Ethnoarchaeology at the Top of the World

New Ceramic Studies Among the Kalinga of Luzon

By: William A. Longacre, James M. Skibo and Miriam T. Stark

Originally Published in 1991

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I. History of the Project

The Kalinga are a tribal society inhabiting the high mountains of Luzon in the northern Philippines. Here, on ridges and in valleys overlooking swift flowing rivers, they make their living by growing rice in irrigated, terraced fields. Why, in 1973, did a South­western archaeologist leave his dig in Arizona and travel some 10,000 miles to live with and learn from these people? The answer lies in the theoretical climate of the day.
The Kalinga Ethnoarchaeological Project was forged during the era of the “New Archaeology.” Reacting against traditional archaeological ap­proaches, proponents of the New Archaeology emphasized explana­tion over description. One of their aims was to develop the means to infer aspects of past societies that are difficult or impossible to ex­cavate, such as social organization and certain behaviors of interest to the archaeologist. New Archaeolo­gists frequently used excavated pot­tery in making their inferences. Could the abundant pottery the Kalinga still make and use in their daily lives hold a key? We thought it could.

Over the 18 years that have passed since the Project began, the face of archaeology has changed drama­tically. So, too, have the goals of the Project, now encompassing concerns about the formation of the archae­ological record, performance charac­teristics of pottery, experimental studies, production and distribution of pottery, and much more. Re­viewing those changes in historical context provides a look at the changing nature of archaeology it­self.

Selecting an Appropriate Society

Why did we choose the Kalinga? In one of the first case studies of the “New Archaeology,” the senior au­thor analyzed the distribution of painted pottery decoration at a pre­ historic Pueblo ruin in Arizona called the Carter Ranch Site (Longacre 1970). In that study, he argued that certain aspects of social organization could be inferred through such a distributional study. If pots are made by women, as they are in nearly every known case where pottery is made for domestic consumption, then subtle styles of decoration might develop that reflect the learn­ing of pottery making from one’s mother. And if that is so, then micro-traditions of pottery decoration might reflect the making of pots by a group of related women—sisters, for example.

Some societies favor the husband leaving his natal home at the time of marriage and moving in with his wife’s family. If that were the rule at the Carter Ranch Pueblo during pre­historic times, then clusters of deco­rated pottery should be found in architecturally defined groups of rooms. Although Longacre’s study found a correlation between pottery designs and architectural units, by 1973 serious doubts were raised about that study and others like it. Concern was expressed about whether or not micro-traditions re­flected learning frameworks in such a society. Also, the study of prehistoric pot­tery did not unravel factors (other than kinship) that affected the dis­tribution of the pottery as it was excavated from the prehistoric vil­lage. Some of these factors include where the pottery was produced,how the pottery was used, and how the pottery was affected by environ­mental processes after the village was abandoned. It had been as­sumed in the original study that the distribution reflected directly the locus of use and production of the pots themselves.

It was clear that the only place where one could begin to address such concerns was not in the archae­ological record, but among a living society. The problem was to find an appropriate society with which to work. Ideally, it should be a group that makes and uses pots on a house­hold basis. That is, each household makes pots for its own use and not for sale in a market. It should also be a culture whose customs and tradi­tions had already been studied by cultural anthropologists (e.g., Barton 1949; Dozier 1986, 1987; Scott 1958, 1960; Takaki 1977, 1984), providing a foundation for ethnoarchaeological research. Finding such a society was difficult in the modern world. At the time, the Kalinga, a tribal society living in the rugged mountains of north central Luzon in the Philip­pines (Fig. 1), seemed the most likely candidate. An initial trip was made to the Kalinga-Apayao prov­ince in 1974 to ascertain if the people still made pots on a household basis and to seek their permission to under­take a long-term study if such were the case (Longacre 1974).

The Kalinga Ethnoarchaeological Project focused its efforts on villages within the Pasil municipality (Fig. 2). The village of Dangtalan was the first place visited (Fig. 4a,b). Pottery was in use everywhere: the Kalinga used pottery vessels to cook their rice and their vegetables and meat, as well as to carry and store water from the spring and even to brew Bayas, a sugar cane wine. Women made the pots and learned how to do it from their mothers, and vir­tually every household made its own pottery This seemed the perfect place for the envisioned study.

