Dewil Valley in El Nido. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

Over a banquet dinner centerpieced with the ubiquitous Filipino lechon, a motley group of archaeologists wrapped up this year’s excavation season at the Dewil Valley, a vast karst terrain located on the northern fringe of the bustling tourist town of El Nido.

The sumptuous dinner was a rare treat from a personal friend of Dr. Victor Paz, who runs this project alongside another scholar, Dr. Helen Lewis. Over the past two decades, their work has been fueled mainly by voluntary support, occasional corporate grants, and whatever form of help they could find along the way. It involves mainly supervising the meticulous excavations around the valley, a rolling terrain that spans roughly 28 square kilometers and is ringed with limestone formations.

Since this project began in 2004, excavations had to be done only during the summer, with graduate and post-graduate students from the University of the Philippines Archaeological Society as mainstays, along with foreign experts who would occasionally drop in to participate in the research. After each digging season, they would carefully cover the trenches with tarps before filling them up again with soil to preserve them for the following year’s work. This year’s efforts were a revival of the annual excavation, halted in the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Dewil Valley landscape. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

Over the last two decades, the expeditions around Dewil Valley have amassed stacks and stacks of artifacts proving the presence of early humans in Palawan. “This project has acquired a lot of knowledge about the lives of the people that have interacted with the landscape for over 10,000 years,” Dr. Paz said.

Ille Cave, a 75-meter-tall karst outcropping at the entrance to the valley, holds a throve of evidence of the oldest known cremation burials in Southeast Asia. Currently the main focus of paleontological studies, it is apparent that scientists and experts have barely scratched the surface.

View from the mouth of Ille Cave. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

“You need to note everything that you see. For example, if there is a change in the sediment layer, that is a new context that you note down,” Patricia Panganiban, a Ph.D. student who is part of this year’s batch of researchers, explains while working on a trench near the entrance to a cave dug barely a meter deep using mainly trowels, sticks, and a brush.

Ph.D. student Patricia Panganiban explaining the process of excavation in Ille Cave. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye
A graduate student from the University of the Philippines brushes off soil from one of the trenches to expose what appears to be skeletal remains. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

“The deepest excavation has only touched over five meters underground,” Dr. Lewis explains. “The (cave) burials go from the 1800s all the way down to 5,000 years ago”.

One burial site reveals the skeleton of a woman with two apparently severed heads placed alongside her body. Dr. Lewis said some wanted to refer to the remains as the “Palawan Princess”, even as she expressed hesitancy in doing so, just because she felt they hadn’t yet established the full context of the discovery.

Lewis notes that much of the work needs to be done, even just in simply documenting the artifacts they have collected during the excavations so that they can be studied closely. “We are at least two years behind on that,” she said. The analysis part takes much longer and is costlier.

The painstaking work of digging associated with archaeology is a seemingly bottomless pit. “The more you dig, the more you want to find out what’s down below,” Dr. Paz mused.

“You can grow old here just doing this if you choose to,” Panganiban quips.

Photo by Geoff Delahaye

Dr. Paz recalls that when he was much younger, he wanted to follow the trails of the field investigations around Palawan carried out by Robert Fox and the others before them. He wanted to dig around Malampaya Sound, further south of El Nido. “But when I got here to Dewil Valley, I got stuck. Now I don’t anymore have the knees and strength to climb in Malampaya,” he laughs.

Tourism attraction
The cave is emerging as a showcase of a community-run ecotourism project initiated by the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, Inc. (PSFI) and the local government prior to the pandemic. The tour package that was recently opened to the public involves a guided trip around the valley and inside the caves, with an interpretation of the artifacts found on the digging sites weaved around the story of the valley, or at least the narrative that the local community has come to learn thus far from the work of Drs. Paz, Lewis, and others before them.

“We initiated a community-based sustainable tourism project for Barangay New Ibajay, appreciating the uniqueness and importance of Ille Cave and we wanted to help protect and preserve it with the community being benefited,” Edong Magpayo, project officer of PSFI, said.

The village itself is dominated by settlers from the Visayas, mostly from Ibajay in Aklan province. Magpayo said that even as migrants, the Visayans have regarded the place as their root, as a new generation of them has been born there.

“Since 1963 when the Ibajay village was founded, the community embraced it as their own, along with the Tagbanua and Cuyonon tribes in this place. The village council even has specific resolutions aiming to protect the local environment and culture,” he said.

At the prodding of the archaeologists, the municipal government built a small concrete structure that currently houses a mini museum where visitors are oriented about the place before venturing into the caves and trails. The more significant artifacts, however, such as a wooden stick called “daga” belonging to an old shaman, are displayed at the national museum.

