On a small rock wall a short drive from Manila, enigmatic carvings that are believed to be 5,000 years old are in danger of disappearing before their mysteries can be solved.
The 127 engravings depicting people, animals and geometric shapes are the Southeast Asian nation’s oldest known artworks, but encroaching urbanization, vandals and the ravages of nature are increasingly threatening their existence.
“Eventually they will disappear ... preservation is out of the question,” said veteran anthropologist Jesus Peralta, who did an extensive, widely respected study of the carvings in the 1970s.
The artworks have been declared a national treasure, regarded as the best proof that relatively sophisticated societies existed in the Philippines during the Stone Age.
“They show that in ancient times, the Philippines did have a complex culture. It’s a recording of our ancestors,” said Leo Batoon, a senior researcher at the National Museum of the Philippines.
Museum scientists believe the carvings date back to 3000 BC, based on carving tools and pottery shards discovered at the site, indicating that they originated before the use of metal tools emerged.
This makes them far older than the country’s second-oldest known artworks, a series of geometric shapes in the mountainous north that are believed to date to 1500 BC, according to Batoon.
Yet museum workers say it is difficult to conclusively determine the age of the carvings — referred to as petroglyphs — due to technical and financial constraints.
“Most of our artifacts in the museum are sent abroad and only if we have partners and proponents to pay for such dating,” Batoon said.
Little else is known about the carvings, or the people who etched them, but one clue is that many of the human figures appear to be in a squatting position, which has led scientists to theorize that the area was a place of worship.
The carvings were first documented by acclaimed Philippine artist Carlos Francisco in 1965 while he was leading a Boy Scouts troop on a hike.
Since then, they have been known as the Angono Petroglyphs, after Francisco’s hometown nearby.
The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based private group that works to protect historical sites, placed the Angono Petroglyphs on its list of endangered monuments in 1996 and has provided help in their preservation.
UNESCO has also placed the petroglyphs on its “tentative list” of world heritage sites, but that has done little to stem the powerful tide of neglect.
The carvings are in mountains about a 90 minutes’ drive from Manila that only a few decades ago were entirely forested. However, most of the trees in the area have since been chopped down to make way for the country’s fast-growing population, with a holiday resort, a golf course and upper-class housing now surrounding the rock wall.
A real-estate developer owns the land on which the petroglyphs sit. He donated the hillside on which the carvings are located to the national museum, but allowed only a small buffer zone to protect the site and a road that runs just 10m from the carvings.
Wind and rain, as well as plant roots creeping through the stone, have also damaged the soft rock on which the carvings are etched. In addition, the poorly funded museum cannot afford to pay for adequate security so vandalism is also a constant worry. People have scrawled their names on the rock and there are slash marks on some carvings that archaeologists have determined were only made recently.