After getting to know the senior author over a week and hearing about the planned research, the Kalinga agreed to let him return for a yearlong study, and that was carried out during 1975-1978 (Long-acre 1981). The main objective was to collect information (and pots) that reflected the learning frame­works in order to test some of the ideas generated in the Carter Ranch study. During the course of the field work it became apparent that the Kalinga potters tended to work in informal groups based upon neigh­borhoods, so data and pots from particular work groups were also collected to measure the impact of potting together. In addition, infor­mation on ceramic decorative style was collected for each Dangtalan potter.

Virtually all Dangtalau pots are decorated with incised designs that are known as gill around the vessel neck (Fig. 4a,b). The number of gill bands on a particular vessel ranges from one to four or more. Many gill designs have names, and bands may be combined in a variety of patterns. After the Kalinga field work was completed and a large collection of pots made, analysis of the gill decora­ tion was undertaken by Michael Graves as part of his dissertation research (Graves 1981). Combina­tions of gill designs were analyzed using multivariate techniques to see whether micro-traditions reflected the Kalinga potter’s learning frame­works, as had been hypothesized. Graves found only weak support for that hypothesis, but discovered a strong link between the age of the potter and the degree of complexity of decoration: the older potters tended to make far more complex decorations than their younger counterparts.

New Research Goals

By 1975, new concerns and ques­tions were being raised about the “formation processes” responsible for the archaeological record. What types of processes transform arti­facts after they are discarded within a living system and before archae­ologists excavate the artifacts cen­turies or millennia later? The Kalinga setting offered an appropriate re­search venue for investigating such issues, and they were added to the research plan that guided the field work that year.

One of the new concerns involved the general question of how long items last before they are discarded. Thus, the use-life of different types of pots among the Kalingo became of interest. But how could we mea­sure the use-life of pottery? In 1975 and 1976, all the pots in use in two Kalinga villages, Dangtalan and Dalupa, were inventoried. The type of pot, the name of the potter, and the year the pot was made were recorded for each household; in all, data on over 2,000 pots in use were collected.

By 1980, political turmoil caused by Kalinga resistance to a govern­ment-sponsored hydroelectric pro­ject made the Kalinga area too dan­gerous to continue the study. In 1979 and 1980, the senior author’s prin­cipal Kalinga assistants re-inven­toried each household. New and replacement pots were added to the inventory, and information about each pot missing from the original inventory was collected. Many of these vessels had been broken or had simply worn out, and the dates of their departure from the ceramic assemblage were noted.

This information formed the basis for detailed estimates of the use-life of the various types of Kalinga pots (Longacre 1985). A general principle emerged that seems to hold true for other pottery-using societies as well: the large pots last longer than do the smaller-sized vessels in regular use. This principle has important implica­tions for the prehistorian trying to draw chronological inferences from pieces of pottery recovered from an archaeological site. The archaeolo­gist has a better chance of defining chronological differences by fo­cusing upon the pieces from  the smaller pots. Smaller pots likely broke more often and required re­placement more frequently, pro­moting faster stylistic change, change that could be observed archaeologically.

Return to the Kalingo

By 1986, problems in the Kalinga subprovince had subsided and condi­tions were sufficiently peaceful to resume the project. A major ethno­archaeological project was planned, and in the summer of 1987 the senior author, along with six University of Arizona graduate students and sev­eral more from the University of the Philippines, began 12 months of field work.

By the late 1980s archaeology had changed a great deal, and the new research plans reflected some of those changes. But the main theme continued to be the investigation of the relationships between variation in material culture and variation in behavior and organization. Some of the questions that guided the earlier research continued to be addressed. Thus, collecting data and pots from younger potters was planned to test the Graves hypothesis, that design complexity was decreasing among the younger Dangtalan potters. We also planned to continue the detailed inventory to pursue the use-life study.

Of course, over the years the Kalin-gas had been changing as well. The entry of government forces and of commercial mining and logging in­terests introduced outsiders to Kalinga and brought various forms of progress. In addition, Dangtalan ceased to be a major pottery-producing community for the Pasil municipality. By 1987 few potters were active there. Instead, Dalupa had become the center for pottery making in the Pasil River Valley, and a great deal of experimentation was evident. New decorative styles had appeared, and a variety of nontradi­tional ceramic forms were being made.

