Batanes Islands Archaeology

Batanes Islands Archaeology


Pacific navigator, Batanes Islands, Philippines | Ivatan cultural heritage

Archaeological survey in the Batanes Islands, northern Philippines.

In 2006 I joined an archaeological field study in the Batanes Islands, in the Philippines, together with Prof. David Blundell, Prof. Peter Bellwood, and an international team from the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.

The 2006 Batanes Islands archaeological survey team with Prof. Peter Bellwood (second from right) | Sabtang Island

Ivatan Idjang fortress | Sabtang

Archaeological survey | Batan

Across the Pacific rainbow

During my post-graduate studies in Taiwan at National Chengchi University (NCCU), I wrote my Master's thesis on the Bunun, one of the island's 16 Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, historically known as the Formosan Aborigines and collectively referred to today as "Indigenous Taiwanese Peoples".

Comparative linguists and anthropologists had theorized for some time that the Formosan languages were among the earliest Austronesian languages, and that some of the speakers of these languages were skilled ocean navigators who had successfully migrated south from Taiwan to the Philippines.

From the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Austronesian-speaking peoples spread as far west as Madagascar, and as far east as Hawaii.

Today, Austronesian languages comprise a super-family of over 1,250 languages dispersed throughout maritime Southeast Asia and the Pacific (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Distribution of the Austronesian Language Family | Source: Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI)

In 2005, I had the good fortune of discussing this topic with anthropologist David Blundell and archaeologist Peter Bellwood at Academia Sinica, a research institute located on the outskirts of Taipei, where I often went to use the library services. I clearly remember the cold rainy night when Peter Bellwood produced from his pocket a piece of green jade discovered in an ancient site in the Batanes Islands:

"If the linguists are right about Taiwan as the homeland of Austronesian languages, there must be material evidence, and I think I've found it!"

Peter explained that this type of stone, namely a jade classified as Taiwan nephrite, could only have come from Taiwan due to the unique green tint, and Earth scientist Yoshiyuki Iizuka at the Academia Sinica research lab would analyze it in the morning to see if it was true.

The results came back positive – the jade was from the east coast of Taiwan.

I was intrigued by the scientific evidence supporting the "Out of Taiwan" hypothesis – that is, a prehistoric movement of language, material and people out of Taiwan – a cultural diaspora that reached across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Could Taiwan be the "mother island" of the Pacific?

Due to the fact that the Batanes Islands are the nearest island chain to Taiwan, Peter suggested it would be an outstanding place to conduct archaeological research on Taiwan jade.

I was more than keen to go.

Steven Martin (left) and Peter Bellwood (right) interview | Photo and camera work by David Blundell – Basco, Batan, The Philippines | April 2, 2006

Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas

In March of 2006, after attending the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) conference at the University of the Philippines in Manila, I asked Peter if I could tag along as a photographer on his upcoming archaeological adventure to Batanes.

A memorable and educational expedition followed, and a selection of the photographs I took were used in the development of the Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas under the care of David Blundell.

The Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas is part of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI), a global consortium of people who share the vision of creating a distributed virtual library of cultural information based at University of California, Berkeley.

Traveling from the port of Ivana, Batan, to the port of San Vicente, Sabtang | San Vicente Ferrer Church, c. 1785, in the distance

Batanes geography

There are ten islands in the Batanes, three of which are occupied. The provincial capital is Basco, located on the island of Batan, and the highest point is an active volcano, Mt. Iraya, at just over 1,000 meters (see photo below).

The iconic Mt. Iraya | Elevation 1,009m | last erupted in 1454

The islands are located south of the Bashi Channel, midway between Taiwan and Luzon, an area known for strong winds, swift ocean currents, high waves, and large tropical storms.

Batanes lies at the heart of Typhoon Alley, so named for frequent and notorious typhoons. The satellite image below shows the eerie eye of Super Typhoon Meranti surrounding the island of Itbayat on September 13, 2016.

The eerie eye of Super Typhoon Meranti surrounding Itbayat, Batanes | September 13, 2016

The islands were built through geologic and physiographic processes, whereby ancient coral reefs formed a limestone base coated millions of years later in thick volcanic ash, like a dried-up vanilla sponge cake with a layer of fresh chocolate icing. As an ongoing process spanning 35 million years, the limestone core of Batanes has been steadily uplifted by tectonic forces while at the same time peppered with minerals and rocks of all sizes from volcanic explosions, resulting in distinctive landscapes host to diverse flora and fauna.

