Philippines’ Early History – Human Migration

The Philippines was once a part of mainland Asia. The first sign of man in the Philippines dates back to at least 35,000 years ago. Since prehistoric times, the islands have been populated by peoples of the Malay race. Most of them lived simply in scattered villages at river mouths. Their houses were made of bamboo and palm-thatch and they grew rice and fished for a living.

The Australoid Negritos from Borneo was the first group of people to reach the Philippines. The pigmy blacks, the Negritos or “Little Negroes”, one of the most diminutive peoples in the world, were nomadic hunters armed only with bows and arrows and blow guns and settled in Luzon, Palawan, Mindoro and Mindanao. Like the African negro, they have crispy hair and wide noses. They rarely attain a stature of five feet, and seldom live to be 50 years old. For the most part, they were true savages, building no houses, and depending chiefly on the game they kill with their bows and arrows. Being of a timid disposition, the negritoes kept to the deep forests, where they were driven by the Malays, and gave little trouble.

After the Negritos, the next wave of immigrants came by sea from Indonesia 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. They were people of the Early New Stone Age, followed by Late Neolithic group between 1,500 BC and 500 BC. The third wave of immigrants who came between 800 BC and 500 BC from southern China and Indochina introduced copper and bronze tools, copper mining and irrigated rice culture.

The domestication of animals and the beginnings of agriculture marked the Neolithic period (4,000 BC to 250 BC). Neolithic refers to those cultures which do not have metal artifacts though the Late Neolithic culture overlaps the Early Bronze age (800 BC to 250 BC). Pottery appeared in the Philippines by about 3,000 BC. In the Province of Batangas, there is evidence of nephrite artifacts ranging from needles and chisels, cylindrical and disc-shaped beads, spearheads, axe-like pendants, bracelets and beads, bronze objects, arrowheads and miniature bells.

The Igorots, a word coined by the Spaniards meaning “people of the mountains” were the mountain tribes from the Ifugao province. The Igorots and allied tribes were more savage people, who kept to the mountains as persistently as the Negritoes to the forests. They were found chiefly in Central Luzon, where they tilled the steep hillsides by a laborious method of terracing. They developed a way of life as varied and unique as the plants and animals that they followed.

One of the mountain tribes, the Ifugaos, built the fabled rice terraces out of the rugged mountainsides at Banawe thousands or maybe even millions years ago. It is believed that the Ifugaos have lived in the mountains since ancient times. A recent archaeological discovery supported that claim when an ancient stone wall, up to two meters thick and five meters high was found together with ancient tools that were dated to about 2,000 B.C. Carved from the steep hillsides, the rice terraces rise layer after layer like huge broad staircases to heaven. It is believed that if all the terraces were placed end to end, they would stretch more than half way around the world.

Rice Terraces


The spectacular rice terraces were a marvelous feat of engineering built by brilliant minds of years past who thought of ideas to help them survive with things available at their disposal. This was how these mountain tribes made use of every inch of space to survive. Since there was no flat land in the mountain provinces where the aborigines could cultivate food, the Ifugaos were skillful and ingenious and possessed this keen determination to survive and patiently undertook the monumental task of building this marvelous wonder of the world to cover the whole mountainsides from riverbed to the summit using only manual labor and rudimentary tools. They lived on house terraces in small villages. They carried rocks and stones up the mountains, dug into the bedrocks and built walls from mud and irrigation system where water passed through sluices that regulated its flow from top terraces to lower terraces so they could use them for rice paddies. These protecting walls were built, one above another, to retain the water and hold the precious soil in place so it will not be washed away by the tropical rains. This ancient wonder was compared to the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China except the rice terraces are assumed to be constructed voluntarily whereas the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China were constructed by slave labor.

From the Malay Peninsula came three waves of migration: between 300 BC and 100 BC, between AD 200 and AD 1200, and during the 14th and 15th centuries. These groups introduced useful discoveries in tools, weapons, textiles, weaving, pottery and new methods of farming. One group possessed an alphabet and became involved in trade with India, China and Indochina.

The Hindus reached the Philippines during the 4th century BC and their influence was felt on the islands of Mindanao, the Visayas, Palawan and Mindoro. Trade with China began during the 9th century. They gave Filipinos porcelain ware, silks and glass beads in exchange for sandalwood and other goods.

On Palawan Island live a group of people with light complexion and long hair. They exist in primitive fashion, and their food consists of local animals from the mountain areas and fish caught in the streams. They are ferocious race, prepared to go to any length to keep their privacy. Very little is known of their origins or ancestry. Some people say that this tribe is one of the so-called “lost tribes of Israel” and they have certainly been in the Philippines for a very long time.

When the Chinese and the Arab traders visited the coasts of Luzon centuries ago, they found some Igorots and other original tribes living on the shore. As foreigners began to settle in Luzon, the tribes reluctant to mix with them moved farther inland and high into the mountains. The mountain tribes live in much the same way as they did thousands of years ago. Though they live in high, cold regions, they do not wear many clothes. They usually wear a brief loincloth of finely hand-woven cotton, decorated with intricate, colorful designs. At home, they stay close to a fire for warmth but outside they move actively to keep warm.

In 1275, a group from Java came to the Philippines from the Sulu Archipelago to as far as Luzon. They stayed for 20 years and then left. By the middle of the 14th century, Cambodia and Indo-China were trading porcelain in northern Philippines.

All these contacts brought changes to the Filipino way of life.



Until next time. The Philippine story continues.




Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia

Philippines Traveler’s Companion by Kirsten Ellis

The Philippines by John Cockcroft



9 thoughts on “Philippines’ Early History – Human Migration

  1. I enjoyed researching this part of Philippine history. I’ve been sitting on this article for quite sometime because I could not locate my sources. There are two more books that were not listed but I could not remember their titles, I think one is a Newsweek book. I must have donated both books to the library last year which I shouldn’t have done.


  2. I deleted your comment as per your request, but I did save the information for a future post. You will be credited for submitting it. I have broached the subject on occasion, but haven’t said exactly what they did to perform the ritual.


  3. Thank you. (and wouldn’t you know it, I just got 5 new plants – so I need more dirt, more pots and time out in the scorching, suffocating Florida sun!! Somebody grab an ice bucket – quick!!!)


  4. I also bought some coleus a week ago and have not planted them yet. I ran out of soil so I’ll just stick them on the ground. I still have two bags of mulch to put in and it’s too hot. Have to do it early in the morning. It’s hotter there than here. We have high 80s, feel like 90s. Wish I’m in Alaska. Stay cool. Have an ice cream!


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