Chiefdoms: Mapping the Contours of Complex Societies in the Central Philippines



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Chiefdoms: Mapping the Contours of Complex Societies in the Central Philippines

by Eric S. Casino



There can be no doubt that well before the coming

of Indian religions and writing-systems, well before the

arrival of envoys from the Chinese Empire, South East

Asia already had a flourishing pattern of societies and

communications whose roots are to be sought in the

region's prehistory. (Smith and Watson, Early South East

Asia, p. 14)
1. Introduction

2. Objectives

3. The evolution of chiefdoms and complex societies

4. The ethnohistory map

5. The linguistic history map

6. The archaeology map

7. The Sa-Huynh and Champa connection

8. Contours of chiefdoms and social stratification

9. Tattoos and other forms of status differentiation

10. Conclusion

11. Appendix: The Visayan Datu Ruling Class
1. Introduction
Historians face a number of challenges when attempting to document the commonality among

the societies and cultures of Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 12th century. The first

challenge is the fact that there are two types of societies that have been identified in the

region. The first are the early Indianized states such as Funan and Champa in lndochina, as well

as those of Srivijaya and Madjapahit in Indonesia. These lndianized states are few and

exceptional social formations compared to the second type, the more numerous and

widespread chiefdoms or non-state but complex societies in the rest of the island worlds of

Indonesia and the Philippines. Granted these chiefdoms did not progress towards centralized

state societies using Indian models, they were by no means "a region locked in a cycle of

underdevelopment" (Miksic 2003: xix).


There is more challenge in reconstructing chiefdoms in maritime Southeast Asia in the early

centuries because they are beyond the reach of written historical records. For this reason,

many historians have turned to Chinese dynastic records for reports on overseas trade with

these chiefdoms dating from the Song dynasty onward. Scholars have also turned increasingly

to archaeology and historical linguistics, relying on artifacts and lexifacts. to shed some light on

the material culture and life-ways of these early complex societies. Finally scholars have

learned to tap more recent ethnohistorical and ethnographic accounts from which to

extrapolate back to these earlier centuries and re-imagine these complex social formations

during the prehistoric and proto historic periods (Junker 2000).
Around 1979 a number scholars interested in these questions held a colloquy in London whose

findings appeared in Early South East Asia: Essays in Archaeology, History, and Historical



Geography. It’s review of Early South East Asia was divided chronologically into the First

Millennium B.C. and the First Millennium A.D. , in other words into late Prehistory and early

Protohistory. What is noteworthy is its general conclusion that is especially apropos to the

2013 SEACOM theme of "Commonality beyond Differences in Culture and History".


The period from the ninth to the thirteen centuries might be called the 'high middle ages'

of South East Asia history . . . . Once we reach that period we are dealing with a

recognizable pattern of political and social life which can be identified at least in

outline, across the region . . . . it is possible in principle to write a continuous history of

south East Asia from that time onwards (smith and Watson 1919: 257).
The SEACOM focus on the 9th-12th centuries is thus a significant and welcome continuing

effort by scholars from within Asia to add texture, color, and drama to our picture of complex

societies at this critical juncture in our regional history. I hope I may be excused for discussing

scattered artifacts and lexifacts from earlier eras, as far back as 500 8.C., for assistance in

inferring and revealing the sociological roots and technological innovations that facilitated the

later socio-cultural and political transitions that we now are examining under the label

chiefdoms.
2. Objectives
The specific focus of this paper are the complex societies of the Central Philippines and their

relationship with the adjacent cultures of mainland Southeast Asia, particularly with Sa-hyunh

and Champa in what is now Vietnam. Concerning complex societies, the basic questions we

address in this paper are: (a) What evidence do we have for the existence and operation of



chiefdoms and complex societies in Central Philippine societies. (b) What forms of ranking and

social stratification do the resources reveal to enable us re-imagine more concretely the

political hierarchies. competitive drive, and regional interconnections of these chiefdoms?
Some of these complex societies are usually referred to as chiefdoms rather that states,

because they do not show the demographic density, institutional formality, and the urbanism of

the formal states patterned after Indian models. Nevertheless these non-state societies show

much originality in their inter-polity relations and in their material productions, such as in

pottery decorations on vessels for practical and ritual uses, personal ornamentation, maritime

transport technology, long-distance trade, and deep religious belief in the afterlife. Their social

organization and life-ways deserve more scholarly analysis and better integration into general

public knowledge. We coined the terms artifacts, lexifacts, and ideofacts as shorthand codes

for data from archaeology, linguistics, and ethnohistory. These three sets of data are like three

distinctive mapping overlays that help us discern the contours of these complex societies.

