Aiming for the Stars...

by Jean Quintero Hall


[June 1999 Issue]

Progress necessarily requires a change; it implies the overthrow of the past ... the victory of new ideas over the ancient and accepted ones.

-- Dr. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere
In the search for Philippine origins, two questions continue to haunt us, as they must have daunted Rizal: who first settled the more than 7,000 Philippine islands and when did the Philippines become known to other parts of the world? Ancient maps, like mirrors, can reflect the past. Maps can tell us of the position of the Philippines in relation to other landmasses on the globe. We now know about the concept of "continental drift" (plate tectonics) proposed by the German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, at the beginning of this century -- a bit more than two decades after Rizal's quest for Philippine origins in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Wegener proposed the idea that millions of years ago Earth's continents and landmasses were one solid continental landmass called Pangaea located in the Earth's southern hemisphere. Through the shifting of the Earth's crust over millions of years, Pangaea split to form the continents which make up our world today. While the field of Earth Sciences is continuing to develop a more complete picture of the Earth's physical history, much has been uncovered. For example, India's continental drift and impact against the greater Asia landmass forced up the Himalayas. And just as we hear about births of new stars, we now know about the birth of a new island, "Loihi," rising from the sea near Hawaii. Except for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that occur at stress points in the Earth's crust, these larger changes in the Earth's geographical characteristics occur across such huge time spans that they can't be detected by the naked eye. For example, there is evidence that two million years ago the many islands of the Philippines were one solid landmass that was connected with Asia and Australia by land bridges. It is now also believed that humans crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America in 28,000 B.C., giving birth to the notion that the ancestors of American Indians were Asians. Scientists say that the land formations we see in the world map today were essentially in place 20 million years ago. As this kind of new knowledge surfaces, a few of our "origin" questions may be addressed, but more questions arise to peak our curious imaginations and make us hungry for more answers.

What do we know today about humankind's trek across the land bridges two million years ago, or even as short a time ago as 28,000 B.C.? If only humans had developed the technologies of writing, printing and navigation at the dawning of their existence, Rizal's (and now our) search for Philippine origins would have been much easier. Perhaps now we can appreciate why Rizal opted to annotate Antonio de Morga's Sucesos as a proof for our beginnings. In his search for evidence of Philippine beginnings in the British Museum's Map Room, Rizal had to face the hard fact that the Philippines was an unknown place to European cartographers before the Spanish conquest. Prior to "Age of Discovery" which began in Portugal in the 1400s, the concept of a complete world map didn't even exist. The slow transmission of cartographic information from one country to another was hindered by governments' treatment of maps as treasured trade secrets associated with competition for empire. We can speculate that Rizal learned painfully the reasons for the lack of pre-Spanish-conquest acknowledgement of the Philippines in European maps: few ancient maps had survived through time; the craft of map making (cartography) that involved mathematical calculations and projections, was not fully developed until the Age of Discovery (about the time of Magellan's discovery of the Philippines); and maps that had been developed by non-Westerners, such as the Chinese, Arabs, etc., were primarily in the hands of government officials and inaccessible to Westerners. Not until ships, guns, navigational skills and tools like the compass were developed would the Europeans be able to discover "new worlds," including the knowledge and treasures of the Far East.
The modern-day British scholar, Dr. R. A. Skelton, very appropriately says that maps record "the character and natural resources of a land and the human imprint upon it," and that they "reflect [the country's] history and that of its peoples." Rizal sought evidences of Philippine legitimacy in the eyes of the map makers of the world.

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created: September 1, 1999
updated: September 3, 1999
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger