In search of Batanes’ prehispanic past

When the subject of Ivatan culture and heritage is discussed, the attention inevitably gets focused on the most tangible manifestations of such, i.e. the traditional stone houses and centuries old-churches, among others.  These are buildings that have withstood the test of time and the elements in the harsh Batanes climate.  While those Spanish-era structures themselves capture one’s interest, it does obscure the fact that the Ivatans have a much richer prehispanic past, traces of which have survived to the present day.

(Note: I am fascinated with the field of archaeology.  Had I been born into a first world country, I would most certainly have made it my career.  As part of my efforts to discover for myself something “new” about Batanes, I set out to play the archaeologist and hunt for these traces of the prehispanic Ivatan culture during the time I was stuck in the main island of Batan.)


As I shared in a previous post, I sought out this site on my first day in Batan when I went hiking in the northern highlands.  There was apparently a trail leading to it from the National Road but since I was coming from the other side of the island at the Boulder Beach, I could go no nearer than the picture above shows.

Idjangs are ancient hilltop fortresses used by the Ivatans as dwelling places and centers of communal life.  Taking advantage of the pre-existing topography, they were built, shaped and fortified to fit the local population’s purposes.  It’s hypothesized that in times of conflict, access to the Idjang would only be possible through a rope ladder that was lowered from above, thus ensuring a very defensible position.  Archaeologists point to the presence of a considerable number of stones at the top as adding strength to this hypothesis because they might serve as “ammunition” to throw down on invading parties.

An unnamed artist’s conception of what a prehispanic idjang might have looked like.

Probably at the time of the Spanish occupation, the Idjangs were abandoned and fell into disuse when the populations of Batanes were re-settled in the coastal lowlands.  Churches became the new centers of communal life/government and the new towns followed the European-style grid layout.  I surmise that with the modern weapons of the Spanish and the virtual elimination of external threats (as well as internal conflict between tribes), the defensive value of the Idjang also became unnecessary.

Google Satellite view of the town of Mahatao. Notice the grid layout and the position of the Church as denoted by the yellow circle.

In writing this blog, I did a lot of online research to make sense of my own observations of the idjang and I was surprised to find out that serious archaeological studies on them (and on Batanes as a whole) were only initiated in the 1990s.  Much of what is known now about idjangs come from the oral tradition of Ivatans as compiled by Dr. Florentino Hornedo of UST, leading historian on anything relating to Batanes and a native Ivatan.  Ongoing archaeological studies pioneered and led by Dr. Eusebio Dizon of the National Museum will hopefully give a clearer picture of how exactly idjangs functioned.

Addendum: Also in the course of my online readings, I found out that there is actually another idjang near Naidi Rolling Hills, a place that I have already visited twice.  I actually photographed the site a number of times without knowing it’s archaeological significance.

Site of the idjang marked by the circle.

Dr. Dizon refers to this as the “Chadpidan Ijang”.  It’s located on a ledge stretching out to the sea, southwest of Songsong Bay.  This expectedly results in some confusion because both “Chadpidan” and “Songsong” are names that are used for other famous places in Batanes.  This duplication and possible misnaming of places in Batanes is a recurring theme and is something that has to be addressed by the local academic community.  As for the idjang itself, I’ll make sure to take a closer look on my next visit.


Rakuh-a-Idi roughly translates to “big settlement”.  It is said to be the site of the oldest known prehispanic settlement in Batanes.  Aside from being near the sea, it’s also advantaged by having an abundant source of freshwater because of the presence of a natural spring in its vicinity, which is now referred to as “Spring/Fountain of Youth”.  As much as this appropriated modern name sounds cliché, the body of water does have a reputation for being miraculous that stretches back to prehispanic times, as evidenced by this tale from Ivatan oral tradition:

        A mother from the Mahatao settlement had two children, a boy and a girl named Panayidan and Kumalakal.  Both children were covered with sores.  The mother with her children went up the brook, where the present poblacion is situated.
        The mother was looking for a stream  that could heal the maladies of her children.  They came to the first spring at Dadamos.  The mother asked the spring, “What kind of spring are you that I may bathe Panayidan and Kumalakal.”
        “I am the spring that kindles children.”
        ”The three proceeded to other springs but all received negative answers.
        When they reached the spring of Racuaydi , the mother asked the same question to the spring, “What kind of spring are you that I may bathe Panayidan and Kumalakal?”
        “I am the spring of Youth and beauty.”
        Right at that moment, she bathed her two children. After a day, all sores of the children dried up. They were not only cured but also grew handsome and beautiful.
        Since then, the spring was visited by people with malady and they were cured.
        Because of jealousy, some unscrupulous tribes cursed and went to bathe and kill a cat in order to desecrate the natural healing power of the spring.
        Yet, up to this date, those who have strong faith are still visiting the spring for they still believe in its mysterious healing ability.

(More Ivatan folk tales here.)

The beach fronting the ancient settlement of Rakuh-a-Idi.

This brief digression gives one an idea of the size of this old settlement and the conditions inherent that could have allowed it to thrive.  As such, even an enforced desertion by the Spanish authorities in favor of the new Mahatao township on the other side of the Island could not have cleared the land of all traces of former habitation.  Which then brings us to the subject of the columnar stones scattered there.

These stones are thick, elongated slabs with a 2-inch diameter hole punched on one end.  Most of the ones I’ve seen at the site are just around 2 feet high, but there are some over 2 meters long.  The stones were scattered by the path and just about everywhere.  It’s possible that the path itself cut through the original settlement and its construction might have made the stones seem out of place.

More columnar stones at Rakuh-a-Idi (photo credit: MJ Paluga of UP Mindanao)

These stones are still a mystery to archaeologists because no one is really certain as to what they were used for and what the significance of their holes are.  Making things worse is the current practice of people appropriating for themselves the larger stones for a variety of purposes (e.g. house-building, shed-making, decoration, etc.) thereby taking them away from their original locations and not leaving any clue as to what their original purpose was.

Fortunately, a lot of these columnar stones are also present at the vicinity of the Savidug Idjang in Sabtang Island.  And unlike the ones in Rakuh-a-Idi, those stones have been left untouched in their original locations for centuries.  Through those stones in Savidug, archaeologists have been able to eliminate some of the initial hypotheses as to what the stones were used for.  I hope to return to Sabtang someday and visit this idjang in order to see for myself the stones that are there.

A photograph of the Savidug Idjang from my 2009 visit.

Dr. Dizon and Rey Santiago (also of the National Museum) have basically narrowed it down to two hypotheses: either the stones are (1) simply part of a house foundation; or (2) serve as symbols of religious, social or political status.  They’re being careful in their studies on this because of its possible implications on what we know of Philippine and greater east Asian history.  More specifically, on patterns of migration to/from Taiwan and Luzon and the direction of cultural influences.


The Nakamaya Burial Grounds are located further north of Basco, past Naidi and very close to the foothills of Mt. Iraya.  It’s within the jurisdiction of Barangay San Antonio (Diptan) which also encompasses an expansive area in northern Batan island.  The area where the burial grounds is located is very sparsely populated and is used mainly as grazing ground for cattle.

The name “Nakamaya” is from the rootword “Kamaya” which is a fruit-bearing tree that some sources say is identical to the Mabolo.  This tree is now rare in Batanes and it can be surmised that there were once many to be found in this very site.  At present, the site is hidden from the main road by tree bushes and brambles and one has to walk through forested areas to get to it.

The circle marks the aproximate spot where the Nakamaya Burial Grounds are located.

I first heard about this site just after I returned from Batanes in 2009.  I was incredulous because this was the sort of thing that would have made my trip much more meaningful but I only found out about it after my visit.  I then promised myself that I will visit this place when I return and this was fulfilled last September.