Today, the Batanes islands form a unique karst landscape of limestone cliffs, caves, and underground streams, ringed with volcanic stones now tumbled and polished in the surf to form expansive bays and boulder beaches.

Batanes Islands Geography | Volcanic rocks tumbled in the surf to form a boulder beach | Limestone cliffs in the distance

Figure 2 (below) shows the position of the Batanes Islands, including the three main islands explored during the research, namely Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat.

Figure 2: The Batanes Islands, staging grounds for the Austronesian diaspora | Source: Peter Bellwood, Australia National University (ANU)

The Ivatan Language, culture and history

The Ivatan people are believed to have migrated to the islands during the Neolithic period, approximately 4,000 years ago. Their exact origin remains a topic of debate.

Ivatan is an Austronesian language, representing an early branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages (i.e. Bashiic languages), which are distinct from the Formosan languages on Taiwan. Cultural and linguistic connections with Taiwan and Bashiic languages include the Yami, a fishing, seafaring, and boat-building culture on Orchid Island, located just off Taiwan's southeast coast.

The Ivatans originally built storm-proof thatched houses until limestone construction was introduced by the Spanish in the16th century. The long-lasting limestone buildings have become cultural icons for the tourism industry.

Ivatan Fisher | Chavayan, Sabtang

Ivatan limestone houses | Batan

Ivatan fisher and family | Sabtang

Cleaning Mahi-mahi | Batan

Drying fish | Batan

Batanes Islands oral history videos

These conversations (posted on YouTube and on the ECAI website) were recorded by David Blundell and myself in Ivana, Batan Island. We carried out the interviews on the veranda of the home of Mr (Pablo) and Mrs (Anquilina) Valientes, with additional contributions from their grandson Edwin Valientes and other relatives.

Conversations with Pablo and Anquilina Valientes | Ivana, Batan


Pablo Valientes, in his 90s, describes Ivatan language and recounts the local resistance against the Japanese occupation of the island during 1941-1945. The movement was known as BISUMI, Fighters for Basco, Ivana, Sabtang, Uyugan, Mahatao, and Itbayat (six municipalities of the Batanes).

Anquilina Valientes, in her 80s, discusses Ivatan language comparatively with other local language dialects in terms of expressions and variations in other villages and islands.

Archaeologist for a week

I relished the opportunity to play archaeologist for a week, and it left me with a lasting appreciation for this very important type of work, helping to piece together the improbable story of human history from whatever clues our ancestors left behind.

The Batanes Islands were the key staging grounds for a well-established ancient maritime trading network. This was evident from the discovery of Taiwan nephrite workshops, where ancient craftsmen shaped tools and created art. They would then have traded their products, sending them southward over vast distances of open sea, taking advantage of a sociocultural and commercial network which spread right across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

What impressed me most in Batanes archaeology was the richness of each site, the number of sites, the potential for finding new sites, and the vast extent of the maritime trading networks the sites represented.

Random sampling by soil auger | Archaeological survey at Batan

Roadside archaeological site | Sabtang

Peter Bellwood leading the team

Ivatan Idjang fortress | Sabtang

Ivatan Idjang fortress | Sabtang

View from the Idjang fortress | Sabtang

In the good company of distinguished professionals, I had the opportunity to witness the recovery of ancient artifacts from beneath the soil, and to make a personal connection with the spirit of human endeavor. Peter's team had found clear evidence of workshops producing earthenware, jewelry, adzes, fishing tools, and other artifactual materials, some of which were indeed crafted out of Taiwan nephrite.

David Blundell describes such artifacts as the voice of Austronesian history, speaking to us from the ancient past, imagining them as, "Austronesian-speaking stones."

Through excavations at archaeological sites in Taiwan, the Philippines, East Malaysia, Southern Vietnam, and peninsular Thailand, green nephrite from Fengtian in eastern Taiwan tells a story of ancient maritime trade networks and cultural communication in a 3,000-km-wide halo around the South China Sea (Hung et al., 2007).

