Alab Petroglyphs: 3,500-Year-Old Philippine Rock Art is Vanishing

The Alab Petroglyphs are prehistoric engravings found in Bontoc, the capital of Mountain Province.

Mountain Province in northern Luzon is best known for Sagada, a highland tourist destination known for its laid-back town atmosphere and outdoor adventures like hiking and caving. Unknown to most, however, is that the province also harbors a rare cultural treasure at risk of disappearing.

Alab Petroglyphs are prehistoric rock art carved on a remote outcrop in the provincial capital of Bontoc. Discovered by science in 1972, it is only one of two documented ancient petroglyphs or rock engravings found in the Philippines, together with the Angono Petroglyphs in Rizal Province, which are considered the oldest artworks in the country. (A third potential petroglyph site in the Visayas was discovered earlier this year, but is pending scientific investigation.)

Together with petrographs (rock drawings) found elsewhere in the archipelago, these petroglyphs were submitted in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2006 as Petroglyphs and Petrographs of the Philippines. Lack of support for the designation, however, threatens to delist these sites soon.

Barangay Alab Oriente, 9 km south of Bontoc Town Proper, is the jumping-off point to Alab Petroglyphs.
The 1,000 Steps is the strenuous trail from the village center to the petroglyph site.
Nepenthes alata, an endemic species of carnivorous pitcher plant
A shelter for locals and visitors near the petroglyphs site.

During my recent trip to the Mountain Province during the Undas (Allhallowtide) holidays, I arranged a day hike through the Bontoc Tourism Office to visit the Alab Petroglyphs. Accompanied by staff member Kashi and medic Jim, I rode a minibus from Bontoc to Barangay Alab Oriente, along the Chico River, where we paid a courtesy visit to village leader Marlon Kis-ing, who introduced us to our hiking guide Bart Bannawi.

From the village center, Bart, Kashi, Jim and I ascended to Mount Data (not to be confused with Mount Data National Park) via a steep trail called 1,000 Steps, which was for the most part paved with stone steps. The mountain is considered a wawalitan or sacred place for the indigenous Bontoc people, and my local companions advised that visitors must refrain from horseplay and making loud noises to avoid upsetting the spirits who dwell in the vicinity.

Mysteries of the Binutbuto Rock

We reached the petroglyph site after an hour and a half of strenuous uphill hiking. Before reaching the top, I was amused by a trailside patch of Nepenthes alata, carnivorous pitcher plants endemic to Luzon island. A hut stands along the trail, providing respite from the midday heat. Across this shelter, behind a fence to keep out cattle, is the top face of a large cliffside outcrop where prehistoric rock art was carved. The large volcanic rock overlooks the Palali Rice Terraces, surrounded by endless mountains.

Alab Petroglyphs are engraved on top of cliffside outcrop of volcanic tuff.
Alab Petroglyphs are a collection of 200 engravings found on this cliff side outcrop.

First documented in 1972 when a lumber businessman reported the site to the National Museum after spotting it a decade prior, the Alab Petroglyphs are a collection of some estimated 200 rock engravings. The triangular, V-shaped, and U-shaped etchings on the outcrop – locally called Binutbuto or “penis-like” in the Bontoc language – are believed to be abstractions of human genitalia, mostly vulva forms.

A lot of mysteries surround this astounding find. When and why they were made and who made them all remain uncertain, although a few theories have been proposed. They are believed to have been created using a metallic tool no earlier than 1,500 BC, and given the ethnographic data of low birth rates in the area the engravings could have been for ritual purposes such as fertility rituals. The vulva motif is commonly seen in prehistoric rock art around the world, and is associated with hunter-gatherers. The oldest engravings of the Angono-Binangonan Petroglyphs also include triangular vulva forms.

Located on the top face of an outcrop, the petroglyphs are prone to natural weathering.
Triangular engravings of the Alab Petroglyphs
The petroglyphs are believed to be abstractions of human genitalia.
Digital mapping of Alab Petroglyphs by Jaladoni and Kottermair, published in 2017.

Unfortunately, unlike the ancient site in Rizal Province, the petroglyphs of Alab are in a terrible state and could vanish forever if left unprotected. One can barely make out the etchings as the exposed rock face have been severely eroded by the natural elements. Weathering has caused the surface of the volcanic tuff to crack and flake off.

The location of the petroglyphs on top of an outcrop that serves as a vantage point means that the engravings are repeatedly stepped on by people, which aggravates the erosion. Long-term conservation of the site would necessitate measures to prevent visitors from walking on the rock face. Moreover, the growth of lichen has also covered some of the etchings. To make matters worse, destructive visitors have vandalized the ancient rock art, leaving behind etchings of names and figures amidst the engravings.

Since their discovery in the 1970s, no academic research has been published on the Alab Petroglyphs, except for brief descriptions in books about prehistoric art in the Philippines, until a digital inventory of the site was published in 2017, preserving the engravings for further research – virtually, at least. If left neglected, the real petroglyphs will vanish forever before they can yield more answers. The community, local government, and national cultural agencies must step in immediately to save this rare rock art before it’s too late.

One of the largest engravings (triangle in center) vandalized by graffiti (upper right and lower left).
The exposed rock face is prone to natural weathering.
The Alab Petroglyphs Site overlooks the Palali Rice Terraces.

Revenge of the Spirit

According to the oral traditions of the Bontoc people of Alab, the people who created the petroglyphs are buried in two rock shelters nearby called the Ganga Burial Caves. From the petroglyph site, we hiked a couple more hours to the other side of the mountain, closer to the Palali Rice Terraces.

Before reaching the burial sites, we passed by a hut-shaped boulder with enough room underneath to serve as shelter. Called the Ganga Stone House, this convenient rock formation served as a refuge for villagers during World War II, as well as communist rebels in the late 20th century. There were also ruins of a stone pig pen nearby, similar to the ones we observed presently at Alab Oriente. These stone structures indicate the long-term human habitation of this desolate forested area, outside the village center, in the distant past.

The Ganga Stone House is a natural rock shelter that served as a refuge for generations of Bontoc people.
Stone ruins of pig pen near the Ganga Stone House

By mid-afternoon, we reached the first burial cave. My companions recounted the story of the Ganga Burial Caves passed on from generation to generation. A long time ago, a group of young men were sent up the mountain to gather wood, however, they would spend most their time hanging out on a large boulder, carving figures on the rock face with their axes. These are believed to be the petroglyphs we see today on the Binutbuto outcrop.

One day, the men crafted makeshift spears to see who can throw their spear the farthest from the boulder towards the rice terraces. One of the spears, however, accidentally hit a pregnant woman weeding the fields. The spear impaled her, and she suddenly vanished. The woman was actually an anito (nature spirit), who later sought revenge by leaving behind poisoned food next to the young men while they were sleep. When the men awakened, they ate the food, thinking it was left for them by the women of the village. They quickly fell ill and died. The villagers interred the bodies in large pinewood coffins, stowed away in rock shelters, which are reputedly now the Ganga Burial Caves we can see today.

A version of this revenge story, involving only three men, was published together with other folklore from Alab, collected by Episcopal missionary Eleanor Moss in 1932, were published in an academic journal. In this published version, the rock engravings drawn by the men are “of a dog, a cow, and a carabao”, which are do not seem to match the simpler figures of the Alab Petroglyphs seen today at the Binubuto rock.

Around 50 pinewood coffins are interred in rock shelters called the Ganga Burial Caves.
A pinewood coffin with a missing lid reveals its contents of human bones.
The coffins are secured with large wooden pegs.
Locals offer food and bottles of alcohol to appease the spirits of the dead.

How to Get There

Visitors to Alab Petroglyphs on Mount Data are required to pre-arrange their hikes through the Bontoc Tourism Office. The petroglyphs can be combined with the Ganga Burial Caves as a traverse hike. A guided day hike costs ₱1,500.

From Metro Manila (Cubao, Quezon City), take a bus to Bontoc on Coda Lines (10-11 hours, ₱1,080). Online bookings can be made via their official Facebook account on Messenger (GCASH payments only). From Bontoc Public Market, take a Bontoc-Bauko minibus (15 minutes, ₱30) and alight at Barangay Alab Oriente, the jumping off point for hikes to Alab Petroglyphs and Ganga Burial Caves on Mount Data.

Where to Stay

There are no accommodations available in Barangay Alab Oriente, the jump-off point for Mount Data. Affordable hotels and homestays can be found in Bontoc town proper. Find discounted rooms and check availability here!

Location Map

What do you think of this post!

%d bloggers like this: