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In Other Words by Paul Morrow What did pre-colonial Filipinos look like?

by Paul Morrow

These images are believed to be painted by a Chinese artist commissioned by the governor of the Philippines, Luis Pérez das Mariñas in the early 1590s. They are from the book known as the Boxer Codex, which was obtained by the English scholar Charles R. Boxer in 1947 and later donated to Indiana University.

One of the problems of school history textbooks is that they are usually commissioned by governments to serve more as nationalist propaganda rather than impartial accounts of history. Add to this the fact that they are written for young, non-historians rather than for scholars, and it is not surprising that many errors slip through. The dubious modern portraits of people who lived before the advent of photography are especially amusing. Take for example the common image of the early Filipino printer, Tomas Pinpin, wearing a Barong Tagalog and a pair of slacks – even though he lived 400 years ago in the age of pantaloons and bahags. And there is the poet Balagtas, who lived in the early 1800s who is almost always portrayed wearing a crown of laurel like an ancient Greek. Magellan is often shown battling the natives of Mactan who look a lot like North American natives from an old Hollywood movie.

What did Filipinos really look like before the Spanish invasion? It is quite a large subject to fit into a few hundred words, considering that every community had its own customs and ideas about clothing and physical appearance. The first people of the Philippines that Westerners described in detail were the Visayans that met Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet in 1521.


The Spaniards called Visayans “the painted ones” or pintados because of their tattooed skin. For Visayan men, tattoos were a symbol of bravery, which were earned in battle. A man’s first tattoos were applied to his legs near the ankle and as more tattoos were earned, they were applied farther up his body. Only the most elite warriors had tattoos on their faces, the ultimate being applied to their eyelids. Visayan women only decorated their hands with fine-lined tattoo designs. Tattoos were not common among Tagalogs – the men displayed their military accomplishments with a red potong, which was like a turban.


Normal clothing for men in most parts of the Philippines was the bahag, which is usually translated into English as a “G-string” but this is misleading. In many communities, a bahag was actually a piece of cloth almost a metre wide and four to five metres in length. Women wore tube skirts or wrap-around skirts.

Partial nudity was always an option for men and women. Visayan men especially would have wanted to display their hard-earned tattoos. This is not to say that Filipinos did not have more elaborate clothing. Headdresses, blouses, tunics, scarves or ankle-length robes were worn on formal occasions and both men and women wore skirts of various styles. Clothing was made from local and imported materials such as abaca, cotton and silk.

Hair and hygiene

Hairstyles differed from one community to the next and they changed often but throughout the Visayan Islands men and women generally had long hair – down to the waist for some men and down to the ankles for some women. The men usually tied their hair in a knot on top of or behind their heads or they wrapped it in a head cloth similar to a turban. The women piled their hair high in elaborate styles and used flowers and sesame seed oil to treat the hair and to give it an attractive scent. Hair was cut short only as a punishment or as a sign of profound mourning.

Muslim men in Manila kept their hair short and when the Spaniards began to occupy the islands they encouraged all Filipinos to cut their hair short as a way of “taming” them.

Women used makeup such as face powder, nail polish (usually red) eyebrow paint, and lotions made from local roots. Both men and women regularly plucked their eyebrows to make them thin and arched. At least one Spanish missionary criticized this habit as an act of vanity. Other Spanish writers also commented on the Filipino habit of bathing everyday, which they thought was unhealthy and rather lascivious. Not a surprising attitude given the that the low level of personal hygiene among Europeans in the 1500s was quite disgusting by today’s standards.


Filipinos wore practically every imaginable type of jewellery – rings, earrings, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, chains, brooches, armbands, leg bands and sequinned clothing.

Both men and women wore earrings. The men usually had one or two holes pierced in each ear and women had as many as four. It was stylish to expand the lowest piercing with large earplugs or to hang heavy jewellery from the hole until it stretched to a size large enough to fit a fist through it so that earrings would reach down to the shoulders.

Jewellery was made of precious stones, mother-of-pearl and tortoise shells but, by far, the preferred material was gold. The amount of gold that Filipinos wore would dazzle a rap star today and it certainly got the attention of the early Spanish invaders who almost always mentioned it in their descriptions of the people. They were astounded to see men wearing little more than a bahag and thousands of pesos worth of gold chains and other jewellery.

More astounding to them was the gold they found underneath the men’s bahags. The practice of palang or penis piercing was popular in the Visayas. Devices called sakras were attached to the ends of a pin called a tugbuk, which was inserted through the sides of the penis, near the tip. The device was worn to enhance pleasure during sexual intercourse.

Decorative dentistry

Filipinos definitely liked the “bling bling.” Even their teeth were decorated with so much gold that they had what today’s hip-hop culture would call “grills,” except that Filipino dental jewellery was not easily removed, it was more or less permanent.

To have plain white, naturally shaped teeth in the 1500s was considered uncivilized, even animal-like. A 1617 Waray dictionary by Mateo Sanchez contained the phrase baga napkangnan huligan, which meant that when a person with white teeth smiled it looked like he was “chewing on coconut meat.” The civilized thing to do at that time was to colour the teeth jet-black or deep red. Chewing on anipay root or applying a protective tar-like substance called tapul coloured the teeth black while red ant eggs, kaso flowers and the regular chewing of betel nuts coloured the teeth red.

Filipinos also filed their teeth to make the edges flat and even – even if it meant filing away half a tooth to do it. The space between each tooth was also filed to make equal gaps. Another option was to file all the teeth to points, like the teeth of a saw. Either way, the idea was to have even, symmetrical teeth.

No decent set of teeth was complete without some gold work. The basic style of decoration was to drill holes into the teeth and then insert gold pegs, which were filed flat to give the appearance of gold dots. If the pegs had flat heads they could be overlapped to look like gold fish scales. If the peg heads were rounded, elaborate bead patterns could be made. Gold caps and plates that covered the whole tooth and even above the gum line were also riveted into place with gold pegs.

Imagine that the next time you see a portrait of the stoic, unsmiling Lapulapu.


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