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Older is not Necessarily Better: The Short History of the Ifugao Rice Terraces

SEAMEO SPAFA was pleased to talk to Prof. Stephen Acabado (Department of Anthropology, UCLA) and Marlon Martin (Save Ifugao Terraces Movement) on 8 July for this sesh to talk about their recent work on the Ifugao Archaeological Project, which investigated the history of the Ifugao Rice Terraces. The Ifugao are one of the seven major ethnolinguistic groups who inhabit the Philippine cordilleras, and some rice terraces are recognised as Unesco World Heritage. First thought to be 2,000 years old, the work by the Ifugao Archaeological Project has shown that there is in fact no evidence to support this claim, and that the terraces are much younger – around 400-500 years old.

Prof. Acabado said that when he initially published his initial findings in 2009, it went largely unnoticed; of course, the Ifugao were initially hostile to the idea that the rice terraces were much younger than 2,000-years-old. According to Martin, the knee-jerk reaction of the Ifugao was one of incredulousness: “We knew they weren’t that old, but we didn’t think it was that young”. Some Ifugao community stories narrate the foundation of certain terraces to specific people in the past, and the younger age of the Ifugao rice terraces have also been suggested by other researchers in other fields. With public communication and community engagement efforts, Prof. Acabado mentioned that it took a few years – until 2014 – before Ifugao historians began accepting the idea of the young rice terraces, and as recently as 2015 there were nationalistic historians who still dispute the dates of the rice terraces. The tourism industry in Ifugao is also reluctant to accept the new dates because of a perceived loss in grandeur to the rice terraces.

Rather than ancient farming structures, the archaeological research and historical records paint a picture of the Ifugao as active resisters to Spanish colonization. The Ifugao themselves were not colonized, and the Spanish made more than a few unsuccessful incursions to the highlands over the 17th and 18th centuries. “We started looking again at the books about Filippine history and Ifugao history… if we consider the 400-year-old history of the rice terraces, everything comes together,” said Martin. Noting that the narrative of the 2,000-year-old history of the rice terraces added nothing to the Ifugao contribution of the history of the Philippines. “Ifugao children, including my generation and my parents’ generation have been fed the history of the Philippines, except for the Ifugaos,” said Martin, “[the Ifugao Archaeological Project] is literally digging up the history of our people”.

The results from the Ifugao Archaeological Project have boosted the Ifugao people’s efforts to document and study their culture more and also to incorporate aspects of Ifugao history into local education. In 2013, the Department of Education began to adopt the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples Education into the formal curriculum, and the findings of the Ifugao Archaeological Project have been incorporated into the textbooks starting this year. Martin and Acabado note that changing long and widely-held beliefs about the rice terraces will still take time but are confident that attitudes will eventually shift.

During the course of the sesh, Marlon and Acabado also responded to a number of questions from the audience on Facebook Live and Zoom, including aspects of rice cultivation and agriculture on the terraces, the implications of the new dates to the Unesco listing, and future public education efforts.


If you watched the SPAFA SESH Older is not Necessarily Better: The Short History of the Ifugao Rice Terraces, please complete the questionnaire (approximately 5 minutes) to help us improve future SPAFA SESHes: https://bit.ly/Evaluation-Form-SPAFA-SESH2-Ifugao

Date: 8 July 2020

Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. (Manila time); 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. (Bangkok time)

45-60 min presentation, followed by a 30 min Q & A

Online Platform: Facebook Live https://www.facebook.com/seameo.spafa/ and on Zoom

The long-held belief in the age of the Ifugao Rice Terraces, pegged at ca. 2000 years, as proposed by pioneer anthropologists of the Philippines Henry Otley Beyer and Roy F. Barton has become a sort of received wisdom among Filipinos.  It has been taken as a gospel truth, that even the UNESCO enlistment of the agricultural wonders highlights its long history narrative. It is no wonder then, that recent archaeological and ethnohistorical discoveries that suggest a short history origin of the terraces have become an anathema to nationalist sentiments about age of the terraces. In this presentation, we provide the scientific bases for the later dating of the terraces. By doing so, we argue that the shift to wet-rice cultivation (and the inception of rice terracing traditions) in Ifugao, Philippines was a conscious decision by the Ifugao to counter the Spanish conquest. This contention empowers Ifugao communities and forces us to rethink dominant Philippine historical narratives.

[Discussion will be conducted in English]

Marlon Martin

Marlon Martin is an Ifugao who heads a non-profit heritage conservation organization in his home province in Ifugao, Philippines. He actively works with various academic and conservation organizations both locally and internationally in the pursuit of indigenous studies integration and inclusion in the formal school curricula. Along with Acabado, he established the first community-led Ifugao Indigenous Peoples Education Center, the first in the region.

Stephen Acabado

Stephen Acabado is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His archaeological investigations in Ifugao, northern Philippines, have established the recent origins of the Cordillera Rice Terraces, which were once known to be at least 2,000 years old. Dr. Acabado directs the Bicol and Ifugao Archaeological Projects and co-directs the Taiwan Indigenous Landscape and History Project.  He is a strong advocate of an engaged archaeology where descendant communities are involved in the research process.

Moderator: Dr Noel Tan, Senior Specialist in Archaeology, SEAMEO SPAFA

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