A number of new studies were undertaken by the 1987-1988 Kalinga ethnoarchaeology Project. The first ethnoarchaeological study of basketry was undertaken. Kalinga baskets are made by men; thus this research formed a parallel study to that of the pottery produced by women. Additional studies focused on vessel breakage, refuse disposal behaviors, ceramic production and distribution, and ceramic use-altera­tion. Still other projects focused upon the material correlates of wealth and status and the ecology of irrigation rice agriculture.

II. The Kalinga Ceramic Studies

Here, we present the results of only a few of the timely and in­teresting studies conducted by the Kalinga Ethnoarchaeological Pro­ject: ceramic production and distri­bution, and pottery use-alteration. Two other studies are summarized briefly in boxes accompanying the text: a study of technological change and a study of the development of a new decorative ceramic tradition.

Ceramic Production and Distribution

One hallmark of “Neolithic” com­munities that archaeologists study worldwide has been pottery making.

Pottery is ubiquitous in the archae­ological record and constitutes one indicator of prehistoric economy. Many archaeologists believe that economic factors are vital in the emergence of prehistoric states. Examining how the organization of pottery production is related to social and political aspects of pre­historic societies, then, sheds light on broader archaeological issues, such as the nature and development of social complexity.

Pottery-making systems world­wide vary greatly in their organiza­tion and scale. At one end of the continuum lie those tribal societies in which pottery is produced at the household level for household use. At the other end of the continuum are large-scale ceramic industries, such as the Wedgwood manufac­tories of 18th century England. This continuum in the organization of ceramic production is also present in the archaeological record, where pottery making among simple agri­culturalists stands in stark contrast to ceramic production in the state-controlled craft industries of early Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian civilizations.

The Kalinga Case Study

Within the Kalinga-Apayao prov­ince, the Kalinga section has been divided into eight municipalities that roughly coincide with the valleys that encase major rivers and tribu­taries. That pottery making—and the pots themselves—continues to be an integral part of Kahinga life is evi­denced by the fact that pottery-making centers were to be found in each of these municipalities during the 1980s (Fig. 5). Even the provin­cial capital of Tabuk, where many homes have electricity and running water, contained at least three pottery-making neighborhoods, where emigrant potters from rural areas have continued to make and sell their products.

The Kalinga ethnoarchaeology Project focused its research on sev­eral communities along the Pasil River. These villages were initially selected for study because pottery making there represented a tradi­tional, small-scale industry in which pots were produced and used pri­marily for the potters’ own house­holds. During the Project’s most recent field study, two villages were engaged in production of earthen­ware goods and formed the focus of research on ceramic production and distribution: Dalupa and Dangtalan.

Kahinga pottery making is a com­bination of coil-and-scrape manufac­ture, which yields the initial shape of the vessel, and paddle-and-anvil techniques, which produce the final shape of the even globular vessel bodies (Fig. 6a-b). Although the initial vessel-forming sequence lasts just 15-25 minutes, the entire pottery-making process involves clay prepar­ation, vessel forming, drying, and firing. An active Kahinga potter can finish between 10 and 15 vessels in a week; this number varies according to other household and farming demands that the potter may con­front, including childcare and cook­ing, along with rice farming activities such as transplanting, weeding, or harvesting (Fig. 7).

An Historical Perspective on Kalinga Pottery Making

Changes in the location and ac­tivity levels of pottery-making vil­lages can be seen at the regional and local levels. Three decades ago, villages to the east (Cagaiwan) and west (Balatoc) of Dalupa and Dang­talan also made and traded pots (Fig. 2). In the last 20 years, several changes in the local environment and economic structure have discour­aged pottery production in areas where alternative modes of subsis­tence can be pursued. These changes include the reactivation of gold mines, the establishment of major logging operations and subsequent deforestation of neighboring areas, and the developing importance of coffee as a cash crop for villages having access to suitable crop land. Dalupa and Dangtalan, then, have only recently emerged as the only pottery-making centers for the Pasil River Valley. Changes have also been observed in the communities of Dalupa and Dangtalan during the 16-year history of the Kalinga Ethnoarchaeological Project. What was once a thriving.

The Development of Part-time Craft Specialization

Upon the Kalinga Ethnoarchaelogical Project’s return in 1988 it was no small surprise to find that the organization of Kalinga pottery pro­duction had undergone major changes. At least half of the Dang­talan potters had virtually ceased to make pottery at all, while their Dalupa neighbors had joined the potter ranks in full force. Dalupa potters had become semi-specialists, and the organization of production had shifted from production for household consumption to pottery making for exchange (Stark 1991).

Changes in pottery production can first be examined from an ethno­graphic perspective. Through the ethnographic lens, household and village-level economic structures can be compared and contrasted. Labor outputs by family members, as well as the number of household members to support, can be assessed. Re­garding the potters themselves, rates of pottery production and of ex­change may be recorded and cor­related with patterns of household affluence. Analysis is currently under­way regarding the scale of pottery production and exchange, using this holistic approach.

Taken as a whole, the ethnographic data reveal that the development of Dalupa pottery specialization may be largely explained through diminishing resources, insufficient rice field landholdings, and a population boom, all of which have collectively strained the ability of Dalupa house­holds to sustain themselves. Pottery production for exchange in nearby communities and farflung villages garners rice to feed family members, as well as clothing, lumber to construct new homes, and, occasionally, cash that pays for children’s educational fees while attending high school or college in the provincial capital of Tabuk.

Changes in Kalingas ceramic pro­duction can be examined through an archaeological perspective as well by focusing on Kalingas material culture. Previously mentioned influences in­clude the reactivation of gold mines and the establishment of logging companies in the area. Perhaps the most profound impact on the general Pasil area occurred as a result of the Marcos government’s efforts re­garding the Chico River Dam Project. Governmental employees were unsuccessful in their efforts to woo the Kalinga into accepting the hydroelectric project that would displace 10,000 Kalingas from their land to provide electricity for Ca­gayan Valley residents living 40 miles to the northeast. Massive resistance to the project by the Kalinga and the neighboring Bontoc groups pre­vailed, and the project was can­celled.

During this period, however, non-Kalinga customs and values were introduced that had an impact on traditional lifeways. Governmental employees (including the military) sought Dalupa ceramic souvenirs”; figurines and religious plaques (Fig. 8) were developed that have now become a standard part of the Dalupa potter’s repertoire. One means by which the Marcos government at­tempted to curry favor with the Kalinga was through the establish­ment of centralized workshops to promote and revitalize traditional crafts such as backstrap-loom weaving. Interaction between Da­lupa potters and weavers in the center of Lubuagan during the Chico River Project encouraged Dalupa potters to modify both the shape and the decoration of their water jars (immosso). Dalupa-produced water jars now sport festive ocher decora­tions of floral motifs, geometric designs, and an occasional anthro­pomorphic depiction.

Pottery Use-Alteration

Since the work of the Russian archaeologist Semenov (1964) was introduced to the west, lithic use-wear analysis has become common­place. From the polish and micro­chips on the edges of stone tools archaeologists are now able to infer how a tool was actually used. Though it has been several decades since the first lithic use-wear analyses, com­parable studies with pottery have not been done. This is not for lack of need. Ceramic data are often em­ployed to determine things such as prehistoric exchange patterns, diet, population size, and social organiza­tion. Many of these inferences rely on a fundamental but often unresolved question: How was pottery used?

Accurate estimates about house­hold size from pottery, for example, require that one can determine which pots were used for daily cooking, water storage, and serving, and which pots were not in use. Similarly, before one can determine that a type of pottery was controlled and dis­tributed by elites in an elaborate exchange network, it is necessary to understand the way pottery func­tioned in everyday life. Nearly all inferences about past society that employ pottery must rely ultimately on assumptions about how the pot­tery functioned. The purpose of this component of the Kalinga Ethno-archaeological Project is to link pot­tery use with alterations to the vessel. This will help prehistorians deter­mine how pottery was used in the past.

The data for this project were collected from March through May 1988 in the Kalinga village of Guina­ang; Masashi Kobayashi was the co­director of the pottery use-alteration study. Cuina-ang is across the river and about an hour’s walk from Dan g­talan. It is the largest village in the Pasil Valley and is thought to be the oldest. Guinaang consists of slightly over 100 houses that cluster atop a ridge overlooking the Pasil river.

The data for the pottery use-altera­tion study were collected in two phases. The first phase involved inventorying all the vessels in the 102 households. This information was collected by Kalinga assistants and it included not only data about each pot, such as the age, the dimensions, and the maker of the pot, but also information about pottery use. For all 2481 vessels in the village of Guinaang we know things such as what each pot is used for, when it was last used, whether it is ever used to cook other foods, and some basic information about use-alteration traces.

