Make your own free website on
by: Dominique Wee

The Palawan, who numbers around 50,000, are one of the three autochthonous groups from the island of the same name. They live in the southern part, starting from the breach in the mountain range between Quezon and Abo-Abo. The Tagbanua live in the central part, concentrated in the Aborlan area, but are also present in the northern Cuyo archipelago. The third autochthonous group, the Batak, an Aeta nomadic community of only about 200, lives in the forest farther north, between Puerto Princesa and Roxas.

They call themselves "Palawan," "Pala'wan," or "Palawanän" depending on the dialectal variations within the Palawan language, and there are 12 of these. They are designated as "Palawano" by the Christian settlers, a derivation borrowed from Spanish. Their language is composed of four vowels and 16 consonants; stress is not relevant and the morphology is less complex than Tagalog.
  With steep slopes of mountain ranges and peaks, fallow, cliffs and primary forest of tropical density, Palawan rests on the Sunda Shelf, a bridge between Borneo and the Calamianes. Its unique flora and fauna, are related more to Borneo than the other Philippine islands.


Prehistorians and naturalists consider Palawan as having been crucial not only during the Ice Age of the Pleistocene, when the sea level was lower, but also during Paleolithic and Neolithic times.
Man has lived here for thousands of years. The archaeological diggings initially conducted by Robert Fox and the staff of the National Museum in Lipunan Point (Quezon), namely, in Tabon and in nearby limestone caves, revealed the presence of human through their tools as far back as 30,000 BC.

Two types of stone industries have been found: one in Tabon Cave and the other in Duyong Cave. In more recent times (3000-500 BC) the cave became a burial site. The Manunggul Cave provided the most beautiful testimony of jar burial. This practice has not been in use for centuries, and the earliest archeological evidence of ground burial known as Palawan to this day dates from the 13th century.

Today the area is still inhabited by the Palawan people and some Tagbanua. For centuries other ethnic groups came and settled permanently or temporarily on the seacoast and on the coastal plain of southern Palawan.

In the past the Spanish missionaries failed to settle there because of malaria and piracy. Today, the coastal area and the lowlands continue to attract Christian settlers.

Since the 1930s, and especially since WWII, Palawan has been home to migrants from Luzon and the Visayas, and some Chinese merchants. Adding to population increased were government resettlement policies and uncontrolled migration of fisherfolk and peasants in search of land in a pioneer area. These people brought with them their native languages.

return to top


The Palawan, blowgun hunters and swidden cultivators have a type of economy at the juncture of two models: food gathering, hunting, and fishing on one hand; and kaingin or slash-and-burn agriculture on the other. They are living testimony of an ancient Filipino society.

Work is distributed according to sex. Women have to carry out most of the agricultural tasks, mainly clearing and weeding, but the felling of trees is reserved for men. Women harvest grains and tubers, collect wild products in the forest, fish with a hook and the line and with a net. They prepare the food and look after the children. Men can also participate in agricultural works like planting and weeding, but their favorite activities are hunting with a blowgun or with dogs and spear fishing with a trap or with a spear gun and goggles. While the women weave basketry, the men are responsible for building the houses and the rice granaries. The division of work is neither absolute nor marked by prohibition or exclusivity.

The production of rice, the chief staple food varies according to the lowland and highland areas. In contrast to the fertile soil found in the hilly areas of Punang, the landscape of the Makagwa Tamlang highlands is abrupt and their fields are smaller and less productive. Swidden agriculture needs a low demographic density and space and time in order to rotate properly. Rice is grown in association with tubers and the uma or kaingin (swidden). Private ownership in land is concept and practice totally alien to the Palawan tradition, being introduced by new Christian settlers.

In the highlands of the system of production and consumption is more self-sufficient. The main resource of cash income is the bagtik, the resin of huge almap trees. It is processed outside Palawan to make copal Manila, but the Palawan do not control this market. The hard labor entailed in bagtik gathering transportation in the forest has introduced the national currency into Palawan economy, but remains a very modern source of income for the highlanders.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

In Palawan cosmogony Ampu, the Master, wove the world and created several kinds of humanity, hence he is also called Nagsalad, the Weaver. He is the supreme deity in a system of religious thought that can be qualified as "theist" and  "animist." He is a protective watching presence, always invisible to tawbanar or the real people. In the verticality of the universe, andunawan represents his abode. While people live on dunya or earth, another benevolent and protective deity stays in lalangaw, the median space. This is Diwata, a mediator between humans and Ampu. Since this world is made up of a vertical succession of realms, conceived of as a series of plates, there are other invisible humanities beings, and deities. However, the pantheon is not organized in a fixed pyramidal order. The langgam, also called saytan, are ambiguous beings who can be harmful to humans as taw mara-at or "evil-doers," but who can also be taw manunga or " good-doers," benevolent bringers of inspiration and knowledge.

Other deities are more directly associated with human destiny: Ampu at Paray, The Master of Rice Linamin at Barat, The Lady of the Monsoon Winds Linamin at Bulag, The Lady of the Dry Season; or Upa Kuyaw, Grandfather Thunder. They are linked to natural phenomena and to an order which relies on the respect of humans for the Adat, such as the rule prohibiting incest, the violation of which can destroy the whole world, triggering off earthquakes, landslides, and a deluge. Innumerable beings, treemen, dwarves, ogres, giants and animal-like creatures, all invisible but so very present on earth, interfere with men in an aggressive manner, causing anguish, diseases, and death. In Palawan religious and cosmogonic thought, the order of the universe relies upon the good behavior of the people.

The relation to the Invisibles and Deities is established by the baylan or shaman during the main rituals already mentioned and by lay persons in a daily need to relate to Ampu, the ancestors and the benevolent or to deal with the Masters of things and chase away Evil-doers. Complex calls and prayers help the people to overcome anguish and to cure with medicinal plants their sick relatives and friends.

In highland culture ulit designates the voyage of the soul of a shaman, a major religious experience. It is related to the cosmogonic mythology, and to the vertical succession of realms inhabited by good-oriented or ill-oriented people with whom he has to negotiate.
Six types of prayers have to be mastered by the shaman: sagina, invocation; tingkag, call; ampang at kagungurangan, speeches to the ancestors; ampang at kamamatayan, speeches to the dead; gayat at lapis, invitation to the protective souls; lumbaga, chanted dialogue between the shaman's soul karuduwa and the invisibles during the voyage. Aside from these, the eight different stylized forms of address when they cure with medicinal plants have to be learned: tagtag, magic formula, tagtag at siring, imitative magic formula, baras at ubat, words to the medicine, ampang at kayu, speech to the tree, ampang at Mara-at nang Taw, speech to a Malevolent, sumpa, vow, nangnang, "evil spell," and batya, magic spell for love, war, speaking mastery, snakes' bites and poisons.

Tagtag is used in case of a disease, by siring or imitation, and is characterized by a lapidary formulation marked by an assonance, as the following treatment of a jaundice of a newly born baby shows:

I apply you by friction
Tupak, your designation
He might turn out marroon
Don't cause more imitation
Similar to you, marroon.

The annual celebration of tambilaw at lungsud is offered for the fertility of the earth, the harmony of the world, chasing away pests and other diseases of the rice, hoping for good meteorological conditions, and regular alternation of heat and rain.

return to top
  Visual Arts and Crafts

For daily uses the Palawan make functional objects which are delicate and simple. The works, made of rattan, wood, bamboo and leaves, emanate form nature and integrate into it. There is no violent contrast of colors, but a variation of greens and yellows.

Ukir, the geometric motifs, are made by incision and pyrography. The Palawan people do not paint nor do they weave colorful threads. They have no cotton cloth or ikat, but they do weave rattan, bamboo and other palm leaves like buri or pandan, depending on local availability. The technique of tapa making was revived during the Japanese Occupation. It consists of beating up the bark of a tree to make baag and a piece of cloth for tapis for women. However, the Palawan through trade acquires cloth as well as iron, brass and chinaware with seafaring people, a centuries-old tradition.

Fashion varies according to the subcultures, culminating in ornamentation and glamour in the Punang Iraray and the Kalang Danum areas. The sigpit, with a rectangular cut of the leaves, enhanced with shells and/or sequins complements the tapis. Those worn in the highlands have colorful squares, while the group on the coastal plain and the seashore wear sulindang varied printed batik motifs.

The men create from hard material like iron, wood, bamboo tubes, while the women work on materials like leaves, clothes and food.

Woven baskets in the highlands are among the finest in the archipelago and are linked to rice cultivation.

