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Biology as Historical Data

Biology as Historical Data
What biology can tell us about precolonial Philippine history.

Biologists work with a given advantage: nature is their library. It is a vast archive that contains specimens that range from the very small to the very big, the proximal to the distal, the disgusting to the pleasant, the pungent to the fragrant, the common to the rare, the prehistoric to the new, the safe to the dangerous. Spread biologists across a hectare of tropical rainforest and most, if not all, will have multiple things to study—and usually for less. Just make sure to give them a bath right after.

But this vast catalogue has one flagrant downside, an unfortunate pitfall resulting from its obvious countenance. For other organisms to develop and flourish, many others have to perish. Such is the law of life. We, too, will soon have our day in court and have supreme judgement handed down to us—may better species follow our wake. But because the mechanisms by which evolution drives diversity is not transformational, rather it is variational, what new species will emerge is simply difficult to predict and ascertain with accuracy. And thus to imagine their forms and features is a complicated mental exercise, and even quite futile in most cases, so a fun recourse is to picture extinct species as still alive instead. We today may find extreme delight in the thrill of observing the ferocious domestic cat weave its way through the domicile. However, it’s hardly the same if it were the Smilodon, the now extinct sabre-tooth tigers, that became our feline friends.

Luckily, bones and fossilised samples buried deep underground or in preserving substances like amber are willing storytellers, albeit with much mystery and confusion. Armed with the language of reliquiae, palaeontologists who find delight in handling ancient fragments slowly but surely reassemble such remnants as close as to what they were in the past. Like necromancers, or your friendly local mambabarang, they work their way through the collected samples and bring to life, so to speak, the dead, revealing to the living secrets of the past, of what life was like or would have been ages ago. This requires, according to the late Stephen Jay Gould, a “visual, or spatial, genius of an uncommon and particular sort.”1 At times this enervating process triggers emotional upheavals and fierce intellectual wrangles, but such confrontations are the bread and butter of scientific work, and it often makes the conduct and conclusions of research even better. Science simply doesn’t march to the beat of complacent consensus. Machines and methods have also been developed and are constantly updated to resolve the riddles embedded in natural artefacts. So nature is not just a library full of shelves, it’s also lined with closets full of skeletons waiting to be opened.

Nature keeps telling us her story, and hordes of scientists are willing listeners, ready to undertake the tiresome process of transcribing and translating for the public. But in this glorious story of life—redolent of the beautiful and revolting, wonderful and dull—must it always be nature who tells the tale?

Ever since our human ancestors learned to use markers, we have tried to document nature with the best of our capabilities. About 64,000 years ago, our Neanderthal relatives entered an Iberian cave and left imprints on the walls, creating visually captivating shapes, depictions of wildlife, and abstract images.2 Prehistoric cave art dating back to 43,000 years ago in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi portray what may be the world’s first artistic rendition of swine and bovine hunting.3 And in the American south, ancient artists living some 12,000 years ago used the cliffs of Colombia to make an art installation that stretches for about 12 kilometres, using red ochre to draw thousands of red animals, scenes, hands, and shapes.4

This act of transforming environmental information into an artistic output exemplifies one major step in our intellectual development as a species. Once we got hold of materials and means to record our thoughts, we began to develop the skills needed to do so. And this legacy is still strong today. More than ever, we humans have embraced our excellence at memorialising events, though often abandoning artistry. A quick scroll down a random Facebook feed is enough to prove this point: it is an endless stream of broadcast births, burials, baptisms, hospitalisations, mishaps, parties, scandals, rambolan, live events, accidents, graduations, beheadings, etc. The amount of shared data is simply staggering, and all the world’s caves and rock surfaces would probably be not enough to accommodate such quantity. Not to be deterred by this lack of physical space, the more avant-garde members of our species make free galleries out of public toilets, providing all those who attend to nature’s call with a front row view of our shared proclivity for art and general vandalism.

The widespread and almost immediate publication of our thoughts is made possible by technological advancements especially in the transfer and access of data. Search engines such as Google have made common, obscure, and wrong information readily available in mere seconds. For historians, there is probably no better time than today, for much of the world’s historical records are now stored in many digital repositories. However, for those whose research interests cover a past yet to be codified into digital bits, the task is daunting since there is also the problem of not having any data to encode in the first place. How then are historians to know the past if such data are absent?

