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Letter From the Philippines

One Grain at a Time

Archaeologists uncover evidence suggesting rice terraces helped the Ifugao resist Spanish colonization

Monday, April 09, 2018

Philippines Ifugao Rice Terraces

 

High in the Philippine Cordilleras, the terrain is a work of engineering and art so stunning it has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Steep, furrowed mountains are sculpted into terraces, stacked one atop the other, following the craggy contours of the land. In lush green paddies, people cultivate rice just as their ancestors did, passing the land down from one generation to the next.

 

Since 1995, UNESCO has included the rice terraces of Ifugao Province on its World Heritage list, describing them as expressions of “harmony between humankind and the environment.” Ecology, geography, and agronomy mingle with the culture, religion, economy, and politics of indigenous Ifugao life. “The rice terraces are emblematic of Philippine heritage; they exemplify human ingenuity and humanity’s ability to modify even the most marginal landscape,” says University of California, Los Angeles, anthropological archaeologist Stephen Acabado, who was born in the Philippines and has researched the region for years. This intricate agroecological system, he says, highlights the consonance between human needs and sustainable ecological management.

 

According to UNESCO and Philippine history books, the rice terraces were built 2,000 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Ifugao people. But this description is problematic, Acabado says, because it’s not based on any scientific evidence. Rather, it stems from the work of early twentieth-century anthropologists Roy Franklin Barton and Henry Otley Beyer, who calculated the terraces’ age based on the length of time they guessed it would have taken people to build them.

 

Philippines Ifugao Terraces CloseupBy contrast, Acabado’s archaeological investigations show that the adoption of wet-rice agriculture, accomplished by planting seedlings in flooded fields, is much, much younger in Ifugao than previously thought—1,600 years younger, in fact. While some terraces likely existed in Ifugao centuries before that, Acabado says, evidence suggests they were used for growing taro, not rice, and that those terraces were small. Imagine the difference between a backyard garden and the expansive farm fields that define much of the American Midwest. That’s the kind of difference Acabado believes existed between the earliest Ifugao terraces and what we see today. According to him, the spectacular landscape that garnered Ifugao World Heritage status dates to an era that coincides with the arrival of Spanish colonizers. For Acabado, that changes everything.

 

The dominant historical narrative told throughout the Philippines is a story of small, remote minority populations that moved higher and higher into the mountains over millennia as waves of new people arrived and settled in the lowlands. It is accepted that Spanish colonizers were unable to conquer the Ifugao because the terrain they occupied was so rugged. This paints the highlanders as essentially outside the march of history, as bystanders, while colonization and modernization swept through other corners of the Philippines. This account is what Acabado recalls learning in school. By the time he reached college, he realized it was based on colonial notions of indigenous people. “I started to think about how to decolonize our history,” he says.

 

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