ILLE CAVE: A technical team from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) prepares to enter Ille Cave in New Ibajay, El Nido, on February 25, 2019. Inset photo shows the tiger bones (Panthera tigris) collected from the cave. The assessment of Ille ended on March 1. (Photos courtesy of Jovic Fabello and Municipal Tourism Office of El Nido)

A technical team from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) is proposing to open the archeologically-important Ille Cave in Barangay New Ibajay, El Nido to tourists.

Presently classified as a Class I site which is closed to tourists, they are recommending the reclassification of the cave as Class II, to allow for “controlled tours and visits.”

The Ille Cave within the Dewil Valley in New Ibajay was enlisted as Class I under Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) Resolution No. 15-522 approved in 2015.

PCSDS spokesperson Jovic Fabello said Friday that under the classification, the cave may only be utilized for “mapping, photography, educational, and scientific purposes” due to its natural values and hazardous conditions.

“Noong 2015, without detailed assessment, pina-classify namin ‘yong Ille Cave as Class I. Ito ‘yong cave na merong delicate formations geologically… ito ‘yong cave na may threatened species of wildlife, ito ‘yong cave na may hazardous sections, and kapag ganitong klaseng cave na Class I, activities allowed ay mapping lang pati research. Basically, kapag Class I core zone siya,” Fabello said.

ARCHEOLOGICAL EXCAVATION: Excavation of the Ille Cave by Palaeohistoric researchers. The photo was from the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project through Dr. Victor Paz of the UP-ASP.

Class II caves, he explained, also have sensitive areas and portions, but selected sections can be opened for “controlled tours and visits.”

The PCSD Manual on Caves Classification adopts to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Memorandum Circular No. 2007-04 which prescribes classification for all caves within the public domain and private lands, including those found within protected areas.

Fabello, who is also a forester and part of the assessment team, said because of the archeological excavations being undertaken by the University of the Philippines-Archeological Studies Program (UP-ASP) with the National Museum, Ille Cave was classified as Class I.

“Considering that Ille Cave ay pinupuntahan na ng mga turista, and last November 2017, when I was a guest at U.P. Diliman in a forum by the Archeological Studies Program, Dr. Victor Paz, the head of the program, told me that he wanted to open the area for heritage tourism because, he said, the area will be valueless if there will be no awareness coming from the people visiting the site,” he said.

Paz said if it is classified as Class I, nothing will happen to Ille Cave.

Second Ille karst tower (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

Fabello said they conducted the assessment of Ille Cave from February 25 to March 1 also because of requests from the barangay officials of New Ibajay, the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, Inc. (PSFI), and the municipal government of El Nido to open it as a heritage and cultural site where people can learn the history of the town.

The UP-ASP constructed a building 100 meters from the cave, he said, to serve as a mini-museum where the technical cast and replicas of the major artefacts excavated are now displayed.

The lot property for the structure was donated by the municipal government.

“The cave can be used as a heritage as well as an archaeological and historical site. It can serve as alternative cultural destination for tourists in the town of El Nido,” Fabello said.

Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project

A scientific paper called “Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project” covering the 2008 excavation season made available at by Paz with Wilfredo Ronquillo, Helen Lewis of the University College Dublin (UCD), Philip Piper of the Australian National University (ANU), Jane Carlos, Emil Robles of U.P., Vito Hernandez, Taj Vitales, Janine Ochoa, Tara Reyes, and Hermine Xhauflair details the fact-finding seasons conducted in Ille Cave and other sites in Dewil Valley that is now Barangay New Ibajay.

The report said excavations in Ille Cave started in 1998 “with a 1.87 m x 1m (site grid location of N3W12) test pit at the front of the West mouth; time, manpower constraints, the presence of human burials, and large buried boulders limited the depth of this excavation to less than a meter.”

PANTHERA TIGRIS: Foot bone pieces from an extinct type of tiger found inside Ille Cave. The discovery of the bone fragments is proof that they once roamed the lands of Palawan. They are part of the ancient unearthed artefacts that date back to 14,000 years ago. (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

But the first full-scale excavation of the cave site was done in 1999, where “several human burials were excavated in the process as well as a shell midden. The richness of the archaeology slowed down the efforts of the team to get to the deeper cultural deposits.”

Shell midden or shell mound is important to archeologists because they are deemed cultural deposits on the dietary meat there is in shellfish, seasonality, and others.

During the 2002 season, the research project said excavations with emphasis on both the East and West mouth fronts of the Ille Cave’s platform made substantial progress in the understanding of its archaeology.

