IN 1969, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal with an international crew that included scientists went through a voyage in a boat named Ra, after the sun god of Egypt. I was still a student at that time and I eagerly followed the voyage through the radio and newspapers. I later bought a copy of the National Geographic magazine that had a lengthy feature on the Ra. The boat's design, construction and materials were copied from those of the ancient Eygptians.

Heyerdahl was able to prove that through their papyrus boats, the Eygptians became the world's earliest explorers and could have been the first settlers in South America.

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Last year, a good forty years after the Ra's historic voyage, I was again excited to read about the construction of the balanghai -- one of the prehistoric boats that plied in the waters of our archipelago and around Southeast Asia.

I learned that the balanghai aptly named "Diwata ng Lahi" is now in our city. I read about the boat's design, how it was constructed and the wood were faithfully copied from the balanghai boats that were discovered in Butuan City in mid 1970s.

Months ago, when I took Archaeology 260 - Archaeological Resource Management under Prof. Wilfredo Ronquillo in UP, who is also the current head of the archaeology division of the National Museum, I did an extensive research about the balanghai boats in connection with my course. The research has helped enrich my knowledge about who the ancient inhabitants of our land were long before we were supposedly discovered by the Spaniards and were called "Indios" and later, "Filipinos."

I liked what I read in one of the galleries in the National Museum: "Vibrant was the art of the islands to be later named the Philippines before Spain came to colonize it in the 16th century. The tradition of textile, pottery and adornment was vigorous. Mountains were terraced, boats were built and rituals were performed."

Boats were built...It was Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan, who first wrote about a boat that he saw in the shores of Samar that the people called "balanghai." But it was in Libertad, Butuan City in the mid 1970s that a group of pothunters (those that excavate antiques without legal permission from the National Museum and local government authorities) reported that they found a large wooden boat that to them was not a financially rewarding discovery.

As an old saying goes, "one man's garbage is another man's gold." The wooden watercarft turned out to be a "balanghai" and this is considered the first of such kind that was excavated in Southeast Asia.

Subsequently, a total of eight balanghais were unearthed by archaeologists in Butuan and the Philippine government has declared them as National Cultural Treasures. These are large wooden plank built and edge pegged boats whose design and construction are similar to those in other Southeast Asian countries. The first two boats recovered have radio carbon dates of 320 A.D. or 1,690 years and 1250 A.D.

The discovery of the balanghais showed that more than a thousand years ago, the Filipinos were already skilled mariners and expert boat builders.

The late historian William Henry Scott in his book “Prehispanic Source Materials” (Quezon City.1984.pp.80-81) wrote that by the time of the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century, the Filipino merchants and mercenaries were spread all over Southeast Asian countries centuries earlier. One used to send 400 tons of pepper a year to China from Malacca, and another was appointed commander of the garrison of the King of Achen stationed in Aru.

Maguindanaoans were among the foreign merchants in Martaban (Burma) when it surrendered to the King of Pegu, and Luzones were among the crewmen captured in a private vessel off the Chinese coast; and Luzon shipping was plying the waters between Manila, Timor and Malacca, points which described a triangle that includes all of insular Southeast Asia.

If one wishes to speculate about the advent of Arabs and Arab influences in the prehispanic Philippines, a ready explanation is available -- namely that they came in vessels built, owned and manned by islanders born within that triangle.

When Magellan's ships and survivors left the Philippine waters in 1521 following his death in Mactan, they proceeded to Borneo where at the mouth of Brunei Bay, they seized a ship that was commanded by a Filipino prince who, 50 years later, was to be known as Rajah Matanda.

In that same year, when the Spaniards were sailing in Mindanao, they met a native vessel whose captain used to work in the house of Francisco Serraro, a Portuguese in Moluccas and a cousin of Magellan. It was noted that some pre hispanic Filipinos knew how to speak Portuguese and even Spanish.

Mindano and Sulu were rich trading centers that had items like pure gold, silver, wine and lacquerware. There were also huge porcelain jars from China, the famous Gujarat double ikat (tie dyed) silk patolas and Java cloth (batik?).

And a 1612 Ch'uan-chou gazetter specifically states that the P'i-she-ya raiders of 1172 used sea going vessels. They could more likely be Filipino Visayans who were well known sea raiders.

In the 16th century, their bards were still singing the romance of a hero who made a raid in grand China to win the hand of a beautiful Bohol princess.

Our forebears were expert boat builders and maritime traders of Southeast Asia. Through our balanghais, we had, as what Scott described, a "vigorous and mobile population adjusting to every environment in the archipelago, creatively producing local variations in response to resources, opportunities and culture contacts, able to trade and raid, feed and defend themselves. The facts stand in sharp contrast to the passive Philippine population depicted in grade school texts, a kind of formless cultural clay ready to be stamped with patterns introduced from abroad."

We need to support the historic sea voyage of the "Diwata ng Lahi" around our country for they are showing an important aspect of our prehispanic maritime culture that is proudly a part of our Filipino identity.