A tour of Ille Cave is actively being promoted by the local tourism office as an added attraction to El Nido’s turquoise lagoons and beaches, which most tourists are coming for. El Nido remains Palawan’s biggest tourism destination, attracting around 150,000 visitors annually since the lifting of the pandemic lockdowns.

A group of tourists preparing to enter Ille Cave. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

In a recent meeting, the stakeholders of Dewil Valley agreed to start collecting an entrance fee of P50 from each tourist, with a portion of the fee going to the local funds of Barangay Ibajay to benefit the community at large.

Early humans in Palawan
The literature points out that the first human species that walked on its two feet—Homo erectus, which lived some two million years ago—may have come out of Africa and populated the entire world before the Ice Age. The theory has it that the Homo erectus may have traveled in bands as hunter-gatherers and used stone tools such as the bifacial hand axe.

An expedition launched by the National Museum in the early 1960s led by American anthropologist Robert Fox led to the discovery of early modern humans who lived in the Tabon cave complex in Quezon, Palawan, some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. There was evidence they were using stone tools.

Following Fox’s discovery of the Tabon Man, there has been an interest in understanding the ancient history of Palawan and the early civilizations that lived here. Fox had particularly pointed to El Nido as an important archaeological site, even with the sparse data he had collected during his expedition.

Whether at some point the Homo erectus came to live in Palawan remains a question for archaeologists. Dr. Paz theorizes that Palawan was at least a place where people had moved from some other place.

Dr. Victor Paz. | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

“We don’t know where they came from. There’s no reason why there can’t be Homo erectus in Palawan,” he argues. “Since the very beginning people have been trying to look for evidence because in Indonesia and Java there was already evidence. They were intelligent, they knew how to cross seas, to navigate. There’s a change in the way we appreciate our ancestors”.

Dr. Helen Lewis (center). | Photo by Geoff Delahaye

Missing link
In Dewil Valley, there are evidence of cremation and burials dating back to some 9,000 years ago.

“We did not expect to find it here, a stack of bones all smashed in together. One of our specialists in bones reconstructed the body, a woman in her 20s. Her bone was broken up, smashed, and put in a stack,” Dr. Paz narrates.

The artifacts also indicated that the early humans who lived in the valley consumed a lot of deer as part of their diet. “We had tons and tons of deer 6,000 years ago all the way until 5,000 years ago,” he said. These involved two species of deer, which Fox correctly concluded had gone extinct.

The excavations also indicated that the tiger species associated with those from Borneo, Panthera tigris, may have lived in the valley some 10,000 years ago when the landscape was more like a savannah until the sea rose and limited the animals’ movement.

Dr. Paz pointed to a paper they published about this discovery. He was candid to admit, however, that while he co-authored the study, he was in the minority about some of its conclusions. He wondered aloud why, at the Tabon cave excavations, they found lots of crocodile teeth used as ornaments but no tiger tooth at all.

The uncertainty about much of the narrative that has formed about Dewil Valley comes from the fact that many questions remain unanswered about the archaeology of the place. The sheer lack of resources and time to dig up sites of interest and study them is what keep this entire story from unfolding.

“We don’t even know in what part of this valley people used to live if they did live here at all,” Dr. Paz admits. Ille Cave, for all intents and purposes, appears to be a burial and ritual ground passed on to generations of early modern humans.

After each digging day, before the sun goes down, the researchers gather to take stock of what they have learned and compare notes and observations.

Dr. Lewis sighs at their lack of resources to conduct more research on the outlying islands and the mangrove areas surrounding the place. “It just takes a lot of money that we don’t have,” she said.

There is no doubt, however, that the project has achieved significant milestones that have caught the attention of the entire world. Some of these were serendipitous and not planned, such as when they stumbled upon the idea to establish an eco-museum on the site.

“We had to rescue an American school, the University of Washington, that had planned to go to Thailand but couldn’t go. We got lots of professional archaeologists from Vietnam, China, Thailand including UP Diliman and that was when we got introduced to museology. We established an eco-museum,” Dr. Paz said.

Community participation
Dr. Paz said their recent focus has been to find ways to bring archaeology closer to the communities that live in and around the valley. He wants to see the local community actively taking part in the discovery of the exciting knowledge that is going on in Dewil Valley.

He said he wanted to put up a better-equipped museum to house all the artifacts collected from the project and make them available for study.

“The end game is when we have the facility to showcase the knowledge and the local community showing a sense of belonging,” he says. “We have been coming here since 2004, and the project has gained knowledge about the lives of the people that have interacted with the landscape of the valley for over 10,000 years.”