Philippine Paleographs

When the Spaniards first came to the Philippines in 1571, they found widespread literacy in the islands. Poetry was being written down and letters were being sent. Mostly writing was done by using knives and sharp styli to scratch the letters into palm leaves. The writing used was a development of Indian scripts, ultimately descending from Sanskrit, and is related to similar scripts from Sulawesi and Java. Various slightly differing scripts were used for the various languages then in use. Literacy was so widespread in the Philippines that the Spaniards published some Tagalog books in the pre-colonial script, mostly doctrinal books giving the elements of the Christian faith. The Latin alphabet, however, which could be used for all the languages of the islands, proved very influential, and by about 1700 the use of the pre-Spanish scripts was disappearing.

Seventeen of these indigenous scripts which date back to at least the 10th century were documented but only four survive the time. Some written inscriptions on copper, silver, and earthenware are discovered, but they are few since palm leaves were the usual writing medium. As palm leaves are very fragile, few if any palm leaf writings are known to exist in the Philippines today. These scripts and the use of palm leaves represent the furthest east that the cultural influence of India extended in pre-colonial days, and are of great interest.

The four surviving pre-Spanish scripts: Hanunoo, Buid, Tagbanua and Pala'wan are still in use as encouraged by the Government of the Philippines but the latter two only survive marginally. The continuing existence of these ancient writing methods is a matter of great importance and cultural value. These four surviving scripts and the ancient inscriptions were inscribed on the International Memory of the World Register in 1999.

International Register



Preservation of the four scripts is the responsibility of the National Museum and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Philippines. ~ The National Museum of the Philippines