The balangay was the first wooden watercraft excavated in Southeast Asia and is evidence of early Filipino craftsmanship and their seamanship skills during the pre-colonial times. The oldest known balangay was carbon dated to 320 AD by the Gakushuin University of Tokyo, Japan.
The Balangay is a plank boat constructed on a keel and joined together by carved-out planks edge to edge, using pins or dowels. It was first mentioned in the 16th century in the Chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta, the official chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition and is known as the oldest watercraft found in the Philippines.
The planks which were made from a hardwood called doongon in the Philippines (Heritiera littoralis) were joined together every 12 centimeters (1 centimeter=.39 inch) by hardwood pins measuring some 19 centimeters long which were driven into holes on the edge of each plank. On the inner side of the boat, the planks were provided at regular intervals with raised rectangular lugs, carved from the same plank, through which holes were bored diagonally from the sides to the surface.
Rib like structures made of lengths of wood were then lashed against these lugs to provide a flexible bulkhead, to reinforce and literally sew the boat together. Cordage known as cabo negro (Arenga pinnata) was used for the purpose. The hull, measuring about 15 meters long and 4 meters wide (1 meter=3.28 feet) was ordinarily semicircular in cross section and with no marked keel. Provided with huge outriggers, the boat was propelled either by a nipa fiber sail or by paddling and could hold up to 90 people.
The boats were finely manufactured without any blueprints and were taught to be made from one generation to another and used a technique still used by boat makers of Sibutu Island in the Southern Philippines.
The balangay was used as a transport in getting food for the Ibanags in Northern Luzon particularly in the province of Cagayan. The Cagayan river system and the Babuyan Channel provided the Ibanags with fish as well as avenues of trade as far as Ilocos coast so that boats were an ordinary part of daily life. The Visayans and Mindanaons used balangay in a different way. With the balangay’s size, it was used for cargo and raiding purposes giving proof that Butuan played a central role in trade throughout the region of the Philippine islands and with neighboring areas. Balangay also helped spread the settlement of the Austronesian people around the Philippines and neighboring regions of Maritime Southeast Asia.
The Tao people of Taiwan have traditionally been adept at crafting balangays, a tradition that still continues in modern times. Balangays are held as a symbol of their people. They are regarded as descendants of the vessels used by the ancestors of the Tao people when they settled Orchid Island from Batanes at approximately 1200 AD.
The balangay boats were discovered in the late 1970s buried 1.20 meters from the surface in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte. A total of nine wooden boats were accidentally found by locals searching for alluvial gold on land near the Masao River. The site was in Sitio Ambangan, Bario Libertad within an older dried-up river channel, perhaps a former tributary of the Masao River. Three of the nine balangays discovered have been excavated by the National Museum and are currently preserved.
The first balangay or Butuan Boat One was discovered in 1976 and is now displayed in Balangay Shrine Museum in Libertad, Butuan City. It was radiocarbon tested and was dated to 320 AD. The Butuan Boat Two was dated to 1250 AD and is now located at the Maritime Hall of the National Museum in Manila. The Butuan Boat Five, excavated at Bancasi, Libertad in 1986 has been dated to 1215 AD and was transferred to the Butuan Regional Museum and is undergoing preservation. The six other boats which are yet to be excavated, remain submerged in water and mud which is proven to be the best way to preserve them, otherwise they will rot and disintegrate.
The balangays of Butuan was declared by President Corazon Aquino as National Cultural Treasures by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 86 on March 9, 1987 and the vicinity of excavation as archaelogical reserves. In November 2015, the Balangay was declared as the National Boat of the Philippines.
Philippine House of Representatives website