The dearth of tangible records and documents is one major problem that confronts many historians today. Like adults trying to accurately recall the events of their sixth birthday, the need for actual, physical evidence is necessary, as memory and imagination are both unreliable. “Who was it that got the big toy during the pabitin? JunJun? Dayday? Toto Pangsot? Ay, dali lang, according to this picture it was actually Tiyoy Turong!” If events that occurred during our lifetimes are already difficult to faithfully reconstruct without verifiable support, how much more if we’re to stretch chronological coverage to hundreds, or even thousands of years? This is especially frustrating for historians concerned with precolonial Philippines.

One solution that academics and pop publications have come up with to overcome material deficiency is to appropriate foreign objects to cover local subjects. Let’s look at one striking example to better assess this tendency. In Visayan mythos, it is believed that a legendary creature called Bakunawa is responsible for causing eclipses due to its taste for the moon and other celestial targets. Modern depictions of the Bakunawa all portray it as some sort of dragon.

It can be argued that the dragon imagery was borrowed by Ancient Visayans from icons found in mainland Asia. And this is the dominant explanation as to how it can devour the moon: its membership in the family of dragons equip it with supernatural powers and physical features that enable it to easily launch itself into space and swallow satellites. But this reasoning is grounded on the premise that our ancestors weren’t creative nor observant enough to understand their immediate environments on their own terms—that they had to borrow foreign creatures as conceptual devises to explain a recurring phenomenon.

A better way to contextualise Bakunawa as an organic Visayan concept is to understand the natural world that the Ancient Visayans lived in, and this is where biology can be a great source for historical information, and an opportunity for biologists as well to collaborate with historians. So, if we are to set aside the dragon for the moment and investigate the environments where the Visayans founded their settlements, what creature stands as the best candidate for the Bakunawa?

The snake.

A number of chroniclers from the 16th to the 17th century attest to the abundance and threats of snakes in the Visayas. In his 1582 Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas, Miguel de Loarca describes some of the snakes he found in the region as being “grandes como palmas” (“big as palm trees”). Speaking of their appetites, Fransisco Ignacio Alcina writes in his 1668 text, Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas, that some of the snakes in the Visayas grow so large that they could swallow “un Puerco, venado, ó hombre entero” (“an entire pig, deer, or man”). For the Italian traveller Gemelli Careri, he reports in 1700 that the snakes of Leyte were “di smisurata grandezza” (“of immeasurable grandness”). Not only were individual snakes very large, but their distribution in the Visayas was simultaneously so scattered and concentrated that they could almost be found everywhere. Alcina has more to say about the matter:

Su variedad no tiene fin pues son muchas las especies, que e conozen y cuentan, y finalmente su multitud es tal, que ni en el campo ni en el pueblo, ni en casa, ni en los montes, ni en los rios, ó mares ay seguridad; pues en todas partes se encuentran.”

“Their variety is endless, for there are many species that are known and yet to be discovered. And with their sheer abundance, there is no safety in the field, village, house, in the mountains, neither in rivers nor seas, because they are everywhere.”

When all of the above statements are taken into consideration, the case for the snake as the actual Bakunawa is almost unimpeachable. If they were found everywhere, grew so big, and could almost swallow anything then what’s to stop them from actually eating the moon? It could be that one actually did, and was henceforth identified with the name Bakunawa. What solidifies the argument even further are the actual statements by the chroniclers themselves. According to Alcina, “quando hay eclipse de Luna ó de sol, que llaman Bacunaba y decian que una grande culebra se tragaba entonces al sol ór á la Luna” (“whenever there is a solar or lunar eclipse, which they call Bacunaba, they said that a large snake swallowed the sun or the moon”). There is also a key point to be taken from an Español-Hiligaynon dictionary written by Antonio de Mentrida in 1632. In it can be found an entry for “bacunaua” as a “sierpe” that was known for “tragando la luna” (“swallowing the moon”). And what was this sierpe? In the same vocabulario, its Hiligaynon counterpart was written as “man-ug”, which is the generic name for snakes used today in many parts of the Visayas. It should also be noted that the Europeans, by the time they were in the Philippines, were familiar with dragons—they had words for it and were familiar with its imagery, as some of their myths featured the ferocious fire breathers. But in their accounts they deliberately described the Bakunawa as a snake. This could only mean that the information regarding the Bakunawa relayed to them by the Ancient Visayans fit best with the snake, not the dragon.