The site is significant because prior to its rediscovery, it was almost intact and untouched.  One could even say it was forgotten by the Christianized Ivatans, except for a few who lived in the fringes of the Basco township.  Here, human remains and tools have been excavated, studied and subsequently reburied in order to restore the site to its original appearance.

Illustration of the arrangement of the human remains in a typical boat shaped grave. (From the “Archaeology of Batanes Province, Northern Philippines: The 1996-1997 Status Report” by Eusebio Dizon)

The arrangement of the stones is in the shape of a boat.  In some of the larger graves they even have bigger stones denoting the bow and the stern.  There were no more than 5 distinct boat-shaped graves at the site.  But since there were also some stones scattered about without discernible patterns, it might be that the area has been disturbed by earth movements or man-made acts throughout the centuries.  What’s curious about this is that the only other boat-shaped grave markers in the world are found on the other side of the globe, in Scandinavia.  Specifically, Viking burial sites.

If you’re a Filipino, one thing that’s particularly exciting about this site is the fact that by touching the stones of the boat-shaped grave markers, you are in fact coming in direct contact with the remnants of a true barangay – a people whose way of life and entire social fabric was once actively intertwined with seafaring …and whose descendants (us) would someday abandon such way of life in favor of a wholly land-based existence, viewing the sea as nothing more than a source of food and occasional recreation.

(For non-Filipino readers, the barangay is the basic political unit in the Philippines.  It traces its etymology from the word “balangay”, a type of large boat used by ancient peoples to migrate to the Philippine islands.  Occupants of each boat are self-governing and the social hierarchy observed in the boat paralleled their roles when they began to settle on land.  The Spanish adopted the name for administrative purposes.  Throughout the centuries, the context was lost but the name remained.)

Previously, all that we knew about the original barangays were learned through boring Social Studies classes in grade school.  The concept of barangays in their original context was so distant and seemingly irrelevant that it was almost mythical but without the mystique associated with myths.  In Nakamaya, the myth became fact, and for the first time I truly felt that I came face-to-face with my ancestors.

It would later become apparent that there are other sites in Batanes where this type of burial can be found.  The uninhabited island of Vuhus west of Sabtang, in particular, has a similar and possibly bigger site called the Chuhangin Burial Site.  It’s definitely one more place I’m putting on my “to visit” list when I return for a third time.

= = = = = = = = = =
This entry is part of the Batanes II series dated September 10-14, 2011:

1. Return to Batanes (a prologue)
2. Hiking in Northern Batan
3. Preview: Mt. Iraya
4. The Back-breaking Mt. Iraya Climb
5. Mahatao’s Lighthouses: Setting the Facts Straight
6. Stuck in Batan: New Sites & Sentimental Favorites
7. In search of Batanes’ prehispanic past
8. The 2-lie system of SEAir’s Manila-Basco flights (a warning)
9. Everyone’s kinder in Batanes (even the tourists.)


27 thoughts on “In search of Batanes’ prehispanic past

  1. nice post. you might also want to check ‘Fortress of Empire,’ a book by Fr. Rene Javellana wherein the idjangs are also discussed. I was trying to look for the burial grounds at Naidi Hills about 7 years ago and thought that the markers are boat like carvings, pero iba pala.

    • Thanks, Estan. I initially thought that Nakamaya was just walking distance from Basco, but as it turns out, it’s much farther than Naidi. There’s lots to discover about Batanes and I really should stay for an entire month. ;D

  2. Hello, thanks for this very informative post. I was reading the Inquirer Lifestyle the other day and i stumbled upon their article ‘Without pride of heritage, Filipinos have no identity’ by Augusto Villalon. He mentioned pre-Hispanic mountaintop Ijang of Batanes as an example of our heritage that we should be proud of. I got curious so i googled it and found your post. I’ve always been fascinated with ancient ruins and would love to see one someday and im glad there is one here in the Phils. When i can afford it, i will go see the Ijang in batanes and feel what its like to be transported back in time. Thanks again for your post!!

