BRIEF ETHNOGRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE IVATAN OF BATANES PROVINCE, IN NORTHERN PHILIPPINES

by: Dr. Florentino H. Hornedo

I. Earliest Traces of Human Presence

From present archeological evidence, Belwood (1985: 222-224) concludes that there is a Taiwan-northern Luzon axis of Neolithic continuity which he dates between 3500-2500 BC. This conclusion is reinforced by the Kumamoto report (1983: 55-61; Belwood 1985:224) based on findings of “red-slipped pottery” in an excavation at Sunget on Batan Sand, Batanes Province. This indicates the presence on the Batanes of potery-making people during the Early Neolithic Phase in Island Southeast Asia to as recently as 100 BC (Belwood 1985:246), and perhaps way into the Late Neolithic Phase. Surface archeology and casual finds have produced a number of late Neolithic tools, especially polished adzes in all the islands of the Batanes group.

The geology team of Maryannick Richard et al. (1986:10-13) report discovering broken pottery pieces and charred wood “the charring of which may be due to human activities” and dated 2310 by 14C +/-80 wears BP or 310 BC. The pottery pieces and charred wood were found in a layer of paleosoil lying beneath volcanic ash from the Mt. Iraya volcano. Solheim (1960) documented jar-burial in Batanes, and the opinion of Belwood (1985:316) based on the possibility of a link with the Japanese jar-burial tradition places the date between 100 BC to 300 AD. And as recently as the late 19th century, the jar-burial custom was still being practiced by the Ivatan (Manuel, 1953; Melgarejo, 1778). The reported jar-burial practice of the Ivatan is amply supported by the numerous jar burials (padapaday in Ivatan) which have been discovered accidentally or by exposure caused by erosion. But more thorough archeological investigation has recently started. The archeology team of the National Museum of the Philippines has gotten to a good start. (See Dizon & Santiago, 1994; Dizon, 1995.)

II.17th Century Ethnographic Accounts

Early accounts in historic times are those of the Dominicans in 1686 (Missiones Catolicos 1937: 417ff.), and of Capt. William Dampier in 1687 (Masefield 1906: 420ff.; Blair & Robertson, 1903-09: 98ff). Dampier wrote:


These people make but small low houses. The sides which are made of small posts, wattled with boughs, are not above 4 foot and a half high and the ridge-pole is about 7 or 8 foot high. They have a fire-place at one end of their houses, and boards placed on the ground to lie on. They inhabit together in small villages built on the sides and tops of rocky hills, 3 or 4 rows of houses one above another, and on such steep precipices, that they go up to the first row with a wooden ladder, and so with a ladder still from every story up to that above it, there being no way to ascend. The plain on the first precipice may be so wide, as to have room both for a row of houses that stand all along the edge or brink of it, and a very narrow street running along before their doors, between the row of houses and the foot of the next precipice the plain of which is in a manner level to the tops of the houses below, and so for the rest. The common ladder to each row or street comes up at a narrow passage left purposely about the middle of it; and the street being bound with a precipice also at each end, ‘tis but drawing up the ladder, if they be assaulted, and then there is no coming at them from below, but by climbing up against the perpendicular wall. And that they may not be assaulted from above, they take care to build on the side of such a hill, whose backside hangs over the sea, or is some high, steep, perpendicular precipice, altogether inaccessible. These precipices are natural; for the rocks seem too hard to work on; nor is there any sign that art hath been employed about them. On Bashee Islands [Vuhos Is. today] there is one such, and built upon, with its back next to the sea. Grafton [Batan today) and Monmouth (Sabtang] isles are very thick set with these hills and towns; and the natives, whether for fear of pirates, or foreign enemies, of factions among their own clans, care not for building but in these
fastnesses;….


[A century later, the Dominican Chapter of 1794, referred to the Ivatan as “islanders… accustomed to live on the mountain tops” (Gonzales 1966:46).]

Dampier went on to provide a vivid description of the lives of the Ivatan as he saw it, but because it is somewhat extended, it will suffice here to sum it up.