The example of the Bakunawa is a signal reminder to many historians that the natural world is not just the exclusive academic realm of scientists, particularly biologists, but it is for all to study, peruse, and enjoy. And as such, historians can find great joy in exploring its expanses, especially when material, historical evidence are scant. Admittedly, it is tempting, indeed, to inject the imagery of the dragon into the psyche of the Ancient Visayans, what with all the terrifying dragons in recent films and popular lore—how great would that enrich the visual appeal of our local stories! Just imagine a bunch of Pintados, whose material culture was said to be teeming with gold, discovering the treasury of Smaug, a dragon from Tolkien’s legendarium, eventually ensnaring it, and then enjoying a round of nutritious tuba to celebrate its capture. As for sumsuman, they get to enjoy inasal na dragon or a Smaug sisig (Sismaug or Smaugsig?). Yummy or yucky, we will never know. But in imagining such, we are robbing the Ancient Visayans of their own intellect and blurring their consciousness for the sake of accommodating foreign shapes, colours, and sounds. By studying the environmental makeup of the world they lived in, we are assigning to the Ancient Visayans the proper spirit of their time which was largely influenced by their immediate natural surroundings. While ravening and magical, dragons posed no real dangers to them, for there was the immediate danger of snakes lying in wait nearby ready to strike them down, or the moon for that matter.5

Consequently, by insisting on a local origin for the Bakunawa, we also clearly define the profound connection Ancient Visayan held with their natural surroundings, helping us understand their unique mode of intellectual inquiry that is indicative of the state of “science” in the region at the time. How could the Ancient Visayans develop such esteem for the snake if they did not intimately acquaint themselves with the scaly serpents? Perhaps many died as a consequence: snacks for the snakes, sacrificed for science. Whatever the case, the way the Ancient Visayans derived their cosmic explanation from casual observations exhibit a remarkably scientific way of thinking—trying to explain the unexplainable with knowledge that is available—by transforming materials into metaphors. “Virtually the entire body of modern science,” says geneticist Richard Lewontin, “is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly by human beings, by reference to forces and processes that we cannot perceive directly because they are too small, like molecules, or too vast, like the entire known universe”. And this attempt, adds Lewontin, “must necessarily involve the use of metaphors.”6 Thus, by looking at the Bakunawa as a metaphorical snake which causes eclipses, we are also taking a glimpse at the scientific inventiveness and adroitness of our ancestors.

This scientific rootedness in nature is best exemplified in the many Philippine placenames which are based on plants, animals, and the environmental configuration of the location. In the Visayas, names such as Cabatuan, Abuyog, Badiangan, Kabankalan, Tigbauan, Bato, Carubcub, Bacolod, Malobago, Talisay, Busay, etc. abound. One possible reason why this is so is because our ancestors named them after what was the most dominant (in terms of quantity) species or most striking natural landmark in that specific place, later serving as significant signposts when needing to gather materials or simply travelling around. While these names may sound trivial to modern residents of each place, they may have been crucial in the survival and success of our ancestors. This could only have been possible due to their strong biological familiarity with their world, which, although may not be codified in books and journals, is forever indelible on land. That is to say, embedded on the names of these places are the best taxonomic wisdom of our ancestors, and more important, they’re open source and can be studied without the hindrance of a paywall—one of capitalism’s carcinogenic corruptions that continue to contaminate scholarship.

Interested readers and researchers would be glad to know that there are already a number of published material available for consultation and guidance. Just recently, Ian Cristopher Alfonso, a Filipino historian from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, launched his book Dogs in Philippine History, a collection of essays that explores the many ways the lives of Filipinos and their canine companions overlapped across time. It is a fascinating work that took a decade to complete, and currently stands as one of the shining examples of what a bio-historical approach in history research can achieve. From a personal correspondence, Alfonso admits that he is quite indebted to the work of Alcina, the same Alcina who wrote about the Bakunawa in the 1600s. In a way, he is standing on the shoulder of a giant. But Alcina himself was also indebted to another earlier master, another giant by the name of Pliny the Elder, who wrote the monumental and magisterial Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The said work was compiled around the first century CE, when the Romans were at the twin peaks of civilisation and culture under the exemplary leadership of Caesar Augustus. Pliny’s work documents the many ways the Romans and those before and around them learned to deal with life’s problems by consulting nature. On the topic of snakes, Pliny writes that one known remedy at the time for snakebite was to apply on the wound a plant used by lizards to heal their injuries after fighting each other.7 It is not known for sure what plant Pliny was referring to, but the method of derivation is clear: there is much to learn from studying and mimicking nature.

But it’s not just history that benefits from biology, for the converse is also true, even more so. When biology was at the doldrums in the 19th century, it was Charles Darwin’s painstaking multidisciplinary approach to the study of evolution that gave the field the necessary vitality to move forward. What emerged from this effort was his theory of natural selection, which in brief states that in certain environments, the species who manage to adapt best, either through their present features or sheer luck (or both), get to live and pass on their traits to later generations, eventually displacing less successful varieties. Included in Darwin’s approach was, of course, a keen appreciation for history and its intricacies. In describing the results of his method, Darwin writes:

“…when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a long history (emphasis added); when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, does the study of natural history become!”8

Rewards and intellectual treasures await the eager researcher, but scattered along the way are risks that make the whole undertaking perilous. While Darwin was awarded immortality in the pantheon of science, environmentalists, conservationists, and biologists around the world are forced to consider their mortality and retreat. Leonard Co, a Filipino botanist known worldwide for his work on endemic plants, was brutally killed in 2010 when members of the Philippine Army shot endless rounds at Co’s direction in wild abandon. Three bullets were found lodged in Co’s corpse after the autopsy. Up to this day, the soldiers responsible for the cruel murder walk free.9 But Co is just one of nature’s many valiant champions ruthlessly slaughtered by state agents and private interests. In 2022, 11 environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines, earning the country the morbid moniker as “Asia’s Deadliest Country for Environmentalists”, a reputation it has held consistently for many years.10 Not only that, but the very thing Co and his fellows devote their lives to safeguard, nature itself, is continuously being destroyed all for sake of making more money. Witness the many felled trees, the flattened mountains, the blackened waters, the trafficked wildlife, and the fouled airs from wanton capitalist expansion and growth: exclusively delighting the rich, while the workers remain poor and even poorer by further exposing them to natural disasters.

Should things remain as they are, perhaps nature will someday record our history as a brutal series of tragedies that could have been avoided. Until then, biologists and historians are forced to reckon that they work with a drastic disadvantage: nature is their library, and soon its shelves will be filled with the skulls of the poor and remnants of a devastated earth.

  1. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W.W. Norton Inc., 2007), 100. ↩︎

  2. Aubert, M., Lebe, R., Oktaviana, A.A. et al. “Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art”, Nature 576, 442–445 (2019). ↩︎

  3. D. L. Hoffmann et al., “U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art”, Science 359, 912-915(2018). ↩︎

  4. Morcote-Ríos, A, Aceituno, F.J., Iriarte, J., et al. “Colonisation and early peopling of the Colombian Amazon during the Late Pleistocene and the Early Holocene: New evidence from La Serranía La Lindosa”, Quaternary International 578, 5-19 (2021).↩︎

  5. For a more detailed discussion on the origins of Bakunawa, see Bibliotikal article The Hisstory of the Bakunawa↩︎

  6. Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix: gene, organism, and environment, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 3. ↩︎

  7. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History of Pliny, vol. 2, trans. John Bostock & H.T. Riley (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855), 292. ↩︎

  8. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (New York: Gramercy Books, 1979), 456. ↩︎

  9. Vina Medenilla, “Nearly 12 years after esteemed botanist’s killing, justice remains out of reach,” Manila Bulletin, 11 August 2022. ↩︎

  10. CNN Philippines Staff, “PH deadliest nation in Asia for environmental defenders for a decade – study,” CNN Philippines, 13 September 2023.; and Jairo Bolledo, “For 8th straight year, PH is Asia’s deadliest country for land defenders,” Rappler, 13 September 2021. ↩︎

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