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The Tabon Cave Complex and all of Lipuun

Date of Submission: 16/05/2006
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)
State, Province or Region:
West Coast of Palawan
Coordinates: N 8-10 E 116-118
Ref.: 1860
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Description

The Tabon Cave Complex and all of Lipuun Point is located on the west coast of Palawan.  It is located on a limestone promontory which is visible from any direction for many kilometers and honeycombed with at least 200 caves and rockshelters.  This point is called Lipuun by the local people but marked "Abion Head" on charts made from British surveys in 1851.  The point is about 104 hectares in are and is formed by a number of rounded limestone domes separated by deep chasms. 

The some 200 caves located in the limestone formation are collectively known as the Tabon Caves, after the main cave, called Tabon, so named after a megapode bird that digs its nest into the ground. This was the site to first establish the presence of humans in the Philippines during the Pleistocene. The different cave sites document through a corpus of C-14 dates a virtually continuous occupation between at least 50,000 years ago and ca. 9,000 BP, which have been widely cited (Bellwood 1997, Bulbeck 1981, Galipaud and Semah 1993) because the Tabon Cave is one of the very few sites in Southeast Asia to have yielded Pleistocene fossil Homo sapiens. The data provide new chronological data on the questions of Pleistocene Homo sapiens settlement on the margins of Sundaland.

The Tabon Cave, itself, is the site where possibly the oldest Homo sapiens sapiens fossil evidence in Southeast Asia in the form of a tibia fragment dating to 47,000+/- 11-10,000 years ago (IV-2000-T-97) has been found (Dizon et al, 2002, Annex 8). There are also a right mandible dating to 31,000 +-8-7,000 years ago (PXIII-T-436) and a frontal bone dating to 16,500 +- 2,000 years ago (previously dated to 22,000-24,000 BP). The dates are based on isotopic 230 Th/U 234 ratio. Another fossil mandibular fragment raises the issue of a possible colonization of Palawan by Pongidae during the Upper Pleistocene (16,500 +- 2,000 BP).

These caves contained an astonishing wealth and an extensive time-range of cultural materials: a flake tool tradition which dates from the Late Pleistocene and early post-Pleistocene periods including a highly developed jar burial complex which appeared during the Late Neolithic and continued on to the developed Metal Age; and finally, porcelains and stoneware indicating local trade with China during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. The excavations have revealed more than 50,000 years of Philippine prehistory and; south and East Asian relationships.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Palawan, on the southwestern side of the archipelago is a northeast, southwest trending long island that serves a natural bridge between Borneo, and thence to the mainland of Asia. Geologically it is part of the island of Borneo. In fact the flora and fauna are more related to Borneo rather than the rest of the Philippines. During the glacial periods, Palawan was a land bridge to Borneo allowing early man, fauna and flora to enter the archipelago. Due to its position, it is crucial to the movement of peoples and biota into Central and Northern Philippines.

Archaeological sites in Palawan have been reported even as early as 1922 when Dr. Carl Guthe visited the El Nido (Bacuit) area during the expedition of the University of Michigan (1922-1925). Four caves were excavated by this University. The finds were discussed by Dr. Solheim (1964a:81) in his study of the "Iron Age" in central Philippines. One of the caves was re-excavated by Robert Fox in 1965, which upgraded the site from an "Iron Age" to a Neolithic site.  Mr. E.D. Hester, in 1932 and again in 1935 visited the Uring-uring area south of Brookes' Point on the eastern side of Palawan and recovered a sizable collection of trade ceramics dating between the 14th to the 16th centuries, coming from China, Thailand and Vietnam. IN 1962, Fox again re-visited the place a recovered similar materials. Even a superb gold ornament was found identified as a garuda image dating from the Indonesian Madjapahit period (13th-14th AD), although the associated materials are trade ceramics from China from the late 14th-16th centuries AD. In 1951, Fox recovered an early Neolithic oval adze from a Tagbanua community in the municipality of Aborlan.

The above finds comprised the matrix of data about Palawan until the systematic excavations conducted at Lipuun Point in 1962 by the National Museum, that verified the importance of these sites to Philippine and Southeast Asian Prehistory.

The integrity and authenticity of these sites are such that it is the National Museum of the Philippines that conducted the excavations which were partially funded by the Asia Foundation, National Geographic Society,  the National Museum, the Research Foundation in Philippine Anthropology and Archaeology, Inc., and supported by many individuals from the Department of Education, the Department of Health, the National Science Development Board (NSDB), the National Institute of Science and Technology, The Social Science and Humanities Branch of the NSDB, local officials, even personnel of the United States Coast Guard LORAN station at Tarumpitao. The Institute of Geophysics, University of California at Los Angeles made possible the C-14 determinations for the Tabon Cave sites.

Comparison with other similar properties

Niah Cave in northern Sarawak contains the oldest remains of Homo sapiens found in Borneo, excavated from layers dated to about 40,000 years. The 10-hectare cave also contained sequences of human occupation from the period around 40,000 years to 2,000 years ago. The cave was excavated by Tom Harrison from 1954 to 1962. The excavations, however, were never published in a comprehensive form. There are many doubts about the reliability of his stratigraphic interpretations and the age of the radiocarbon dated layers. Further excavations were done in 1976 to clarify the issues, but these remained unresolved. Succeedingly, a long term Niah Caves Project, a four year program of an interdisciplinary research, was started in 2000. Participating are universities from UK, Philippines, United States, Australia and Sarawak. The project is now on its third year headed by Professor Graeme Barker of the University of Leicester. This new project is an inter-disciplinary thrust which will include not only archaeology but also, settlement history of Southeast Asia, rainforest reconstruction, strategies for living, development of farming, sediment analysis, studies in ceramics, lithics, organic remains, archeozoology, archeobotany, isotope studies, etc.

There is no information as to whether attempts are being made toward the conservation of the Niah Cave sites since the initial excavations in 1954. Although, certainly artifacts, if not the site will be preserved. Protection is certainly a concern of the government and local peoples since this cave is also the site for resources like birds nests, where extraction is continuous.

On the other hand, the Tabon Caves of the Philippines at Lipuun Point, located in the island of Palawan which is geologically linked to north Borneo have been systematically excavated by the National Museum of the Philippines led by the late Dr. Rober B. Fox. The data has been published in many forms and cited by pre-historians involved in Southeast Asian archaeology. The radio-metric dates for the Tabon Caves sites, including that for the Homo sapiens sapiens tibia have also been published, with the latter with a positive date of 47,000 +- 10-11,000 years ago, which antedates the yet unverified 40,000 years for the "Deep Skull" of Niah Cave.