The comparative method in historical linguistics has been demonstrated as a “ tool to

Complement, corroborate or contradict the independent testimony of archaeology.” (Blust

1996: 19-43). Linguistic evidence permits inferences which, are practically closed to

archaeology; however, there are also inferences in which archaeology alone is the illuminating

discipline, such as excavated cultural materials provided with c-14 dates. Their combined use

provides "complementary inferences". To illustrate this, although perishable materials cannot

be recovered through archaeology, through comparative historical linguistics, “we can be

virtually certain that Proto-Austronesian speakers used the bow, bamboo trail or pitfall, spikes,

the bamboo basket trap for fish etc., and carried these into the pacific by about 3000 B.C”,

(Blust 1996: 20), ln addition to linguistics and archaeology, data from ethnohistorical accounts

from a later period will be tapped as a reference horizon from which to extrapolate back to

past conditions. Evidence of continuities or discontinuities between earlier and later eras are

useful markers of cultural transitions, benchmarks to determine progress or decline.
3. The evolution of chiefdoms and complex societies
Before focusing specifically on the evidence for chiefdoms in the Central Philippines, first we

need to introduce some basic technical concepts on complex societies. Scholars working in the

field of political evolution and historical anthropology hare constructed a series of evolutionary

stages to trace and explain the emergence of modern state-societies. They theorize that

societies evolve from simple to complex forms, passing through ascending stages or forms of

complexity, such as the series band-tribe-chiefdom-state. “Chiefdoms are intermediate

societies, neither states nor egalitarian [band] societies” (Earl 1991: xi]. While these neat

typologies are useful for theorizing they fail to address multiple variations in reality. Some

scholars realize that the typology of chiefdom "spans too broad a range of variation,, (Earl 1991:

16). Variations occur because each type of society deals differently with the challenges for

survival in specific socio-ecological conditions, such as food production adapted to highland or

lowland environments, inter-personal and inter-group politics, challenges to rank and status

positions in politics and wealth differentiation, innovation or acquisition of new technologies,

the accumulation of power through appear to religious ideas and rituals, etc.


A more nuanced descriptive set of images are needed to characterize the typology of bands,

tribes, and chiefdoms. Band societies are found typically among hunter-gatherer families or

small groups whose social relations are governed by an egalitarian ethos, and are without

permanent hereditary chiefs (acephalous). Hunters and gatherer in band societies do not have

permanent settlements, only temporary camps. ln contrast, tribes are more than bands in that

they may engage in shifting horticulture or primitive fishing and marine collecting, and may

exchange their produce or catch with other tribes or with roving bands. Whereas bands may

live in impermanent shelters, tribes construct semi-permanent dwellings in safe and easily

protected location. ln maritime southeast Asia, during prehistoric times there were also

roving bands on boats, members of tribes who live as sea-nomads dwelling in house-boats;

several of these family-boats may converge seasonally in some favorite cove or trading

anchorage. Coastal tribes may congregate into small settlements to provide defense and

engage in cooperative hunting, fishing, and cultivation of garden plots.

Both bands and tribes engage in barter trade and economic exchange. Scholars have identified

two kinds of exchange: direct reciprocity and redistributive exchange. Reciprocity or direct

exchange occurs between equals, as in barter trade where the trade-off may be between dried

fish for taro-roots, or salt for bees-wax. Exchanges between bands are often conducted as

direct reciprocity. The other kind of exchange is called redistributive, which implies the

presence of a chief that exacts tributes from subordinate groups and redistributes them as gifts

in communal feasts in order to achieve prestige, attract new followers, and reward loyal allies.

Chiefs also acquire prestige goods obtained from traders from China, Indochina, India, and the

Middle East. These foreign luxury items are used by leaders to increase their economic capital

and political influence. Redistributive exchange is an aspect of political ascendancy and control

in chiefdoms. ln redistributive economies chiefs may maintain some armed followers for

raiding other groups, for collection of tribute, and for exercising authority on their circle of

supporters and subject districts.


The distinction between reciprocity-exchange and redistributive-exchange marks the boundary

Between acephalous bands and tribes on the one hand and the more complex organization of

chiefdoms on the other. Chiefdoms have a territorial focus in a settlement, and these

settlements are ranked as large or small by the number of houses and inhabitants in them. The

largest settlement is usually ruled by a paramount chief recognized as dominant over a number
of smaller settlements. Settlement size in chiefdoms is used to distinguish between simple and

complex chiefdoms. "Simple chiefdoms have polity sizes in the low thousands, one level in the political hierarchy above the local community, and a system of graduated ranking. Complex chiefdoms have polity sizes in the tens of thousands, two levels in the political hierarchy above the local community, and an emergent stratification” (Earle 1991: 3; my emphasis).