The Ivatan of the 17th century was a farmer and fisherman. He fed largely on yam and camote, some fish, a variety of fruits—such as plantain and bananas—from his farm tended mostly by women while he himself and his sons went fishing. He built boats. He had a few wooden and iron equipment, some for his livelihood and some for self-defense (and probably aggression). His farms were occasionally ravaged by locusts and typhoons. He fought back the locusts by hunting them for food. He seems not to have raised rice nor corn. He raised goats, pigs, and some fowl. He cultivated sugarcane and brewed an alcoholic beverage out of its juice. He dressed scantilly from cloth he wove from a limited amount of cotton he raised. He also wore a jacket woven out of plantain leaves. He valued gold and wore it as earrings. Or used it as currency in his small commercial transactions, and on occasion used it for buying iron. He valued iron very much and was willing to buy it with everything he had—camote, yam, goats, pigs. He was civil and had law to govern his social conduct. He built his house on hilltops and hillsides with fortifications. In appearance, he was clean, bronze complexion, squat, and kept his hair short. [Now, over three centuries later, nearly everything Dampier said is still current in Ivatan life.]

III. 18th Century Accounts

In 1720 a Dominican (probably Fray Juan Bel or Fray Alonzo Amado) identified 19 villages on the Batan Island which he listed with their corresponding estimated number of families:

  • Ivana, 900
  • Vatang, 60
  • Maluigiang, 20
  • Mahatao, 80
  • Vasay, 1,000
  • Sungsung, 100
  • Manalulsul, 200
  • Saidi, 90
  • Dibtangan, 30
  • Panaytayan,100
  • Busbusan, 90
  • Pinaysuhuan, 30
  • Yjjang, 19
  • Lakdangan, 20
  • Chanalaan, 19
  • Tulaan nu Danum, 19
  • Yura, 300
  • Racuh a Idi, 200
  • (illegible on the MS), 19

Fray Juan Bel reported that Sabtang Island (which he referred to as “Siminanga”) had six villages:

  • Savidug,70 families
  • Sinakan, 300 families
  • Malacdang, 190 families
  • Ibbutan, 60 families
  • Sumnanga, 110 families
  • Chavayan, 20 families
  • Ivuhus, 200 persons more or less

Of this period, there is no demographic report on Itbayat being quite inaccessible to the missionaries until very late in the 19th century.

From Fr. Amado’s report (1720), one gets an idea of Ivatan religious notions at the time.

They do not have idols but have some vain observances. They make supplicatory prayers. They sacrifice to the devil when they are sick. And they believe and profess the immortality of the soul. Some aniteras teach them that the souls of the principales go to rest in heaven where they believe the Giver of all things resides. But the souls of the ordinary people (after death] remain in the atmosphere because they are not allowed to enter. They believe that the devil kills them, when they are sick they place cutlasses and sharpened sticks near the head of the sick person.

Another Dominican writing nearly seventy years later reports substantially the same beliefs and customs (Artiguez, 1787). And from the report of a trader in 1778 one gets some idea of the material culture regarding death (Melgarejo, 1778).

I saw a body they were going to bury, and in order to see their custom I went to watch. After a short walk to the farm of the dead man, they stopped where there was a very big hole, in the center of which was a very well-made oven like one made for baking bread. At its opening they placed the dead, and his father came saying to him, “My son, since you are dead, you leave behind your farms, the gold, and your earrings,” meanwhile removing them from his [the dead man’s] ears. In the midst of this howling those who had accompanied the father get themselves and the father drunk with a jar and a half of basi. Then they insert into the dead man’s loincloth his cigar, and place him inside the oven, and cover him with earth. Then they place with him his plates, his earthen pot, his kettle, his oar, his xano (?). Then the father bids him good-bye saying to him, “My son, you stay here in the farm and (we leave you) your kitchen utensils so you can take with you what you want.” After this when fifteen days have passed, they kill a goat and distribute it to all the relatives and whoever comes to get it, who bring it to the dead man. This time, the father does not take part….and when the father of the dead man was alone I asked him…, “Where will your son go and stay?” And he raised his hand, and with a finger pointed to heaven.


Melgarejo also took some notes on the marriage customs he observed. At the wedding, four or five pieces of gold were given as dowry to the bride who gave these to her father. Some Chinese jars filled with sugarcane wine were placed in the middle of the floor while dancing went on around them. The celebration lasted four or five days (Melgarejo, 1778). Ivatan marriage was open to divorce (Artiguez, 1786).

