Mercado. And later figures often claimed that they were reincarnations of Jose Rizal.

However, how did this reincarnation back into human form occur? Was it after the incarnation as a crocodile? Bergano also gives another term nunu, which can be a general reference to one's predecessors but appears to refer specifically to the great-grandparent. Nunu, however, is also a term for an inhabitant of a termite mound, ant-hill or large tree (like the balete) in local folk belief. Possibly this represents an incarnation as a mound or a tree, or as ants or termites. In many cases, the nunu is viewed as a dwarf race similar to humans. Possibly such an incarnation came after the crocodile incarnation in descending order.

Earlier in this blog, I suggested that a number multiplied by itself was seen as a type of cycle known as dalan. I linked this with the reign periods of the kings of Shambhala, located in the Southern Sea or Milky Ocean, and equated by me with the Pampanga region and the medieval kingdom known as Zabag (Suvarnadvipa)

So five times five would represent a complete cycle after which it may be that the soul would reincarnate back into human form. Every five generations of the person's descendants would result in a new non-human incarnation but after four such births the soul again becomes human. Thus the total cycle consists of 25 generations with five incarnations.

Now, in the Milky Ocean the Hindus believed that there was a cycle of incarnations or avatars of the god Visnu. The first four of these incarnations happen to be animal incarnations. They are in order incarnations as a giant fish, turtle, pig and lion-man. The first fully human incarnation is Vamana, the fifth avatar, who also happens to be a dwarf.

Visnu's first three avatars have an oceanic and geological orientation similar to the creatures associated with the pillars of the earth and the navel of the sea in Philippine myth, or with similar regional myths of oceanic-geologic catastrophe. Often known as the tandayag, these creatures were viewed variously as fish, whale, crocodile, dragon, boar, serpent, crab, eel, etc. Like the matsya (fish), kurma (turtle) and varaha (boar) avatars of Visnu, the tandayag is associated with great world floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural catastrophes, and with changes in the landscape and geology.

Although there is some evidence of karma in relation to the concept of transmigration in the Philippines, generally the incarnations as animals were not considered evolutionary in any way. Indeed, the crocodile, for example, was greatly revered and it was considered an honor to be born as such an animal!

Another difference is that in the Philippine system, reincarnation was strictly family oriented. If one did not have descendants in sufficient quantity, then the cycles stopped and one stays in the afterlife. The idea of transmigration was clearly associated with providing assistance to one's family lineage in different incarnations, at least some of which were animal incarnations. As the people believed that animals and other living things could be incarnations of their own ancestors, they held that there was a deep connection between all life forms.

Non-human ancestors

In addition to reincarnating as non-human life, there was also a widespread belief here in totemic descent from animals and other living things, and even inanimate objects in nature. Such beliefs are of course quite widespread and they tend to create an idea that all life belongs to one great family.

Indeed, modern science does support the idea that all life is genetically related, and the peoples who closely observed nature may have recognized this in their own way.

The Bagobo of Mindanao even have a myth of their origin that anticipates in a vague way Darwin's ideas on the relationships between species:

Bagobo tradition records that before time began to be reckoned, before man was made, the universe was peopled by creatures that are now called monkeys (lutung) ; but at that primeval period monkeys had the form of man and were in all respects human. After man appeared on the earth, the apes took on their present
form. Although the line of separation between monkeys and human beings was then pretty well established, there still lingered a tendency toward metamorphosis, by which the simian groups gained an occasional recruit from the ranks of man.

In addition to descent from other forms of life, there was also the belief that certain types of sorcerers and other classes of people could transform themselves into different animals or creatures. The aswang, for example, who could become a dog, pig, cat, bird or other animal. The line between humans, animals, plants, etc. was vaguely drawn in these cultures.

The concept of an all-pervading unity also extended beyond earth into the sky. In the Philippines and Borneo, there is a myth in which Sky and Earth marry and produce a child. The divine child is eventually divided in half when the couple separates or argues. One half becomes a new mortal being, sometimes a progenitor of humans, while the other half is used to create different celestial phenomenon, animals, diseases, etc. In the Ifugao version of this myth, the sky half of the child becomes lightning, while the earthly transmigration becomes thunder.

According to a Sulod myth, all living things are born from the different body parts of the goddess Bayi. So in essence all things are related as part of one great ecological family.

When Mother Nature strikes back

In both a practical and spiritual sense, the indigenous belief systems in this region recognized that there were consequences for disturbing the natural balance, or for desecrating sacred land.

Practically, they knew of the consequences that resulted from conditions like wild fires or soil depletion. In their mythological beliefs, they had abundant tales of nature's wrath for humanity's transgressions against nature.

Many myths attribute great natural disasters to the disturbance of either the social or the natural order. Among the Aytas of Pinatubo and the Kapampangans, there was a firm belief that any desecration of the holy mountains, or abuse of their natural resources, resulted in the wrath and punishment of gods and nature.

Sinukuan, the god of Arayat, did not tolerate any unkindness to the wildlife that lived on his mountain. In many other cultures in the region, there are similar customs. Among the Manobo and Bagobo, one should never make fun of animals as doing so would invite painful punishment from the gods. Most cultures in this area during ancient times asked permission before hunting, gathering or harvesting. One could kill other living things for food but only with idea that you had their consent, and often with the knowledge that at some time you would also contribute your own body to the great food chain.

When the natural balance was disturbed, rituals for renewal often had to be performed. The Batak conduct such rites to "heal the world" when great natural disasters occur due to some social disorder. Among the Badjao sea gypsies, rites of renewal are performed by the individual each morning in solar rituals. Rites to renew the whole community are conducted during periods of famine, epidemic or some other calamity that impacts Badjao society.

When Mt. Pinatubo erupted, the Ayta discovered by their seance ritual the cause of the disaster and performed the talbeng ritual to appease the wrath of the mountain and its god, and to start the process of bringing back life to the region.

Observations of people like the Pinatubo Ayta that demonstrate how all life is interrelated and interdependent undoubtedly helped to create the indigenous views in this region toward nature, and the belief in the need to maintain a sustainable relationship. In this worldview, humans are not conquerors of nature, but part of nature and equally as dependent on the natural balance as others in the ecosystem.
The Badjao sea gypsies traditionally lived at sea on boats like the one above (Source:

They also live on pile-elevated houses on estuarine or other sheltered waters as below with fish pens (Source: )

Badjao Stilt House and Fish Pens by ferdzdecena.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Conklin, Harold C. Hanunóo Agriculture; A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1957.

Conklin, Harold C., Joel Corneal Kuipers, and Ray McDermott. Fine Description: Ethnographic and Linguistic Essays. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 2007.

Fox, Robert. “The Pinatubo Negritos, their Useful Plants and Material Culture,”. Philippine Journal of Science, 1953.

Grijalba, Fray Juan de. Crónica de la orden de N. P. S. Augustin en las provincias de la Nueva España, 1624.

Laquin, Elizabeth. “To be in Relation; Ancestors” or the Polysemy of the Minangyan (Hanunoo) Term ‘āpu," Paper presented at Tenth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. 17-20 January 2006. Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines.

Miclat-Teves, Aurea (ed.). Land is Life.

Miyamoto, Masaru. 1988. The Hanunoo-Mangyan: Society, Religion and Law among a Mountain People of Mindoro Island, Philippines, Senri Ethnological Studies, n. 22, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan.


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