Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The "2000-year old" rice terraces

Just how old are the Banaue Rice Terraces? The almost universally accepted estimate is "2,000 years old," a factoid repeated in web sites, travel brochures, and even books and scholarly journals. It is a fact repeated blindly without question or doubt, though also without any scientific or historical basis.

The 2,000-year old claim is, I believe, preposterous, and for two reasons: first, there is no other corroborating evidence of Ifugao culture extending to that period of time; it is as if the whole of Ifugao culture was focused on the Rice Terraces and nothing more.

Second, because I have some idea of how that claim may have started. The aforementioned age is a hoax.

So how old are the Rice Terraces? The Ifugao government web site points us to more scholarly work towards determining their real age:

Keesing says that the rice terraces started at the end of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th century when the early Ifugaos migrated from the Magat valley. Fr. Lambrecht has theorized that the rice terrace originated in the 17th century after the immigration of the Ifugaos driven by the Spaniards from the Magat valley (1591-1594). Harold Conklin (Atlas of Ifugao - 1980) relates the Ifugao pattern of land use in the natural physical environment.

Quoting further from Conklin:

"The richer Ifugao valley could not possibly have reached the contemporary configuration in less than four or five centuries. A preliminary series of radiocarbon dates from excavated settlements and pond fields sites tends to confirm this view; early dates for Banghallan in central Bunne (Burnay) range from the 7th to the 11th century and terrace sites in the higher-elevation districts of Amganad and Lugu date from the 16th century. In this last district, for example, remains of a post used in original-embankment formation accidentally exposed by a landslide in 1961 have been recently been given a carbon-14 date of AD 1555 = 60 years by the university of Georgia Center for Apllied Isotope Studies (UGa-2512)"

The Ifugao rice terraces are indeed old, around 400 years, but not 2,000 years old.

So where did the 2,000-year old estimate come from? A couple of years ago, I made the acquaintance of a famous Manila photographer. This photographer was a pioneer in promoting Ifugao culture in the 1970s; he and his wife made several visits to Banaue before it became a popular destination. Over time, he became a well-known authority in the area.

Story has it that, when someone asked him how old the rice terraces were, he pulled an impressive sounding figure from the air: 2,000 years. And before long, such a "fact" was reprinted in local brochures and picked up by scholars everywhere.

There's no malice on the part of the photographer -- though he's a bit of a character -- the real stumper is why no one ever really questions the 2,000 year figure. And the answer is...it sounds impressive.

But it's also untrue.

Happy April Fools!


  1. So how old is it????!!!!

  2. Re-read my blog post. The answer is there.

  3. I've been bugging all the ethno-anthropologists I know in Baguio about this, but they seem to get touchy and defensive whenever I've asked why no one's done some real honest to goodness radio carbon dating.

    Seems they like the 2000 year old claim, which greets every visitor to the Banawe hotel.