Regarding social organization and customary law, Fr. Bartolome Artiguez (1787) says that the Ivatan lived in barangays the headmen of which were called Mangpus. A mangpus was sovereign. Under him, each with jurisdiction over a subdivision of the barangay, were the mapolon who had prerogative to further delegate authority to their subordinates. The mapolon were independent in their own sphere of authority, and were subject only to the mangpus. The barangay and its subdivisions were traditional, their status and rights hereditary and could not be altered by the mangpus. It was the traditional right of a mangpus to collect revenues from the entire barangay, to administer justice, and defend and help his people. It was also his right to take up arms and defend even just one of his people, or avenge any crime committed against his people. He often spent for feasts to which his people were invited, and on which occasions his people brought him gifts. The mapolon did the same thing, and also received gifts from his people.

There were also petty functionaries below the mapolon. These had authority over a still smaller subdivision of the barangay—subjecting the ordinary Ivatan to three authorities: the mangpus, the mapolon, and the petty officials. The administration of justice was done in the various spheres of the three levels of authority depending on the gravity of the case.

There were several barangays, but eleven powerful barangays were known as “barangays of refuge.” To any of these powerful barangays, any person or chief could go for protection in case of need. Small barangays despite having their own mangpus and mapolon usually leagued themselves with more powerful barangays. It was because of this that there were barangays which contained within them large and powerful communities ruled by subordinate authorities but with the title of mangpus.

Disturbance of the peace of the community was severely punished. Homicide and witchcraft were punishable by death. Murder by poison was also punishable by death. There was no pardon possible for witches because it was believed there was no hope for their reform, and there was general rejoicing when a witch was put to death.

Robbery and theft were punishable by fine, and if the culprit could not pay, another could, and he became servant for life of the one who paid his fine. And if he was of moderate means, he could be redeemed by either the mangpus or a mapolon to whom he henceforth became a henchman.

Adultery was punishable by fine, but the injured husband was allowed to kill both his faithless wife and her lover.

A common form of administering capital punishment was by burying alive. Trial had little by way of due process, but the chiefs sometimes tried cases and passed judgment; and when it was difficult to determine guilt or lack of it, it was decided by duel (“Se decidia la cuestion por el mas valiente.”) (Cp. Peñaranda, 1831: 425, 447: See also Gonzalez, 1966:12-13.)

When crime was committed by members of one barangay against members of another, the dispute became inter-barangay because barangay chiefs were bound to defend and protect their subjects. In such times of inter-barangay feud, members of the feuding barangays could be killed if found unprotected outside their barangay, even if they were not the offenders, for the cause of one was the cause of everyone in each barangay. And if the offended barangay was in alliance with others, the conflict became a war of leagues of barangays sometimes getting to the point of pitched battles. The dispute usually ended with the death of the principals to the dispute.

But women, by convention, were to be unmolested even during the barangay feuds because they took care of the farms and the procurement of food during times of inter-barangay hostilities. At such times, women could bring along their daughters to their farms, but not their young sons because males regardless of age could be killed by barangay enemies.

With regards to costume and adornment, Gonzalez (1966:12-13) summarizing Artiguez and Calderon (1787) says:

The women wore just a tapis fastened at the waist and left open on the right side. They knotted their hair at the back and kept it in place with a cord that circled the head. Women of means, when dressed up, substituted the cord with a golden fillet called rangat from which the more fanciful hung shoulder-long strands of beads which covered the face of both sides [sic]. Golden earrings, pendants, necklaces, circlets designed to cover the legs from knees to ankles with multi-colored iridescent beads completed the adornment of the female. 

The men usually wore nothing more than the bahag (Ivt. sagut. a conical hat made of coconut bark (probably apis). A sleeveless waistcoat usually distinguished the chiefs from the commoners. For labors in the field, both men and women wore a cloak of [woven) lapping strips of banana leaves which protected them from either sun or rain. This garment called soot in the men, and vakul in the women still in use today.

