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Second Opinion

Waves of migration

/ 05:28 AM December 28, 2017

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Mention “waves of migration” to any Filipino academic and you may get raised eyebrows, given the term’s association to Henry Otley Beyer’s long-repudiated theory about the peopling of the Philippines. This theory, which was taught to students for many decades (and perhaps even today), posits that the country was populated by a series of migrants, from hunting-and-gathering “Dawn man” and Aetas who came through land bridges to increasingly-civilised batches of “Indonesians” and “Malaysians” who came by boats. Scholars would find no evidence to support this theory, and some have critiqued it for engendering a “passive” national self-image.

But there is more to H. Otley Beyer than his theory, just as there is more to the idea of migration waves than the theory of Beyer. “UP Anthropology @ 100,” an international conference held in Diliman earlier this month reminded us of Beyer’s legacy as the “father of Philippine Anthropology” who set up the UP Department of Anthropology in 1917 and mentored several generations of social scientists. Beyer came with a colonial baggage but he nonetheless contributed toward the discovery and appreciation of Filipino culture, setting the stage for what anthropologist-historian Carlos Tatel calls a truly “Philippine anthropology.”

Meanwhile, my trip here reminded me of “waves of migration” that have taken place — albeit not in the way Beyer described. The Maori themselves speak of this migration as part of their identity narrative: “We discovered New Zealand in the 13th century. We came by boats from Southeast Asia across the Pacific,” our guide Carla said as we visited a cultural center in Rotorua.


She was referring to the Austronesian Expansion — the dispersal of peoples from East and Southeast Asia by balangay-like boats to as far as Madagascar, Easter Island, and perhaps beyond. The exact details of this theory are the subject of an ongoing lively debate: some scholars claim a Taiwanese origin for most Austronesians while others posit a more complex picture involving Southeast Asia and South China; what is clear in any case is that there are genetic and cultural links among them. Maori words like rima (five) and taringa (ear) — as well as practices like boat-building and tattooing — hint at a connection with other Austronesian cultures, including our own.

Interestingly, the movement of peoples from Asia to the Pacific continues today in places like New Zealand. In Auckland, longtime expat Sam Dignadice spoke to me of — in his own words — “waves of migration”: the coming of IT professionals like himself, healthcare workers, and now, students. Meanwhile, here in Christchurch, locals point to the influx of Filipino construction workers in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, now numbering over 3,000. “Soon New Zealand will be an Asian country!” one local told me; his remarks have a ring of demographic truth—and echoes of the island nation’s distant past. What we see in the larger picture, however, is not several elegant waves of migration, but a tumultuous ocean, a living history that, in the words of computational biologist Murray Cox, “is still being played out.”

  1. Otley Beyer’s legacy is the recognition that the Philippines has always had a rich culture, and that this culture has always been part of the world: essentially capturing anthropology’s twofold quest of unearthing human diversity and universality.

In a way, this is also what the waves of migration to, through, and from the Philippines do. As active participant — not passive recipient — in this dispersal, we ought to be proud as a nation among the nations of the world; just as the Maori discovered New Zealand, we Filipinos — in behalf of our various ancestors — can claim to have discovered the Philippines. At the same time, our kinship with the Maori and the Malagasy; the Acehnese and the Atayals; the Samoans, Malaysians, and the rest of the world through other dispersals and flows of people, should make us realize that we are part of something larger than our nation — and inspire us toward greater empathy to our fellow travelers as the human journey continues.

Comments to gideon.lasco@gmail.com

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TAGS: Austronesian Expansion, Filipino migrants, Gideon Lasco, Henry Otley Beyer, Maori, Second Opinion, waves of migration
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