Pre-Colonial Early Times - 1564 Filipinos often lose sight of the fact that the first period of the Philippine literary history is the longest. Certain events from the nation's history had forced lowland Filipinos to begin counting the years of history from 1521, the first time written records by Westerners referred to the archipelago later to be called "Las islas Filipinas". However, the discovery of the "Tabon Man" in a cave in Palawan in 1962, has allowed us to stretch our prehistory as far as 50,000 years back. The stages of that prehistory show how the early Filipinos grew in control over their environment. Through the researches and writings about Philippine history, much can be reliably inferred about precolonial Philippine literature from an analysis of collected oral lore of Filipinos whose ancestors were able to preserve their indigenous culture by living beyond the reach of Spanish colonial administrators.
The oral literature of the precolonial Filipinos bore the marks of the community. The subject was invariably the common experience of the people constituting the village-food-gathering, creature and objects of nature, work in the home, field, forest or sea, caring for children, etc. This is evident in the most common forms of oral literature like the riddle, the proverbs and the song, which always seem to assume that the audience is familiar with the situations, activities and objects mentioned in the course of expressing a thought or emotion. The language of oral literature, unless the piece was part of the cultural heritage of the community like the epic, was the language of daily life. At this phase of literary development, any member of the community was a potential poet, singer or storyteller as long as he knew the language and had been attentive to the conventions f the forms.
In settlements along or near the seacoast, a native syllabary was in use before the Spaniards brought over the Roman alphabet. The syllabary had three vowels (a, i-e, u-o) and 14 consonants (b, d, g, h, k, l, m, n, ng, p, r, s, t, w, and y) but, curiously enough, had no way of indicating the consonantal ending words. This lends credence to the belief that the syllabary could not have been used to produce original creative works which would all but be undecipherable when read by one who had had no previous contact with the text. When the syllabary fell into disuse among the Christianized Filipinos, much valuable information about precolonial culture that could had been handed down to us was lost. Fewer and fewer Filipinos kept records of their oral lore, and fewer and fewer could decipher what had been recorded in earlier times. The perishable materials on which the Filipinos wrote were disintegrate and the missionaries who believed that indigenous pagan culture was the handicraft of the devil himself destroyed those that remained.
There are two ways by which the uniqueness of indigenous culture survived colonization. First, by resistance to colonial rule. This was how the Maranaws, the Maguindanaws, and the Tausogs of Mindanao and Igorots, Ifugao, Bontocs and Kalingas of the Mountain Province were able to preserve the integrity of their ethnic heritage. The Tagbanwas, Tagabilis, Mangyans, Bagobos, Manuvus, Bilaan, Bukidnons, and Isneg could cling on the traditional way of life because of the inaccessibility of settlements. It is to these descendants of ancient Filipinos who did not come under the cultural sway of Western colonizers that we turn when we look for examples of oral lore. Oral lore they have been preserve like epics, tales, songs, riddles, and proverbs that are now windows to a past with no written records which can be studied.
Ancient Filipinos possessed great wealth of lyric poetry. There were many songs of great variety in lyrics and music as well as meter. Each mountain tribe and each group of lowland Filipinos had its own. Most of the may be called folksongs in that there can be traced in them various aspects of the life and customs of the people.
Precolonial poetry were composed of poems composed of different dialects of the islands. The first Spanish settlers themselves found such poetry, reproduced them, and recorded in their reports and letters to Spain. Although precolonial poems are distinct from the lyrics of the folksongs the said poems were usually chanted when recited, as is still the custom of all Asiatic peoples and Pacific Ocean tribes. It is true that many of the precolonial poetry is crude in ideology and phraseology as we look at it with our present advanced knowledge of what poetry should be. Considering the fact that early Filipinos never studied literature and never had a chance to study poetry and poetic technique, it is surprising that their spontaneous poetic expression had some rhythmic pattern in the use of equal syllabic counts for the lines of stanza, and have definitely uniform rhyming scheme. Spanish missionaries writing grammars and vocabularies had made good use of these early beginnings of Filipino poetry to illustrate word usage according to the dictionary and grammatical definitions they had cast.
Thousands of maxims, proverbs, epigrams, and the like have been listed by many different collectors and researchers from many dialects. Majority of these reclaimed from oblivion com from the Tagalos, Cebuano, and Ilocano dialects. And the bulk are rhyming couplets with verses of five, six seven, or eight syllables, each line of the couplet having the same number of syllables. The rhyming practice is still the same as today in the three dialects mentioned. A good number of the proverbs is conjectured as part of longer poems with stanza divisions, but only the lines expressive of a philosophy have remained remembered in the oral tradition. Classified with the maxims and proverbs are allegorical stanzas which abounded in all local literatures. They contain homilies, didactic material, and expressions of homespun philosophy, making them often quoted by elders and headmen in talking to inferiors. They are rich in similes and metaphors. These one stanza poems were called Tanaga and consisted usually of four lines with seven syllables, all lines rhyming.
The most appreciated riddles of ancient Philippines are those that are rhymed and having equal number of syllables in each line, making them classifiable under the early poetry of this country. Riddles were existent in all languages and dialects of the ancestors of the Filipinos and cover practically all of the experiences of life in these times.
Almost all the important events in the life of the ancient peoples of this country were connected with some religious observance and the rites and ceremonies always some poetry recited, chanted, or sung. The lyrics of religious songs may of course be classified as poetry also, although the rhythm and the rhyme may not be the same.
Drama as a literary from had not yet begun to evolve among the early Filipinos. Philippine theater at this stage consisted largely in its simplest form, of mimetic dances imitating natural cycles and work activities. At its most sophisticated, theater consisted of religious rituals presided over by a priest or priestess and participated in by the community. The dances and ritual suggest that indigenous drama had begun to evolve from attempts to control the environment. Philippine drama would have taken the form of the dance-drama found in other Asian countries.
Prose narratives in prehistoric Philippines consisted largely or myths, hero tales, fables and legends. Their function was to explain natural phenomena, past events, and contemporary beliefs in order to make the environment less fearsome by making it more comprehensible and, in more instances, to make idle hours less tedious by filling them with humor and fantasy. There is a great wealth of mythical and legendary lore that belongs to this period, but preserved mostly by word of mouth, with few written down by interested parties who happen upon them.
The most significant pieces of oral literature that may safely be presumed to have originated in prehistoric times are folk epics. Epic poems of great proportions and lengths abounded in all regions of the islands, each tribe usually having at least one and some tribes possessing traditionally around five or six popular ones with minor epics of unknown number.
Filipinos had a culture that linked them with the Malays in the Southeast Asia, a culture with traces of Indian, Arabic, and, possibly Chinese influences. Their epics, songs, short poems, tales, dances and rituals gave them a native Asian perspective which served as a filtering device for the Western culture that the colonizers brought over from Europe.