The closing decade of the 18th century (starting 1789) brought radical restructuring of Ivatan society and culture. Spanish provincial governor Joaquin del Castillo ordered the erstwhile hill and mountain dwellers down to the lowland settlements threatening with cannon shots those who refused. Then he ordered them to change their manner of dress and adornment under pain of punishment (Gonzalez, 1966:42ff). New village sites were plotted with their streets drawn by a grid system marked out with ropes. And by 1795, plans for large buildings such as churches were in the making, and in 1799 the first stone-and-lime buildings were started thus introducing to the Ivatan a new architectural technology whose result is the still current distinctive Ivatan house of thick stone walls and massive thatch roof of cogon (Hornedo, 1982: 1994a). Gov. del Castillo was also responsible for the exile of the population of Sabtang to Ivana in 1791 after a revolt by a local chief, the Mangpus of Malacdang named Aman Dangat. Those of Savidug and Chavayan resettled in San Felix, south of present day Ivana; those from Sinakan, Malacdang, Sumnanga, and (probably) Nacanmuan (who at that time resided in Butan) were resettled in San Vicente north of Ivana (Poblacion y recursos, 1830 in Gonzalez, 1966, facs. bet. 54 & 55).

In the last year of the 19th century, Fr. Francisco de Paula Esteban, O.P. (1799) went to Itbayat and visited seven villages and counted their population:

  • Caugaugasan (Sta. Lucia) – 360 persons
  • Marapuy (Sta. Maria) – 252 persons
  • Savilug (Sta. Maria Magdalena) – 92 persons
  • Carububan (Sta. Rosa) – 445 persons
  • Magseb (Sta. Teresa) – 80 persons
  • Yian (Ijiang?] (San Rafael) – 157 persons
  • Anao (Sta. Columba) – 43 persons


[These seven villages have since been resettled in two communities which today (1995) are the Poblacion of Itbayat, and its satellite village called Rayli.]

Fr. Francisco de Paula noted that Itbayat people shared about the same customs as those in Batan and Sabtang islands, but he noted what he thought were peculiarly Itbayat: Iron smithing was not done because the people believed “that the operation of the forge was cursed with death.” As a result they had no bolos, knives, and spears to work with. And although there were many rats, there were no cats because they believed that it was dangerous to load cats on boats that sailed from Batan to Itbayat, for if they did, the act would invite destructive typhoons. They washed their clothes by soaking them in water drained from soaked ashes. Their houses were small with stone walls without mortar. Their marriage age was between 30 and 40, and it was a custom for the groom to hand over as dowry all he had to the relatives of the bride. The wedding was celebrated in a place away from the houses of both the bride and the groom.

IV. The 19th Century

After Governor del Castillo resettled the Ivatan from their mountain homes to lowland villages, and having restructured local leadership by allowing only the Christianized to be elected to office, the original social structure and the values that it engendered and legitimized it vanished and a new order emerged (Hornedo, 1994: 261-272; Reed, 1978:11-16). The 19th century saw Batanes Hispanized, and its development followed the pattern taken by other parts of hispanized Philippines in both material and non-material culture. The new towns were built compactly around the churches and casas reales and tribunales (the equivalent of today’s capitols and municipal halls). But the new arrangement appears to have been a health hazard. When pestilence struck, contagion spread fast in the compact new neighborhood decade of the 19th century, three outbreaks of small pox (1803 and 1810) reduced the population considerably (Documentos de Batanes 3:433-434; Gonzalez, 1966:54). There was a moment of panic and Ivatan were asked in 1812 if they wished to resettle in Mindoro ( 3: 437). Only a few signed up; and the project was eventually given up (DDB 3: 439). From an estimate of between 15,000-30,000 official establishment of Spanish rule over the Batanes in 1783, the population had gone down to 10,576 in 1819 (DDB 3.6 1820-1821, there was an outburst of cholera in which the estimated death rate was 12 dead to each birth. Population was down to 9,204 in 1829 (Gonzalez, 1966:63).

From 1799 to 1830, Batanes had been downgraded from a province headed by a governor to one headed by a Cagayano alcalde named Valerio Bermudez. He had little real power and the missionaries filled the vacuum by directing both the material and spiritual affairs of the Ivatan (Peñaranda, 1831). Large stone-and-lime churches and tribunals were built; and bridges were constructed over creeks in Basco and Ivana so that the people could not make excuses of floods for missing religious obligations on Sundays and holy days. The period saw the transfer of the lime-and-stone technology used in churches, convents, and public buildings to the construction of the typhoon-proof now traditional Ivatan house (Hornedo, 1982).