Men's artifacts are an offshoot of hunting and the cutting of the trees to clear a new field. With the help of the labungan (malay forge), the men prepare the knives and spears. They carve lalo (wooden pestle), lasung (mortar), and handles for their bolo. They sometimes carve luyang, a bracelet for their future wife in the hard black mantalinaw wood. They also carve out of the trunk of a narra tree the long-necked kusyapi, the bangka, an outrigger canoe. They master the art of making sapukan, the blowgun, out of three bamboo poles, karbang (the quiver), in the internodeof a bamboo, as well as alap, a double tobacco container.

return to top

Literary Arts

There are charming evenings, when all the hamlet children aged 7 to 11 gather in house and frolic with the adolescents and adults. Palawan children enjoy a lot of freedom going at night from house to house in search of delicacies and fun. But some evenings they spend answering igum, riddles. An igum game compels one to think and reply as quick as one can.

Igum ni Upu samula:
Duwang raja
Kasdang lakbang
Anu atin? (Atin lungsud)

Grandfather's riddle starts:
Two plates
Same diameter
What is this? (This is universe)

Igum ni Upu samula:
Kaya magbaras baba
Atay ja magbaras
Anu atin? (Atin Kusyapi)

Grandfather's riddle starts:
His mouth does not speak
His heart is speaking
What is it? (This is the lute)

Igum refer to natural objects and phenomena, parts of the body, plants, animals, elements of matter, objects and tools, musical instruments, and more abstract notions like the soul or myths.

In the Palawan highlands etiological myths are called tuturan at kagunggurangan. Etymologically, tuturan or turu means to pinpoint, to show, to teach, to give news, to impart information; therefore it can be literally translated as the teaching of the ancestors. It consists of a stock of information and experience, a traditional knowledge transmitted from generation to generation to explain natural phenomena, the origin of things, a cosmology, and a demonology.

In this oral tradition there are a few major sets of myths consisting of 30 or more variants that share many semantic components. They are organized into a specific narrative pattern such as the myth of the creation of the world, the origin of rice and tubers, the drought, the flood, the seven Thunder Brothers, the geographical metamorphosis of the hero Tambug and his wife Bihang. And there are also shorter narratives relating the origin of birds, constellations, and certain human activities. Very few relate a social, religious or cultural rule, except those prohibiting incest.

Palawan myths are rather concise and brief, for they aim to "inform," and the literary form of such a "teaching" is simple and straightforward. The opening formula "Once upon a time the ancestors said . . ." is not compulsory, and the conclusion is rather abrupt: "That's all, that is the end."

The narrative can be brief or may last several nights. Many cunning and hilarious tales teach the people how to work, share, be happy in marriage, trade, cure, eat, and behave in this society according to its moral code based on bagi sharing and tabang mutual help. These include "Muddy Datu," "Porcupine," "Two Land Snails," "The Good and Bad Brother-in-law," "The Three Sons of Raja," "Sawragar, the rich merchant," "The Monkey and the Civet," "The Quail and the Owl," and "Scorpion Datu."

Parallel to the narrative tradition in prose and spoken dialogue is a wealth of long, chanted narratives that relate the valorous deeds and ordeals of a hero. The chant built up to a crisis, a flight, a conflict, a war and its resolution. It is a fresco, a mosaic of Palawan society that is depicted: nature, social institutions such kinship, social organization, religious concepts and cosmogony, the history of manners and customs of a people with an oral tradition.

In the Palawan highlands, tultul or epics are chanted for various reasons: to honor a visitor; entertain the people on the eve of a wedding; thank the Master of Prey, a Lali, after a successful hunt in the forest; or appease the Master of Game whose animal has just been caught.

An epic is chanted only at night. The bard must stop with the first rays of the sun, as singing during the day is forbidden. Night is the time for the shamanistic voyage, ecstatic, trance, and direct contact with the Invisibles.

The poems are chanted with a musical accompaniment, an art of magibut or playing together. The men play the kusyapi or lute, and the women the pagang or bamboo zither; an alternating song accompanies the music between a man and a woman, and the instruments are tuned to hemitonic scale with seven pitches: laplap kulilal or kulilal touch. This scale conveys peculiar emotions, the smaller intervals of the kulilal scale being more appropriate to express love. There are duets, trios or quartettes or sometimes even larger ensembles. The man points the neck of the lute towards the woman he secretly loves, the bamboo zither completing a triangle formed with two lutes, in the shadow of a kalang banwa or outdoors on moonlit nights. The pagang player follows the music of the lutes on which she has previously tuned her instrument. Any of the listeners can reply with a stanza, and thus unfold alternate songs that can develop into a joust and last the whole night. The sung poems do not tell of courting a young girl for such courtship is very discreet in these valleys. The melodies are traditional but enriched by recent compositions.