“There was better evidence at hand to conclude that a shell midden layer existed in both the West and East mouth excavation areas; more burials and artifacts were uncovered similar to the results of the previous excavations; more importantly, a series of tight radiocarbon dates came out for the stratigraphic sequence of the East mouth excavation area. The dates gave an exciting glimpse of the deep time depth of the cultural deposits at Ille. There was a consensus amongst specialists in the understanding that there was still much potential for archaeology to be older than 10,000 years ago,” the report said.

Mosaic of fossils. (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

The research project also noted that simultaneously with the report of the 2002 season, all previous excavations were further synthesized in a status report written by Prof. Wilhelm Solheim (2004) for the Solheim Foundation.

Solheim reportedly gave insights on the possible fate of four burial spots at the West mouth that were expanded.

“It was postulated at this time that we may be looking at the remains of massacred individuals hurriedly buried. The Solheim report also reiterated a call for the Philippine archaeology community to commit to a long-term research initiative at Ille,” the research project said.

By 2005, more artefacts were recovered from Ille comprised of pottery design and nephrite ornaments which reinforce the site’s Mainland Southeast Asian connection.

“More archeological sites were also discovered and surveyed, especially in the limestone karst formations of Makangit, and on the western face of the Ille tower,” said the project report by Paz’ group.

Unusual stone found inside Makangit Cave. (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

Fabello said the concern in opening Ille Cave to become a heritage and cultural site is not just really about it, but the Dewil Valley where there are other caves.

“Hindi lamang kasi Ille, ‘yong other caves within the Dewil Valley… halimbawa ito ‘yong Dewil Valley, kung dito si Ille, dito banda si Makangit Cave, in-explore namin ‘yan, marami rin kaming nakita dyan na mga tools at artifacts. Makangit is basically 15 minutes walk from Ille Cave. And then sa Idelet Cave may mga nakuha din silang mga artifacts, tapos ‘yong dalawang malaki… ‘yong Star and Diribungan na dalawang malalaki sa likod ng Pasimbangan,” he said.

Fabello said it is a series of karst formations that has deposits of artefacts, but sadly those in Makangit had already been looted.

“Nakita namin ‘yong mga basag-basag na banga, bungo, mga beads,” he said.

When the 2006 excavation season was made, more artefacts were recovered from Ille. It was also when the “first cremation burial” was uncovered at the cave’s East mouth trench.

“The first-time survey of Imorigue island was made as well as a further survey of the western limestone karst formations in the valley such as Star and Diribungan towers,” the project report noted.

In 2007, the excavation at the cave saw more cremated remains as well as the collection of “tiger bones” (Panthera tigris (L.))

MAKANGIT CAVE MOUTH: The assessment team outside the Makangit Cave mouth. (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

The 2008 research project report said “the recovery of tiger bones from the site was also confirmed through extensive post-excavation work, which included consulting the top specialists in the field and comparing the bones to reference collections in the United States (Piper et al. 2008). These finds established the easternmost extent of the tiger in Island Southeast Asia. It has also given insight on the interplay between vegetation change, sea level rise, and species extinction in an island environment.”

“There is a strong possibility na sa Ille nagkaroon ng mass cremations kasi sa buong mundo, iilang bansa pa lang ang recorded na merong mga cremations. These ones in Ille suggest that mukhang sinaunang tao din itong mga ito dahil natuto na sila ng mga cremations. Nag-umpisa raw ‘yang cremations, ang meron lang dyan India, and we found out that ito palang archeological location nila is only located outside the cave… dalawa kasi ang butas ng cave, ‘yong East and West mouth, doon lang sa labas ng kuweba,” Fabello said.

The treasure trove of evidence was found mostly outside the cave because ancient residents do not hold large gatherings inside the cave, and what is good in Ille aside from the artifacts, was the discovery of fossils.

“The fossils date back 25 million years ago, which means that the stones and the fossils are much older than the Tabon Cave and much older than the southern part of the rock formation of Palawan,” he said.

Fabello said the fossils that were found around 2017 belong to prehistoric sea creatures.

He said Ille Cave used to be part of an underwater landscape that surfaced because of the movements of plates.

Mini rimstone dams inside Ille Cave. (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

“May nakita silang shell na primitive na primitive ang pangalan Shikamaia, ang laki. Japanese na scientist ang naka-discover nito. ‘Yong illustration ng shell noong ni-replicate nila through 3D imaging, mahaba siya tapos vivalve. Ang galing ng illustration, makikita mo may pusit dyan, may shell dyan, melancholy siya ng sea creatures na nag-e-exist long, long time ago because of the movement daw ng plates. Nagbanggaan, ‘yong isa na-subjugate, ‘yong isa umangat. Ito na ‘yong wall ng Ille na umangat during millions of years ago,” Fabello added.

In the report by Paz’ team, it said human teeth were also unearthed from a burial ground in the first two seasons.