  3. Great post! It inspired me to look into Batanes a bit and found out even more history albeit more contemporary, like the Japanese tunnels created during WW2. Looks like I’m adding Batanes on my list thanks to you.

    • Thanks for the visit! The Japanese tunnels are far from the town of Basco, but very accessible because the 3 access openings are very visible from the road. Make sure you have a flashlight with you as the sunlight doesn’t extend more than 5 meters inside once you enter an opening.

  4. sir tama nga po yung profile niyo, very detailed kayo sa art niyo (for me writing is an art)
    baka magka-apo na ako before makapunta ng Batanes, but if laughing money suddenly reached my pocket, I would love to visit this article again before pumunta ng Batanes 🙂

  5. i enjoyed reading your post. very informative. i visited Batanes in April 2011. i hiked Savidug idjang and i saw at the top several stones with holes as you have described. i also trekked a hill somewhere in Uyugan where i saw a boat-shaped burial marking. i will definitely go back to Batanes to revisit the places i’ve been to and explore Itbayat as well. i also want to visit Y’ami island – i hope the chinese haven’t claim this one as their’s too. =)

    • Thanks for the visit, Aggy. You mean there’s also a burial site in Uyugan? Wow, there really is always something new to discover in Batanes. Is Y’Ami the northernmost island? I’m a bit confused because the locals and academics seem to name the islands differently.

      • I do not know about Uyugan but there is one in Ivana which i photographed about 10 years ago. I was told there were plenty before but youths going to pasture there cows rolled the stones down just for fun.

        Y’Ami is not part of Batanes. Our northernmost island is called Mavudis (Mavulis by the Itbayat). I was in Lanyu in southern Taiwan in 2005 and noticed that the language they spoke was much purer and deeper than ours. We also had similar features.

  6. Hi.. You can see similar stones on the site below – only larger. The site below was specific to publish explorations in Mt. Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark. Please don’t raise an eyebrow, just wanted to point out that similar structures/carvings on stones are found elsewhere in the world. And the contention of the people behind the discovery for the
    supposed use of these stones is also interesting. 🙂

    I believe that our country had a reach culture with strong fundamentals. I also believe that much of these structures have been destroyed by the the spaniards. We didnt have mega structures such as that in south america or egypt (which are hard to demolish if someone would decide to do so), and had rather smaller ones and were not too hard for the conquerors to take down to make there point and force everyone to embrace a new culture. I’m pretty sure our ancestors fought hard more that what our books would tell us to protect for their land. We regained controlled over our land, but the sad thing is, a huge part of our culture and our past is lost and may never be recovered.

    • Interesting to see somewhat similarly-shaped stones. But I can’t help raising an eyebrow on the motives of those “Noah” researchers. It appears that they already have already made conclusions on the origins of those stones even before carefully examining the “evidence” just to suit their beliefs.

  7. Salamat, very informative. Curious talaga ko sa idjang, di ko alam meron din palang ancient fortress or pre hispanic fortress dito satin. Pero parang pang ancientperiod palang yung fortress natin sa europe todo fortified na, nagsasakupan na. hope you add a closer picture of idjang, yung kitang kita ang proof ng existence ng ancient fortress like fortified wall, etc. yun talaga yung hinahanap ko sa google kaya ko napadpad dito.. anyways, thanks. gonna explore this blog, ganda magbaas dito.

  8. I just viewed youtube videous related to megalithic structures of the past, and those stones with holes remind me of a viewing hole for astronomical observations. Can you check where those stones are facing and see if they point out to the sun or any heavenly body?

  9. I have my fascination of too of the past particularly pre-history. My impression of the of your “columnar stones” is that, they look like anchor stones similar from the Near East from up to 10,000 BC. They vary in sizes and usually installed on the sides below the boat. It anchors and helps in the stability of the boat.

  10. Pingback: A Tour of North Batan (Part 2) | Ang Lakwatserang Guro


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