Passion is measured by numerous opposing poles, a microcosm of feelings shaping a kaleidoscope, whose shimmering lights turn around distant poles: love/death; fleetingness/constancy; elopement/retraction; invitation/rejection; pleasure/pain; desire/obstacles to desire; and possession/resistance.

Some songs are a communication within the context of a forbidden love:

kapal tumilatak
itut bulan sumilak
sapantun pandak-pandak

unuhun ku unuhun
hindi kita gunahun

mamaan lisak dalan
limpakan kung linduan
atay ku mangan-mangan

pikpik papikatan
silay tanduk lumisang
itut bulan sumimbang
bingayan gila dupang

dagat manilatak
babai pandak-pandak
pantun bulak-bulak

Far is the boat you ride on
The moon that shines
Pandak-pandak flower, you are small.

What shall I do, what shall I do?
I really do not want you!

Beside the bunga tree by the road
I planted a sign
My empty stomach makes noises.

Rat's ear grass, rat's ear grass
Her friends are known and famous
The moon that shines
Is driving me out of my mind.

The wave that fights the sea
Is like the short maiden
Is very much the pandak-pandak flower.

return to top


Macdonald, Charles. L'eloignement du ciel. Invention ie mémoire des mythes chez les Palawan du sud des Philippines. Paris: Maison des Sciences de Homme, 1988.

____________. Sinsin. Le théâtre des Génies. Le cycle rituel féminin de Punang-Irarây, Palawan, Philippines. Paris: CNRS, 1990.

____________. Une société simple. Parenté et residence chez les Palawan (Philippines). Paris: institut d'Ethnologie Musée de l'Homme, 1977.

Macdonald, Charles, Antonio Perez, and Adelaida Lim-Perez. Un violon pour les Diwata. Quezon City: Film Center of the University of the Philippines, 1983.

Maceda, Jose and Alain Martenot. Music of the Sama of Sitankai. Record. CNRS/ORSTOM, Paris, 1982.

Maceda, Jose Nicole Revel-Macdonald, and I made Bandem. The Music of the Kenyah and Modang in Kalimantan Timur. Record. Quezon City: UNESCO/University of the Philippines, 1979.

Maceda, Jose. "Palawan Highland Music: Musical elements." Unpublished manuscript, 1987.

Musique des Hautes-Terres Palawan, Philippines. Jose Maceda and Nicole Revel-Macdonald (eds). (Palawan Highland Music). Collection Musée de l'Homme/CNRS, Paris, 1987, 1st ed; 2nd ed Compact Record, Paris, 1992.

Philippine Craftsman. Vol XI, No 9, (Mar 1914).

Regional Map of the Philippines-IVB. Manila: Edmundo R. Abigan Jr, 1988.

Revel-Macdonald, Nicole. Le Palawan. Phonologie, Catégories, Morphologie. Paris, SELAF, 1978.

_____________. Kundiman: Une épopée Palawan chantée par Usuj. Les Cahiers de l'Homme. Paris: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1983.

_____________. Fleurs de Paroles: Histoire naturelle Palawan. Vol I, Les dons de Nagsalad, Paris: Peeters-SELAF, 1990; II, La maitrise d'un savoir et l'art d'une relation, Paris: Peeters-SELAF, 1991; III, Chants d'amour/Chants d'oiseaux. Paris: Peeters-SELAF, 1992.

_____________. "Oral Literature Among the Palawan of the Mäkagwaq Valley." Dialogue for Development. Francisco Demetrio (ed). Cagayan de Oro City: Xavier University, 1975.

_____________. "Kulilal at Taw at Suluk. Un Exemple de poésie Lyrique Palawan." L'Homme, Vol XVI, (1976), 129-150.

_____________. "Bisara: Jural debate in Palawan Customary Law." Kinaadman. Vol XV, No 2, (1993).

Revel-Macdonald, Nicole et al. Chants Alternes. Asie du Sud-Est, SUDESTASIIC. Paris, 1992.

return to top