“The teeth study gave us a better understanding of the ages and condition of health of some of the individuals buried at the platform – this was the most that could be done at the time of publication, working on badly preserved skeletal remains recovered from the first three seasons of excavation. This study can be further improved with more detailed work done on the better-preserved human remains from the last four seasons of excavation,” it said.

In total, more than 50,000 artifacts were recorded from Ille since the start of the excavations in 1998, broken down to around 25,000 ceramics, 23,000 shell and bone artifacts, 1,000 stone tools and 1,000 metal artifacts and other materials.

Almost a hundred recorded human burials were recorded, excluding a minimum of 5, and a maximum of six cremations. Analysis of the cremations going on will determine with certainty the exact number.

In the Pasimbahan excavation site, 1,100 accessioned artifacts were discovered: 500 lithics, 200 animal bones and shell artifacts, 300 ceramics, and 100 beads of various make and metal implements.

The project report added that “aside from questions coming out directly from information derived from the excavations, there is a running hypothesis that needs to be proven beyond doubt about the formation of the Dewil valley.”

“Was the landscape that we now recognize as a valley formerly a lake, a sound, or a cove, during most of the early human occupation of the region? The samples taken near the current town of New Ibajay by the team of Dr. Fernando Siringan of the Marine Science Institute at UP Diliman may give us substantial information to competently answer this question,” it further noted.

Ille Cave in Dewil Valley

The report further said “a cave network hollows the tower of Ille with at least three mouths located at its base.” Ille’s main entrance is composed of two mouths – East and West mouths – leading to a lone chamber. In front of the cave are a large platform and a 10-meter overhang.

The cave’s karst tower is surrounded by “thick vegetation, which creates a shaded and cool environment” around its platform.

Photo from Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project.

“The karst tower formations in the Dewil Valley are surrounded by islands of thick vegetation, which in turn are surrounded by rain-fed rice fields and vegetable gardens tended by people living in New Ibajay,” the report said.

The report further stated that “from the Ille tower, the Sibaltan Bay is approximately four kilometers away to the East. The main Dewil River sits south of Ille and runs eastward towards Sibaltan Bay. The river is mainly shallow with a few tributaries. During the rainy season, the waters can turn torrential. Near the Ille karst tower, what are mainly dry ponds and streams during the dry months fill up with water and turn into fast running streams during the wet months of the year.”

Dewil Valley is nine kilometers to the northwest, and the Ille tower karst is 14 kilometers away. From the center of El Nido town, travelers will take 45 minutes to reach New Ibajay.

Preserving the cave

In 2002-2004, the UP-ASP noted “escalated vandalism” in the cave due to uncontrolled intrusion. However, in recent times, a gradual cleaning of graffiti was implemented.

“We were delighted to find out that dubbing calcium carbonate-rich mud coming from sediments produced by the tower was sufficient in masking paint graffiti. After three years of application, we realized that the paint underneath the mud fades away and the mud itself becomes integrated into the general natural look of the rock face,” the scientific paper said.

Rock canopy inside Ille Cave. (Photo courtesy of J. Fabello)

Fabello said to address the problem of encroachment in Ille Cave, it is better to open it to tourism for the barangay and municipal governments to craft policies that would further improve its protection and the rest of Dewil Valley in New Ibajay.

He said their assessment report containing their findings is yet to be prepared and submitted for the approval of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

“Ginagawa pa namin ‘yong assessment report and kapag natapos ‘yon, i-pre-present namin sa Council through the Environment and Natural Resources Committee ng PCSD rin. Ang recommendation namin doon is i-reclassify ‘yong cave from Class I to Class II,” he said.

The community in New Ibajay, especially the community-based sustainable tourism (CBST) people’s organization (PO) in the area will be taught to learn the proper guiding of tourists.

“With the CBST, mas ma-pro-protektahan natin ‘yong kuweba kasi kung walang nag-gu-guide at walang nagbabantay, anyway papasukin at papasukin din naman ng mga… kasi pinapasok ng mga estudyante, ng mga nag-iinom, ng mga kung sinu-sino. May mga vandal pero matagal na wala na siyang bago kasi nababantayan na ‘yong lugar… we might as well strengthen that by opening the cave para mas makagawa ng mga policies for protection,” he said.

In an earlier interview with El Nido municipal tourism officer Arvin Acosta, the preservation of the Ille Cave and other potential tourist destination sites in Dewil Valley is essential to become “part of educating the people about the value of the cave.”

The reassessment was conducted by PCSDS Cave Assessment Team, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park Cave Management Unit, and Palawan State University Museum, in cooperation with the Local Government of El Nido, UP-ASP, and PSFI.

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has been with Palawan News since January 2019. She is its managing editor, overseeing and coordinating day-to-day editorial activities. Her writing interests are politics and governance, health, defense, investigative journalism, civic journalism, and the environment.

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