The new need for surplus production against the traditional subsistence economy-recommended by Peñaranda (1831; DDB 3:481ff.) led to a series of attempts to upgrade local agriculture: Don Valentin Villalva proposed the production of tobacco, and wheat; under Lima, Chinese were imported to spearhead the production of vegetables; under Cuevas, seminars on agricultural production were given. But the Ivatan appear to have given no interest in those imposed projects (DDB 3: 413; Gonzalez, 1966: 60ff). But they responded favorably to the increased demand for clothing required by the 1789 decree of Gov. de Castillo. Cotton was imported from the Ilocos to augment what was produced in Itbayat, and weaving was an important occupation of the people, and at one time there were 2,170 looms in as many households (Gonzalez, 1966:54). Pigs and goats were being raised in large numbers, which made the villages dirty (Peñaranda, 1831). He also noted that because of the lack of steady water supply, the Ivatan made large earthen jars for storing water.

The plow and corn were introduced from Cagayan, and millet, cotton, and beans were getting widely cultivated in the islands (Peñaranda, 1831: 444-445).

Gold was a primary status symbol (Hornedo, 1986-87). Social position depended on how much gold one had. The Ivatan strove hard to acquire it. Goldsmiths were an important class of craftsmen. They fashioned padijit, rangat, and earrings. They had crude tools and weights mostly determined according to weights of Spanish gold coins. Peñaranda [whose visit was brief, and did not have too high a regard for the Ivatan] believed that both the gold and the methods of working it were of Ilocano origin (Peñaranda 1831: 412; 417-420).

Peñaranda (1831: 428, 445) also noted that,

The women’s attire is limited to a tapis tied around the waist and reaches down to the knees, and remaining open on the right side. They keep their hair like the Tingguianes of Abra, and keep in tact by a string wound around the head. But the finery they used in ancient times were the most attractive I have ever seen among the infidels. To keep their hair, they placed in place of the string a kind of diadem made of gold from which hang two “fabrics” made of beads which covered both sides of the face and fell as far as the shoulders. They called it rangat…; they also wore earrings and necklaces of gold with varying richness; their legs were adorned with beads of varied and attractive colors from the knees to the ankles, and of the same materials was a wide belt which they called tahed…


The men in general wore only the g-string and a conical salacot made of coconut husk. (?) The leaders usually wore a sleeveless vest made of cotton. Both men and women wore on the fields a cloak made of abaca and banana leaves finely stripped…

When they wanted to blacken their teeth, they prepare a concoction called tapo, make their blackened teeth glossy by rubbing on the fruit of a plant called rai.

Pottery-making was an important occupation. Potters worked locally available clay, and they fired the pots by means of burning dried sticks. (Peñaranda 1831: 417).

The boat-making techniques of the Ivatan is some 2,000 years old (Scott, 1982), and Dampier saw many Ivatan boats in the 17th century (Masefield, 1906: 428). Peñaranda (1831: 421-422) noted that th had developed various types of boats he listed as (1)big tataya, (2) chinedqueran, (3) inagusan, and (4) small tataya. The first two were small pontines which could carry about 300 sacks of rice, and on these larger boats they sailed to and from Luzon. They used mats for sails on the bigger boats, and avutag [bark cloth] for the smaller boats.

Between 1831 and 1844, some 1,600 Isabtang who had been exiled in Ivana since 1791 had returned to their ancestral homes, although they still crossed the sea regularly to attend to their religious obligations in Ivana. So the Spanish authorities decided to reestablish Sabtang as a regular mission in 1844. Fr. Antonio Vicente, O.P., was assigned there and stayed there for 18 years to oversee the laying of the groundwork of the new Sabtang municipality (Gonzalez, 1966:57).

With the departure of the Isabtang, Ivana’s population decreased significantly, and the population of Huhmuren were resettled in Ivana (Gonzalez, 1966: 64).

It was also in this period-1834—that the first catechism in the Ivatan language was printed (Retana, 1896), and is the earliest good record of the language.

In the second half of the 19th century, whether due to emigration or plagues is unclear, the Ivatan population decreased further to 8, 326 (Cavada, 1876), or 8, 346 (Govantes, 1878). It is likely that significant migration to Luzon accounted for some of the decrease (Gonzalez, 1960). They exported livestock and agricultural products, mainly to Aparri (Madrigal, 983: 266-267), and many Ivatan probably chose to stay on the Luzon mainland. There were only 8, 278 Ivatan in 1898.

by Dr. Florentino H. Hornedo (1938 – 2015)


Dr. Hornedo is an Ivatan, born in Savidug, Sabtang, Batanes on October 16, 1938.  He passed away on December 9, 2015 at the age of 77.