According to one source, the Gigantes Islands used to be known as Sabuluag or Salauag after an endemic tree species found in the islands. But as for its modern name “Gigantes”, there are varying versions as to why this came to be. The most common element among all these stories is that during the Spanish colonial era, some caves were were explored in the islands and there, some coffins were discovered which supposedly contained enormous human remains. And since this happened during Spanish times, the Spanish word gigante (giant) came to be applied to the islands.
Nowadays, it is impossible to ascertain the veracity of this fantastic claim of a gigantic race because:
(1) There’s no evidence left of the remains. Take note that this happened at a time in Philippine history where archaeology is even less appreciated than it is now. We can only speculate as to what happened if indeed remains were found – either they were collected by the superstitious to be crushed and made into amulets or, in the other extreme, ordered destroyed by ecclesiastical authorities for being of heathen origin.
(2) The story seems to be oral tradition, which as we know, gets embellished over time. The very fact that there are many versions of this same story points to this.
BUT what we do know and have proof of is the fact that the caves were indeed used as burial chambers by prehispanic inhabitants of the Gigantes. And here’s the proof:
These are large wooden coffins that were taken from caves in the Gigantes Norte years ago. Since these coffins are large, even by today’s standards, it’s easy to see why coffins like these discovered long ago could have given rise to rumors that they contained the remains of giants.
According to Joel, they were what remained of an archaeological find that was unfortunately not controlled. What happened was that locals appropriated for themselves whatever artifact they could find from the site and readily sold them to private collectors. These coffins languished in storage in some municipal facility for years. Presumably, they escaped being sold simply because they didn’t seem valuable. Joel requested that the coffins be turned over to him so they can at least be seen and appreciated by people.
It was very depressing to see these pieces of our heritage in this condition. While I’m thankful that I was able to see them with my own eyes and even touch them, I’m not so sure what Joel did was an improvement. For one thing, these coffins are made of wood and are thus prone to deterioration by mere exposure to the air. Artifacts this delicate must be in a climate-controlled environment, like what they did to the balangays in Butuan. Here, they were just exhibited in some open area of the resort.
But it’s hard to criticize Joel for doing something he thought would do good, given that the state of heritage conservation in this country can be described as disorganized at best and deplorable at worst. There wasn’t exactly anyone to teach him the right way of handling historical artifacts. And our schools don’t exactly teach people at all why these artifacts have a value that exceed whatever amount of money private collectors are willing to pay for them.
Some decades back, an archaeological exploration in a cave in Banton Island, Romblon, recovered 2 strips of burial cloth that turned out to be the oldest known pieces of textile in the Philippines (and probably in Southeast Asia). They were found alongside human remains and blue and white ceramics dated to be from the Ming dynasty. More importantly, they were contained in wooden coffins. One can only imagine the cultural treasures that these wooden coffins of Gigantes would have produced had they been managed properly. Now, they’re either destroyed, or exhibited in some private collection somewhere. Meanwhile, the Gigantes islanders go about their daily lives remaining ignorant of the richness of their heritage.
The worst thing imaginable in this situation is the thought that this systematic extirpation of our cultural treasures is somehow still ongoing. Well, yes, it is still ongoing. And here’s how we found out:
In the morning of our departure from Gigantes, we were just hanging out at the resort when Gracey and I struck a conversation with a local, who is a friend of Joel and who would also be with us in the boat ride going back to Estancia. He was telling us that had we arrived at Gigantes sooner, we would have been able to buy trinkets and jewelry from merchants who were recently there to sell them. When we asked for a clarification, he revealed that these trinkets and jewelry (mostly made of multicolor beads, supposedly) were either taken from caves or from some underwater wreck.
The way he said these made it appear as if he were pleased that those were being sold. As for me, I could not hide my disgust for this plunder of our cultural treasures that directly told him that what those merchants were doing is wrong and that those artifacts should be turned over to a museum (An Indiana Jones moment, if I ever had one.) Gracey sensed that I was getting upset and tried to pacify me and shift the discussion in a less confrontational direction, in case the local were to match my anger. Thankfully, our little disagreement didn’t escalate.
Okay, I’m sorry that the previous paragraphs exceeded the parameters of the title. I’ll probably make another entry on my thoughts about what people in the Gigantes Islands need to do right in order to increase tourism without sacrificing their environmental and cultural heritage.
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This entry is part of the Iloilo & Guimaras series dated March 23-27, 2012:
1. Looking for Travel Buddies
2. Preview: Tangke Saltwater Lagoon
3. Las Islas de Gigantes (prologue)
4. Las Islas de Gigantes (morning)
5. Las Islas de Gigantes (afternoon)
6. Why are they called the “Gigantes Islands” anyway?
7. Gigantes Islands Sample Itinerary & Budget Estimate
8. Gigantes Islands Travel Guide
9. Las Islas de Gigantes (epilogue)
10. Back to the mainland, back to the city
11. Day Trip to Guimaras (morning)
12. Day Trip to Guimaras (afternoon)