FFE Magazine

Philippine HiStory Today: The Ancient Filipino Writes

Hello my friends! I was just browsing through my granddaughter’s lettering workbook the other day and was amazed by how straight her letters were. I remember in my time (I don’t know about yours!) my teacher would walk around our desks and inspect if our ABC’s were straight or cursive as they should be. I received a lot of whacking from that class!


My granddaughter is lucky today since whacking is not allowed anymore. But besides that, she is also lucky her generation lives in a world where computers, cellphones and tablets are everywhere. I remember when we had to write our papers on a typewriter! Naku, one mistake and we had to re-type the whole page!


But imagine what our ancestors had to use to write. Did you know our ancestors had their own writing system before the Spaniards came, used as far back as 900 AD!  It is a fact that has been proven by one very simple note found more than 20 years ago.


I’m referring to one of our national treasures: the Laguna Copperplate Inscription. But first, grab a coffee as I take you to the year 1989.


1989, Laguna de Bay


On the southeastern shores of Lumban in Laguna de Bay, where the LumbangRiver empties into the lake, a man was dredging sand for concrete. The LagunaLake had long been a favourite spot among dealers for antique finds like porcelain, so the man was on the lookout for treasures like that.


Unfortunately, what he saw while dredging was something else: a rolled up piece of metal, very black from ages of being covered by mud. It looked like junk! But the man, suspecting that the 8 by 12 inch metal still held some sort of value because it carried strange writings, kept it. Besides, he needed the extra money to feed his family.


Map of Laguna Lake


With much effort, he found a dealer who bought it at a very cheap price. The dealer also had difficulty looking for an antique collector who would buy the crumpled metal of unknown origins. Out of desperation, he soon gave up and approached the last resort on his list of buyers: the Philippine National Museum.


It was very fortunate for the whole Filipino race that that piece of junk landed in the hands of the NationalMuseum, the caretaker of our heritage. That piece of junk held very valuable information on the kind of world our ancestors lived in… but it would be months before anyone realised its true worth.


Deciphering the Code, Manila


The story continues a year later in Manila. Dutch anthropologist and director of Mindoro’s Mangyan Assistance & Research Centre Antoon Postma visited the NationalMuseum to see his friends. That simple visit led to probably the most important step in unlocking the Philippines’ ancient history. Postma was just the right man to understand what the piece of metal from LagunaLake held.


Antoon Postma

Antoon Postma


Postma’s friends showed him the metal and he was swept off his feet. To him, the writings looked strangely Indonesian, but he wasn’t sure. He photographed the metal after numerous visits so that he can work on a translation. He also gave it a name: Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI).


The Laguna Copperplate Inscription (Photo by Roslyn Arayata, 2009)

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription (Photo by Roslyn Arayata, 2009)



A closer look at the writings


What could the strange script mean? This was what Postma wanted to know. The writing looked like a mixture of Old Tagalog (baybayin), Sanskrit (developed in India), Old Javanese (Indonesia) and Old Malay (Southeast Asia). With the help of a colleague from Indonesia, ancient scripts expert Dr JG de Casparis, he soon shed light to the mystery.


You’ll be in for quite a surprise.


21 April 900 AD


On the 21st day of April, year 900, a man by the name of Namwaran had been officially and totally cleared of his debts by the Chief of Tundun Kingdom. Namwaran’s debt to the Chief of Dewata amounted to 1 Kati and 8 Suwarna, or around 926.4 grammes of gold. If we convert this to modern gold prices, that is worth Php1.7m today!


The LCI, considered the oldest existing written document made in the Philippines, was about the payment of a debt. Could you believe that?


The LCI, translated by historian Ambeth Ocampo from the original by Postma

The LCI, translated by historian Ambeth Ocampo from the original by Postma


Further investigation showed that the LCI was ‘written’ by hammering the letters on the thin copper plate using sharp instruments. The last sentence also trailed off, meaning there is more to the text of the LCI but that part may be lost to us. This isn’t all: the text itself showed many other important findings that shed light to our ancient history.




The thin piece of metal that’s more than 1000 years old may contain writing that seems trivial compared to other historical artifacts we have. But its true value lies in the places it mentions, the circumstances of poor Namwaran, the belief systems of the ancient Filipinos and the fact that we had a systematised language before the Spanish came.


Before LCI was discovered, much of what we knew about ancient Philippines was based on accounts the Spanish explorers wrote. One such example was Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta’s notes when he joined Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan’s exploration of the Philippines.


Pre-Hispanic Filipinos distinguished by social class as illustrated in the 1595 Spanish manuscript Boxer Codex

Pre-Hispanic Filipinos distinguished by social class as illustrated in the 1595 Spanish manuscript Boxer Codex


Here are some more striking points about the LCI:


  • Traces of languages from India, Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia proves ancient Filipinos traded with their rich neighbour, the Sri Vijaya Empire
  • Ancient Filipinos traded with its neighbours by sea
  • The structured written language (that uses titles and dates) tell us that ancient Filipinos conducted their affairs using a complex system of communication
  • Hindu-Buddhist influences show that the Philippines was culturally connected with these civilisations before Islam and Christianity arrived in Asia
  • Ancient Filipinos had a system of hierarchy among their chieftains considering the Chief of Tundun was able to clear a man’s debt to another chief
  • Gold was a form of currency, which means goldsmithing was popular and that everyone must have possessed a certain amount during that time
  • Class was an important social marker and slavery was a form of punishment
  • The places Tondo (Tundun) in Manila  and Paila (Pailah), Binwangan and Pulilan (Puliran) in Bulacan existed more than 1000 years ago
  • Tondo is the site of an ancient and influencial settlement (some say kingdom) headed by a powerful chief in the year 900 AD


Aside from answering questions about our ancient heritage, the LCI also unlocks more questions about our civilisation. See how a humble piece of metal (thought of as junk!) was able to tell us a lot of things about our proud past.


Regrettably, the LCI only provides a small glimpse of that grand past. Let us hope we uncover more treasures like that, and that private collectors allow more scholars to unlock the secrets in their stash!


The LCI is very important to our heritage. I hope that more and more Filipinos become familiar with its existence. Doesn’t it make you proud to know how complex ancient Philippine civilisation was?


Personally, it makes me hungry for more similar findings! What can you say now that you know something about our past? Share your thoughts below!








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