Written on August 2007
by Ma. Cecilia Rodriguez
Copyright: Mindanao Bureau, Philippine Daily Inquirer
Folklore says it was the Spanish conquerors that appended the word ‘de Oro’ to the old name Kagay-an in recognition of significant gold finds in the land by the inveterate conquistadores.
To this day, many old residents of the now highly urbanized city still believe that gold can be found in the recesses of earth along the hilly grounds surrounding Cagayan de Oro. One particular site is the promontory in Taguanao, Indahag village, eight kilometers from the city center.
Indeed, stories of gold drove many a curious lot to scrape the surface of Taguanao. And among the few who did find a treasure are actually not gold hunters, but a team of archeologists and anthropologists who, after extensive study of the site, declared it to be a significant archeological discovery.
There at the hidden caves now known as Huluga were found an assortment of artifacts and fossils dating back to 377 AD. These precious finds were soon brought to the National Museum and the Museo de Oro and recognized as historical treasures.
The Huluga Caves and Open Site
It was in 1975 when the National Museum dispatched a team of experts to Cagayan de Oro to investigate reports that pre-historic fossils and artifacts had been found in a hill near Cagayan river. The team, led by Dr. Erlinda Burton, an anthropologist and member of the historical commission, found the report to be true and initiated a comprehensive archeological study of the site.
Among the significant finds was a female skull found inside the Huluga cave which dated back to the prehistoric times. The cave used to be a burial site of prehistoric inhabitants that settled on the hill, and were believed to be one of the country’s first settlers. Other finds give evidence of cultural practices such as boat-shaped coffins, broken pieces of earthenware, stone and metal tools, wild boar tusks, among others.
The Huluga caves and open site soon became famous among scientists and enthusiasts; expositions about its significance had been written and posted on websites. What captured their interest so much were the shards of Obsidian glass found on the surface of Huluga. Extensive studies around the world about the Obsidian glass reveal that it is a material spewed by volcanoes 2000 years ago which were harnessed by stone-age people to be used as knives. The only known origin of this material was Japan.
A whale harpoon tip dug from Huluga open site also baffled archeologists and hypothesized that the Irrawady dolphin, a giant freshwater mammal, may have inhabited the rivers of Cagayan a long time ago. Now near extinction, the Irrawady dolphins can still be found in some parts of Asia, most of them in Indonesia.
“This could be evidence that trading happened ages before Spain landed in the Philippines,” says Elson Elizaga, a member of the Heritage Conservation Advocates now fighting for the preservation of the site.
“The fossils and artifacts could tell us so much of our origins and how our ancestors lived. Many first world countries spend a great deal of effort and money to preserve such historical sites because they appreciate its significance,” adds Elizaga, lamenting that the country does not give enough importance to its ancient past.
This lament is not baseless. Apparently, the recognition of the National Museum of the site as ‘invaluable Philippine heritage’ was not enough to have the whole area preserved. It had to be the local government, in agreement with the landowners with legitimate titles of the land that should declare the area a preserved historical site.
In 1999, a proposal to construct a road that will cut through the Huluga open site caused deafening uproar among historians and anthropologists. The 600-million road-and-bridge project was a priority project of then mayor Vicente Emano.
Concerned of the potential destruction of a major archeological site, anthropologist Dr. Antonio Montalvan, then a member of the city’s historical and cultural commission, alerted city councilors of the plan. A team was immediately organized composed of Burton, the city engineer, planning officer and tourism officer to survey the area of Huluga.
The team’s investigation resulted in the recommendation of the city council to have the road and bridge project diverted in order to protect Huluga. Emano did make an assurance that ‘no historical or archeological site will be destroyed as we implement the infrastructure project.’
Happy with the assurance, Burton, Montalvan and a team of experts identified the places in Taguanao that should be protected.
Two years later, the contractor, UKC builders, began cutting right through the hill, demolishing the middle part of Huluga open site. “They did it silently. We would not have known had residents not alerted us,” recounted Montalvan.
“Until now, it puzzles us. Why was Emano so adamant in digging up the hill when there was enough reason to divert the road,” he said.
The Heritage Conservation Advocates founded by Burton, Montalvan and Elizaga, released a manifesto of protest and openly criticized Emano. They also filed a case with the local Environmental Management Board against Emano and the UKC builders for failing to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment and an Archeological Impact Assessment on the site. They won the case and the EMB slapped Emano with a P50,000 fine.
Still, construction of the road and bridge continued. It was inaugurated in September 2006, to the lament of HCA and the other archeological groups striving to have Huluga preserved.
There are claims that the same hunger for gold that gripped the Spanish conquerors in the olden times may have caught up with the present-day gold hunters in the area who have, in the process, destroyed one of the greatest treasures the city can ever have.
Apparently, a former National Museum staff and Emano’s appointee in the city tourism office named Wilson Cabaluna began excavating at the foot of the hill where Dr. Burton discovered a midden (an ancient garbage dump indicating human settlement, usually contains animal bones, shells and kitchen refuse). The year was 2006, when the Pelaez bridge was nearly finished and Dr. Burton’s group was trying hopelessly to preserve the remaining part of the Huluga open site. Cabaluna believed there was gold and precious pottery in the hill’s belly and began digging it without care of the fossils and artifacts that could be found in the midden. His family did not confirm what they found and neighbors said the gold hunt was a failure.
The City Hall did make efforts to have the site investigated. As early as November 2004, three excavation sites were studied by a team from the University of the Philippines-Archeological Studies Program (ASP) under the auspices of the city historical and cultural commission.
“The investigation was funded by City Hall, by the same people we have accused of covering up the real issues,” said Elizaga. The HCA calls the ASP report a mock report and assailed the ASP team’s failure to mention the existence of the midden.
Elizaga says members of the ASP team should themselves be investigated for bungling an important scientific study. “The UP president should expel the archeologists for doing sloppy, incomplete research that’s neither scientific nor ethical. The students who were involved by their teachers in the research have inadvertently tarnished their names and should file a case against their teachers,” he says.
Montalvan have stronger words to say about his UP counterparts. “They have violated the Code of Ethics in the field of archeology. What was done was a mercenary kind of archeology,” he said.
End of Cagayan’s heritage
Last August 8, the Inquirer found the remaining Huluga promontory already half –bulldozed. The UKC Builders began quarry operations two weeks ago in the hill ten meters from the midden where important artifacts had been found. The original caves where ancient fossils were found is now part of Lawndale Spring Resort and the open site where shards of Obsidian glass were collected is now gone, replaced by a concrete road winding along the river.
New Cdo Mayor Constantino Jaraula has promised to investigate the matter and meet Dr. Burton’s group to discuss alternatives. He expressed regret to have inherited this controversial issue. Former mayor and now vice mayor Emano was repeatedly asked to comment but remains unavailable as of this writing.
After years of fighting for Huluga, Montalvan’s anger is now replaced by sorrow. “That’s the end of pre-historic Cagayan. It’s a pity. We have destroyed an important heritage site,” he said.