As society evolves from simple to complex, there is more elaboration in the characteristic

elements of culture and social organization. The first element to be elaborated is social ranking,

the use of material and symbolic differences to distinguish rich and poor, powerful and

subservient; such rankings often become the basis for later institutionalized social stratification

where wealth, status, and power are inherited through dynastic descent. The second element

is specialization in food production and the skilled production of handicrafts that enter into the

cycle of exchange. The third element is elaboration of religious beliefs and rituals that are used

to enhance the power of the chief and to integrate social life with forces and spirits in the

supernatural order. The leaders of chiefdoms are political specialists who coordinate the

organization of subsistence, exchange, and ritual activities for their polity, which they rule in

alliance or competition with other chiefly polities in their region. As complexity increases there

is more division of labor and differentiation of functions under the guidance and administration

of a ruling family or group. Such are some basic theoretical indicators of complex societies.
As we examine the evidence of bands, tribes, and chiefdoms in the Central Philippines, we

discover that these idealized social types co-existed and were contemporaneous; and

moreover they were not completely isolated from one another but were variously interrelated

through exchanges of war and trade. From the fact of this co-existence and connection, we

develop my own definition of social complexity. Complex societies, in the case of the Central Philippines, was an ethno-geographical network which knitted together the coastal communities with surrounding hinterland bands and tribes, by links of direct reciprocity and redistributive exchange, as well as by domination and subservience. ln other words, social evolution did not require the abandonment of one form to replace it with another but involved

the incorporation of the earlier forms as functional components within the later and larger

social formation that bridged across the lowland-highland ecosystems. Complex forms of socio-

political organizations are thus best measured not exclusively by centralization and vertical

hierarchy but by a loose lateral differentiation of ethno-geographic complexity, facilitated by

trade and exchange, by migration, and by political alliances, inside and between regions. ln

other words, we find in the data some patterns that tend to support the theory of heterarchy as

a useful alternative to the traditional concept of rigid hierarchy with a unidimensional view of

complexity. ln a heterarchy there is more opportunity for choice and context (White (1995:

103-04).
4. The ethnohistorv map


As mentioned earlier, the Central Philippines can be viewed through the three mapping

overlays of historical linguistics, archaeology, and ethnohistory. With the ethnohistory overlay,

we have three actual observations in the 13th and 16th century that allow us to work back to

re-imagine complex societies in the 9th century or earlier. The first set provides two L6th

century Spanish descriptions of lowland-upland distribution of communities; the second is a

Portuguese report from around 1511 about Luzon and Borneo natives actively trading and

residing in the entrepot of Malacca in the 15th century; and the third is Chao Ju-kua's report

describing Chinese trading procedures in the Mindoro-Manila area around L2Z5 AD., more than

four hundred years earlier than the Spanish and Portuguese reports.
(1) Spanish observation [ca. 1582]: There are two kinds of people in this land [Panay],

who although of the same race, differ somewhat in their customs and are almost

always on mutually unfriendly terms. One class includes those who live along the coast,

the other class, those who live in the mountains; and if peace seems to reign among

them, it is because they depend upon each other for the necessities of life. The

inhabitants of the mountains cannot live without the fish, salt, and other articles of

food, and the jars and dishes of other districts; nor, on the other hand, can those

of the coast live without rice and cotton of the mountaineers (Blair and Robertson 5:

121).
(2) Spanish observation [ca. 1663]: they [the Spaniards] found three varieties or kinds of

people. Those who held command of it (i.e., the island of Manila), and inhabited

the seashore and riverbanks, and all the best parts round about . . . . All those whom

the first Spaniards found in these islands with the command and lordship over the land

are reduced to the first class, the civilized peoples. Another kind, totally opposed to the

above, are the Negritos, who live in the mountains and thick forests which abound in

these islands. . . . These blacks were apparently the first inhabitants of these islands,

And they have been deprived of them by the civilized nations who came later by way of

Sumatra, the Javas, Borney, Macazar, and other islands lying towards the west . . . .

They, the third variety, generally live about the sources of rivers, and on that account

are called Manguianes, Zambals, and other names, for each island has a different name

for them. They generally trade with the Tagalogs, Visayans, and other civilized nations

and for that reason they are midway between the other two classes of people in colour,

clothing, and customs (Blair and Robertson 40: 37).


Note that the first report, given by Loarca ca. 1582, uses a two-fold division of the population.

The second report, by Colin ca.1663, has a three-fold division, suggesting more accurate

Spanish knowledge of Philippine ethnography gained after a century of colonial and missionary

work in the islands. Loarca gives no explicit testimony as to the presence of Negrito groups in

the Central Philippines, but we know from other sources that they were there, as evidenced, for

instance, by the name of the Island of Negros, between Panay and Cebu.


The Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, just 10 years prior to Magellan's arrival in Mindanao

in 1521. They reported the presence of native traders from Luzon and Borneo, coming to trade

and reside in the international port of Malacca. These traders were most likely already active in

previous centuries, before the arrival of the Portuguese-


Portuguese observation [ca. 1511]: The Lucoes [natives of Luzon] are about ten days'

sail beyond Borneo. They are nearly all heathen; they have no king, but are ruled by

groups of elders. They are a robust people, little thought of in Malacca. They have two

or three junks at the most. They take the merchandise to Borneo and from there they

come to Malacca. The Borneans go to the land of the Lucoes to buy gold, and food-

stuffs as well, and the gold which they bring to Malacca is from the Lucoes and from the

surrounding islands which are countless; and they all have more or less trade with

one another. And the gold of these islands where they trade is of low-quality -- indeed

very low quality.
The Lucoes have in their country plenty of foodstuffs, and wax and honey; and they take

the same merchandise from here [Malacca] as the Borneans take. They are almost one

people; and in Malacca there is no division between them. They never used to be in

Malacca as they are now, but the Tomunguo [minister of police] whom the governor of

India appointed here was already beginning to gather many of them together, and they

were already building many houses and shops. They are a useful people; they are

hardworking. lnMinjam there must be five hundred Lucoes, some of them more

important men and good merchants, who want to come to Malacca . . . . (Tome Piresvol

1,1944:133-134).
Early Chinese trade with the Philippines is indicated by remains of trade ceramics dating back to

the Song dynasty. How these export ceramics were brought into and distributed in the

Philippines is graphically described in a year-long Chinese trading expedition into the Mindoro-
southern Luzon area known then as Ma-i, as recounted in Chao Ju-Kua's "Chu Fan Chih" around

1225.
Chinese observation [ca. 1225] The country of Ma-i is to the north of Po-ni [probably

Brunei]. Over a thousand families are together along both banks of a creek. When

trading ships enter the anchorage, they stop in front of the official's place, for that is

the place for bartering of the country. After a ship has been boarded, the natives mix

freely with the ship's folk. The chiefs are in the habit of using white umbrellas, for which

reason the traders offer them as gifts.
The custom of the trade is for the savage traders to assemble in crowds and carry the

goods away with them in baskets; and even if one cannot at first know them, and can

but slowly distinguish the men who remove the goods, there will yet be no less. The

savage traders will after this carry these goods on to other islands for barter, and, as a

rule, it takes them as much as eight or nine months till they return, when they repay the

traders on shipboard with what they have obtained [for the goods]. . . . The products of

the country consist of yellow wax, cotton, pearls, tortoise-shell, medicinal betelnuts,

andyuta cloth; and the foreign traders barter for these porcelain, trade-gold, iron pots,

lead, colored glass beads, and iron needles [quoted in Scott 1984: 58-59].
Extrapolating from the above ethnohistorical reports, we can begin to construct the outlines

and component elements of chiefdoms and complex societies in the Central Philippines with

the following empirical observations.
(1) that the lowland-upland structure of the islands' geography shaped the distribution and

inter-group relations of the natives; that there was reciprocal trade between lowland

communities and highland tribal groups;
(2) that some upland groups were bands of Negritos, physically different from the lowland

groups, the latter being considered the more "civilized" nations;


(3) that trading was not confined between two neighboring localities, but included active inter-

island and inter-regional commerce, as between Luzon, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula;


(4) that trade with the Chinese followed a pattern of seasonal trading circuit, from a central

location where goods are redistributed through local trader-entrepreneurs who take them to

the surrounding islands to barter for local products; the same inter-island distributors were also

the collectors of native products brought to the main port to pay for the Chinese trade goods;


(5) that there was a demand for "colored glass beads" and "iron needles" implies among the

tribes a strong social interest in personal appearance and ornamentation and therefore social

differentiation, with active female participation.

The overall impression from these ethnohistorical descriptions is that during the nearly four

hundred years between Chao Ju-Kua's reports 1225, and that of Tome Pires in 1511, Loarca in

1582, the peoples of Southern Luzon, the Central Philippines, Northern Mindanao were

sociologically and politically complex and were actively engaged in distance trading inside and

outside the Central Philippines. To this picture we now must add what historical linguistics and

archaeology can tell us. The questions to ask are: (a) How far bock in prehistory did this pattern

of complex societies extend, that was characterized by lowland-upland, inter-island, and inter-

regional trade? (b) What additional facts and insights can linguistics and archaeology add to

our picture of the life-ways and social differentiation of these past societies?
The London Colloquy cited above concluded that "by the latter part of the first millennium B.C.,

there was an observable distinction between maritime and hinterland societies in several parts

of South East Asia" (Smith and Watson 1979:258). It is this evolving symbiosis of coastal and

highland societies that appears as the fundamental framework for re-imagining the emergence

of complex societies in the Central Philippines.



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