Figure 3 (below) displays Taiwan nephrite artifacts uncovered from sites in the Batanes Islands, including a Fengtian (Taiwan) nephrite adze (A) from the Sunget site, Batan, which dates to between 1200 and 800 BC (Hung & Iizuka, 2013).

Figure 3: (A) Nephrite adze from Sunget, Batan. (B and C) Three-pointed lingling-o and pelta-shaped nephrite segment from Savidug, Sabtang | Source: Dr. Hsiao-Chun Hung

In Batanes, I gained a new appreciation for the study of ancient history, as well as for the craftsmanship of the ancient islanders. Archaeology embodies the spirit of human exploration – not exploring only space, but exploring also the long-forgotten past. Working with the team in Batanes opened my eyes to the value of different methods of research, the joy of collaborating with friends and colleagues from different universities, and the importance of publishing findings in peer-reviewed journals so that all future researchers in this area can benefit.

Exploratory research | Batan Island

Batanes photo journal Highlights

Below, photos taken during the Batanes Island trip with David Blundell in late March and early April, 2006.

Click on photos to enlarge, or visit my Batanes Photo Album.

Batan Island

Mahatao Lighthouse, Batan | Mt. Iraya in the background

Surfing waves | Batan

Ivatan boat builder | Mahatao, Batan

The Basco Church | Batan

Site survey location | Batan

Batan Island beach

Ivatan youth | Basco

Sabtang Island

Arriving at San Vicente | Sabtang

Water taxi | Navigator of the Seas | Sabtang Lighthouse

Exploring near Chavayan | Sabtang

Chavayan Beach | Sabtang

Ivatan fisherman | Chavayan, Sabtang

Ivatan House | Malakdang, Sabtang

Ivatan house and culture | Malakdang, Sabtang

Ivatan Community Art Basco, Batan

Batanes Heritage Center | National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, Provincial Office

During my time with David Blundell in Basco, Batan, we got to spend a few unexpected days around town after learning that the weekly Asian Spirit flight had been delayed.

It was a great opportunity to spend time with the Ivatan community at the Batanes Heritage Center, where Ivatan youth were painting a mural telling the story of navigation and settlement in the islands.

Pictured here, the mural begins with a canoe driving through the surf and landing in the Batanes Islands under the blazing sun. The story continues with the development of the characteristic thatched roof houses, agriculture, pottery, and the arrival of the Catholic religion. The third section of the mural welcomes the computer age, with sports, education, and modern transportation connecting the islands with the world.

Ivatan youth imagine their cultural history through art | Basco

Ivatan community art illustrating the diaspora and evolution of Austronesian culture

Personal interviews with Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim and Prof. Peter Bellwood in The Philippines

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to personally interview two of the most accomplished scholars in Austronesian Studies, namely Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim from the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), and Prof. Peter Bellwood from Australia National University (ANU).

Interviews and video arranged by David Blundell.

Wilhelm Solheim (left) and David Blundell (right) at the University of the Philippines Diliman | April 6, 2006

Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim II

The interview topic in this short film is the cultural history of the Austronesian speaking peoples, and in particular Professor Solheim's Nusantao hypothesis. Professor Dr. Wilhelm Solheim II was instrumental in developing the Archaeological Studies Program at UPD.

Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim II | Source: National Geographic 1979 | Secrets from the Past: Ch 2 Who Uncovers Ancient Secrets?

Prof. Solheim died on July 25, 2014, at the age of 89. It was an honor to have met him and I hope viewers can appreciate something of his personal warmth from this short interview.

Interviewing Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim | Clip 6 | University of the Philippines, Diliman (UPD) campus | 2006

Prof. Peter Bellwood

In this short clip, Prof. Peter Bellwood shares his personal history and educational background, and discusses his interests in Austronesian studies. He suggests to those interested in this field of study to choose one of three main areas of research, namely comparative linguistics, archaeology, or human genetics.

Interviewing Peter Bellwood at the Basco Pier, Batan Island | 2006

Relevant books by Peter Bellwood

Online Learning Resources

Ivatan Studies Journal | Graduate School Research

Thank you for visiting my Batanes Islands Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to the Batanes or other Austronesian heritage sites, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin