Cebu in the Philippines is beach to most of us. Bantayan, Malapascua, Camotes, even Mactan. Or marine life. Or the basilica of the Christ Child, or Santo Nino, as locals call the deity. Enter Cebu from the air and you go through the airport at Mactan, then cross the causeway where you see the low skyscrapers of the city surrounded by the urban sprawl extending to the edges of the narrow strait.
Five centuries ago, the miniscule urban area composed of huts made of hardwood, bamboo, palm fronds, and rattan lined the beach of the main island across Mactan. It was home to 2,000 people who painted their skins, filed their teeth, and traded with many places such as Surigao on Mindanao island.
At Plaza Independencia (Independence Square), the city’s central park, archaeologists have unearthed memories from the city’s past.
Discoveries include artifacts from the Spanish colonial period extending backward to precolonial times.
Before the colonial period, Plaza Independencia was an ancient cemetery where the old Cebuan royalties were buried.
Several of the teeth found in the graves showed coloring. Ancient Bisayans (people of the central Philippines) filed their teeth and colored them using roots, flowers, or red ant eggs. They even decorated their teeth with gold.
This nearly forgotten culture modified the shape of their heads which may have been for status and aesthetic purposes. They may have done this by putting moulding materials at the head while the person was growing up.
The times were not so peaceful. The big island of Cebu and surrounding islands were divided under many competing rulers, each a potential ally or enemy to each other. Wars were happening often. We have seen possible evidence of this through fractures in a skeleton’s forearm which was caused by the action of a sharp object.
Spain eventually claimed the islands. Cebu was one of its early colonial settlements and a fort was built at the site which was to become Plaza Independencia.
Now it’s a place where you can chill in the early morning or late afternoon while watching the city around do its daily business.
Text by Skippy
Photos by Skippy and the University of the Philippines-Archaeological Studies Program