‘Monkeys’ on the Manungul Jar
Belief in life after death is older than recorded history. The Tabon Cave complex in Palawan, for example, was where Robert Fox discovered in 1962 the “Manungul Jar,” named after the cave where it was found, and the remains of three individuals then called the “Tabon Man.” The jar has been dated to 890-710 BC; the Tabon Man, dated to be 16,500 years old, used to be the oldest human remains in the Philippines until the “Callao Man,” discovered in 2007, pushed prehistory back 67,000 years! It is unfortunate that textbook history only talks about the Tabon Man and the Manungul Jar because there were other remains and grave furniture found in Manungul Cave, like 78 other jars—additional pieces for the unfinished jigsaw puzzle that is Philippine prehistory.
My interest in archeology and anthropology began when I sat in E. Arsenio Manuel’s Philippine Prehistory class at UP Diliman, where, on the first day he wrote on the board for my benefit: “Where history ends, anthropology begins.” Historians, he explained, were limited by written records, while anthropologists could read history from a wide array of artifacts.
The Manungul Jar, for example, is a rather crude piece of earthenware with a lid that reflected the prehistoric Pinoy’s close relationship with the sea. Incised on the body of the lid are lines, curls and dots painted with red hematite that represent waves. On top is a boat with two figures: One in the back holds an oar that has broken off, his feet near a hole that once had mast and sail; the other in front has his arms crossed over his chest in the manner of a corpse in a tight coffin, a ribbon tied from head to chin keeps his mouth closed. On the prow of the boat are two holes I mistook for headlights, but might well be a pair of eyes, like those painted on ancient Egyptian sarcophagi where the soul of the deceased could go in and out.
It is said that when the Manungul Jar was proposed as one of the design elements on the back of the former P1,000 bill, one of the members of the Bangko Sentral Monetary Board asked: “Ano ba ang significance ng dalawang tsongong namamangka (What is the significance of those two monkeys rowing a boat)?” He was informed about the Filipino belief in the afterlife, and that these were the souls of our ancestors sailing into eternity.
I like repeating this story because despite the elaborate explanations and interpretations heaped on the Manungul Jar, we cannot really be sure if those are depictions of souls or plain monkeys meant as quirky decoration.
The Todos los Santos holidays made me remember Robert Fox and the excavations in Tabon and Calatagan that made him famous, the objects he uncovered being links between past and present. In Calatagan, for example, Fox unearthed 505 graves that yielded 521 pieces of porcelain from China, Thailand and Vietnam. With the notable exception of a Song Period (960-1279) stoneware jar explained away as a heirloom from an earlier time, everything else were dated by H. Otley Beyer as coming from the late Yuan (1280-1368) to early Ming (1369-1644) periods. Added to the archeological pieces excavated by Fox and the National Museum were items found by people while planting or developing the land, bringing the total to about 1,200 porcelain pieces. It’s a pity that almost all our major museums have displays of excavated ceramics that do not inspire interest or curiosity. Most museum goers take one quick glance and move on to other exhibits, saying, “Once you have seen a blue and white jar or dish, you have seen them all.”
If you suspend ceramics boredom for a while and just think about how old these items are and how they made their journeys by sea from kilns and markets in China, Thailand and Vietnam to the grave sites in Calatagan in Batangas, Pila in Laguna, or Sta. Ana in Manila, you cannot but marvel at what all these artifacts are trying to tell us, wordlessly. Most excavated porcelains are found in single graves and many predate the Spanish contact in the 16th century. These are not just evidence of pre-Spanish and prehistoric trade between the Philippines and its neighbors, but also clues into Philippine culture then and now.
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