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Archeology: Shell Midden Sites in the Municipality of Lal-lo, Cagayan

Archeology: Shell Midden Sites in the Municipality of Lal-lo, Cagayan

Did you know that archaeologists also study heaps of prehistoric refuse to learn about people’s diet and habits in the past? A shell midden is an archaeological feature composed of a substantial deposit of mollusks (shells), intermixed with artifacts and ecofacts (biological remains). The biggest shell midden in the Philippines, and probably in Southeast Asia, can be found in the municipality of Lal-lo, province of Cagayan. This is located in the Cagayan Valley, a region bounded on the west by the Cordillera mountain range and the Sierra Madre mountain range on the east. Lal-lo lies on the east bank of the Cagayan River, the largest and longest river in the Philippines. This river flows north and out into the Luzon Strait through the Municipality of Aparri.


Archeology: Shell Midden Sites in the Municipality of Lal-lo, Cagayan
Professor Yoji Aoyagi demonstrating the thickness of the Magapit Shell Midden Site deposit.

The first shell midden site in Lal-lo was accidentally discovered on May 4, 1971 by Mr. Israel Cabanilla who was a former researcher of the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) and the Japanese archaeologist Professor Yoji Aoyagi. He was a student of Dr. Robert Fox in 1970 during an archaeological exploration and excavation in the province of Kalinga. The team of Cabanilla and Aoyagi were on their way to Aparri to refuel their vehicle when they chanced upon the site. It is located on top of a limestone hill in  Barangay Magapit and was then exposed by a road construction project. 

The midden-shell deposit comprised of freshwater bivalve shells locally known as kabibe or cabibi (Batissa spp.), and other edible freshwater snails. It was about 6 meters high. Red-slipped pottery with impressed and incised designs, adzes, and clay ornaments were among the materials found within the same context. Dr. Fox recognized the importance of the midden due to its thick deposit and unique cultural material assemblage that can be attributed to the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age, from 4200 to 2500 years Before Present or BP). As a result of this, he recommended an immediate excavation of the site. Thus, in 1972, the Magapit Shell Midden Site was excavated, revealing more artifacts, including polished stone adzes, clay spindle whorls, clay pendants, stone beads, and bone tools.  

NMP and Japanese archaeologists continued extensive archaeological explorations in the 1980s. They went further inland, where they found a limestone formation along the lower reaches of the Cagayan River that is still within Lal-lo municipality. This discovery led to the identification of 21 shell midden sites. 

In 1995, a 10-year archaeological project was initiated with Japanese collaborators led by Prof. Hidefumi Ogawa. The long-term project provided a local cultural chronology of Lal-lo and its nearby municipalities. Through Carbon-14 dating of recovered faunal remains, five cultural phases represented by flake tool and pottery assemblages were established. From the  oldest to the most recent, the chronology denoting cultural transition and development are: flake assemblage (7000–4000 calibrated BP, or cal. BP), red-slipped pottery (4000–3400 cal. BP), non-decorated red-slipped pottery (3400–3000 cal. BP), decorated red-slipped pottery (3000–2500 cal. BP), decorated black pottery (2300–1500 cal. BP) and non-decorated black pottery (1500–1000 cal. BP). 

While the artifacts found across the Lal-lo Shell Midden Sites such as pottery, ornaments (beads, bracelets) and tools (bone, stone, and metal) reflect culture, the massive shell deposit itself is evidence of intensive shellfish utilization in the past. The results of stable isotope analysis on bone fragments from the sites showed that a prehistoric shell-gathering people made use of available resources from the Cagayan River. However, these people did not strictly subsist on clams alone. The recovered animal remains indicated that terrestrial fauna like deer, and wild and domesticated pigs were also part of their diet. Evidence showed that these animals were a source of protein, and that the early inhabitants  had access to this through hunting and gathering subsistence strategies.


Archeology: Shell Midden Sites in the Municipality of Lal-lo, Cagayan
The shell midden is mainly composed of freshwater clams, locally called kabibe.

The shell middens along the Cagayan River continue to be under the risk of flooding, soil erosion, and treasure hunting activities. The recent massive inundation of the entire Cagayan province caused by Typhoon Ulysses (internationally, Vamco), specifically of the municipalities downstream of the Cagayan River in the north, has affected some of the archaeological sites in the area. It will be a great loss of information about the early settlers of this part of the country should the sites remain  unprotected from threats like extreme weather patterns and intensified manmade destruction of the environment.

The NMP is still closed to the public but once we are authorized to open we will show you some of the material culture associated with these shell middens. We would also be willing to explain to you briefly how we were able to use stable isotope analysis to determine the age of bone fragments in relation to those material culture. In the meantime, #staysafe and join in the national effort to #BeatCOVID19

Text and Images by Ame Garong/ NMP Archaeology Division

© National Museum of the Philippines (2020)

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