Butuan, the oldest Philippine settlement and the Balangays

Butuan National Museum
Photo Credit – paolobon140

Before there was Philippines, there was already Butuan, a formal settlement along the banks of Agusan River which maybe the site of the oldest human settlement in the Philippines. Being an archipelago, the Philippines from the beginning is a seafaring nation. Because of Butuan’s location, the Butuanos were skilled boat builders and expert seafarers.

Being located on the coast of Mindanao, balangays were often docking at Butuan Bay keeping good commercial relations between the local people of Butuan and traders from the neighboring Srivijaya and Majapahit empires and neighboring islands in Southeast Asia. Various goods, including the statue of Avalokiteśvara and the Golden Tara of Butuan, were traded across Maritime Southeast Asia as evidenced by the discovery of a four-pound, eight-inch tall, 21-carat gold Buddhist figurine believed to belong to the Sailendra Period of the Srivijaya empire. The Filipinos traveled across Southeast Asia reaching as far as Champa which is now the eastern coast of Vietnam and Guandong (China). The Song Dynasty recorded the arrival of a diplomatic mission from the “Kingdom of Butuan” as early as 1001 AD.

In 1976, pottery of the Tang dynasty and the succeeding Five Dynasties was unearthed in the marshy terrain near Butuan. Dating from the 10th century, it’s among the earliest-known Chinese ceramics to be discovered in the Philippines. The search for more of this pottery led to a unique find – the remains of three balanghais, the boats used by early migrants for travel throughout Southeast Asia. Subsequent excavations unearthed several more, bringing a total of nine boats now known in existence. Fifteenth-century wooden coffins have also been found in the vicinity, along with tradeware and skulls.

Mother Boat

In August 2013, National Museum archaeologists discovered what seems to be the largest sailing vessel of its kind, estimated to be 25 meters long (82 ft.), versus the average 15-meter (49.2 ft.) length of the other balangays at the excavation site. This newly discovered balangay could easily fit the smaller craft into itself twice over. Estimated to be around 800 years old, the plank vessel predates by hundreds of years Magellan’s arrival and death in the Philippines in 1521, and even the Chinese explorer Zheng He’s expedition across Asia in the 1400s. The find also underscores theories that the Philippines, and Butuan in particular, played a major role in the spread of culture and religion in the Philippines long before Christianity and even Islam came to the islands.

The leader of the research team, Dr. Mary Jane Louise A. Bolunia, reported the treenails that were used in the construction of the “mother boat” to be around 5 centimeters in diameter, the size of soda cans. The treenail is a wooden peg or dowel used in place of iron nails in boatbuilding. Aside from the treenails, the individual planks alone are each as broad as a man’s chest. The planks are so large that they can no longer be duplicated because there are no more trees today big enough to make boards that size. This “mother boat” and the smaller balangays in Butuan were definitely made for exploring the high seas.

In 2009, the Kaya ng Pinoy Inc. announced plans to re-construct the Balangay boat, with the help of Badjao and other tribal members. The Balangay would sail, tracing the routes of the Filipino ancestors during the waves of Austronesian settlement through Maritime Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The special wood for construction came from the established traditional source in southern Philippines, specifically Tawi-Tawi. The team have pinpointed Badjao master boat builders, whose predecessors actually built such boats, and used traditional tools during the construction.

The Balangays, named Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa Hong Butuan, and Sama Tawi-Tawi, navigated without the use of modern instruments, and only through the skills and traditional methods of the Filipino Sea Badjao people. They journeyed from Manila Bay to the southern tip of Sulu, stopping off at numerous Philippine cities along the way to promote the project. The journey around the Philippine islands covered a distance of 2,108 nautical miles or 3,908 kilometers.

The second leg saw the balangays navigate throughout Southeast Asia through to 2010. Manned by Filipino adventurers, they completed a 14,000-km. journey across Southeast Asia, proving the seaworthiness of the original balangays and the traditional woodcraft used to construct them.

The following year, they sailed to Micronesia and Madagascar. The Balangays then ventured across the Pacific onward to the Atlantic and all the way around the world and back to the Philippines in 2013. One of the boats, the 15-meter long “Diwata ng Lahi”, is now on permanent display outside the National Museum in Manila.

The balangay was navigated by the old method used by the ancient mariners – steering by the sun, the stars, the wind, cloud formations, wave patterns and bird migrations. They relied on the natural navigational instincts of the Badjao.

Art Valdez, the expedition leader of the “Voyages of the Balangay,” said that the early Spanish chroniclers saw our seas gleaming with crafts with our ancestors using the oceans as their natural highways. They reported of ships with 100 rowers just on one side.

When the Spaniards first came to the Philippines, they saw the Filipino’s skill in sea warfare. The Southern Filipino ships were faster and swifter than the European ships of that period and they enjoyed the supremacy of the seas until 1860 when the steam vessels arrived on the scene.

karakoa boat 2
A Karakoa portrayed on a Philippine stamp

Dr. William Scott, author of “Barangay: Sixteenth -Century Philippine Culture and Society” hinted at the existence of even more impressive vessels: “The most celebrated Visayan vessel was the warship called Karakoa, which could mount forty-meter long oars on a side. The care and technique with which Filipinos build them makes their ships sail like birds, while ours are like lead in comparison,” Dr. Scott quoted a Spanish priest as having written in 1667.


  • Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes
  • Maritime Review
  • fmapulse.com
  • Wikipedia

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