The second phase of data collec­tion involved day-long observations of pottery use. In 40 households the use of pottery was carefully docu­mented from before the first meat until after the final meal of the day (Fig. 9). Any activity that involved pottery, such as cooking, cleaning, and storing, was recorded (Fig. 10). In these households new vessels were exchanged for the old ones in order to create a use-alteration study col­lection of about 200 vessels. These vessels were wrapped carefully to avoid further alterations to the sur­faces and then shipped to Tucson where they now reside in the Arizona State Museum.

The analysis of pottery use-altera­tion concentrated on three lines of evidence: absorbed residues, attri­tion, and carbon deposition. The analysis focused on the two forms of Kalinga cooking pots (Fig. 4a,b): ittoyom, used to cook rice, and oppaya, used to cook vegetables and meat. The rice and vegetable/meat pots provide a good contrast because they are used to cook different foods, and there are a different set of activities associated with each vessel type.

The analysis of absorbed residues concentrated on fatty acids. All plant and animal species have different combinations of fatty acids, which can, potentially, survive long periods in the depositional environment. Fatty acids were extracted from a sample of vessels and a set of Kalinga foods and then identified with gas chromatography/mass spectrome­try. The results demonstrated that fatty acids can be used to discri­minate pots used to cook different items. The residue absorbed into the vessel wall of the rice cooking pots could be clearly linked to rice. Al­though the vegetable/meat cooking pots were more problematic because they were used to cook a variety of foods (e.g., chicken, pork, dog, and various forms of garden-grown vege­tables and wild plants), the residue analysis did determine that a variety of both plant and animal foods were prepared in the vessels.

To determine how well the fatty acids survive in the depositional environment, a sample of sherds ex­cavated from a Kalinga midden were also analyzed. Fatty acids were still present in the walls of the sherds but there was some evidence of fatty acid decomposition. Research in this area is ongoing.

Attrition to the vessel surfaces as a result of use is also an instructive trace. There are nine areas on the Kalinga cooking pots that have evi­dence of distinct activities, such as stirring, methods of heating the con­tents, and washing. The use-attrition traces were identified with the help of low-power optical and scanning electron microscopy. It was found that the exterior surfaces of the rice and vegetable/meat cooking pots have similar use-attrition patterns, but that the interiors have distinct use traces that reflect different cooking activities. For example, the vege­table/meat cooking pots have evi­dence of stirring and manipulation of the contents during cooking, but the rice cooking vessels do not. More­over. the rice cooking pots have thermal spalls on the interior mid­section suggesting that they were placed next to the fire. The attritional data are so patterned that it is even possible to identify the pottery users in the community that are left-handed.

The final form of use-alteration analyzed in this study is interior and exterior carbon deposits. Interior patches of carbonized food provide information on what the food was and how it was cooked. Exterior carbon, or soot, can demonstrate how the vessel was positioned over the fire. The rice and vegetable/meat cooking pots have different patterns of carbon deposition that represent different ways of cooking. For ex­ample, the rice cooking pots often have a carbonized patch on the interior midsection from being placed next to the fire in the final stage of rice cooking. The Kalinga pots offered firsthand evidence of pottery carbon deposition, and this has led to a more complete descrip­tion of the factors that control both interior and exterior carbon forma­tion.

This is the first ethnoarchaeological study to concentrate exclusively on pottery use-alteration. It was demon­strated that all three forms of use­alteration—residues, carbon de­posits, and surface attrition—do re­flect pottery use activities. The rice and vegetable/meat pots could be discriminated based on all three forms of use-alteration traces (Skibo n.d.). This has led to a more general discussion of the factors that control the ways in which pottery can reflect activities. The ultimate objective of this research was to provide the means for the prehistorian to make more refined inferences about pot­tery use. This component of the Kalinga Project demonstrates that patterned activities of pottery use alter the vessels in ways that can be interpreted by the archaeologist, leading to better inferences of pot­tery use and therefore to more ac­curate reconstructions of the past.


Change is a unifying theme in the history of the Kalinga ethnoarchaeological Project. During the last 18 years, much has changed in both the types of research topics pursued on this project, and in the nature of Kalinga society. The project was initiated in the 1970s as an attempt to explore ceramic styles and residence, but has been sensitive to changing trends in archaeology. Research within the Kalinga project today ranges in focus from pottery use-life, use-alteration, and refuse disposal to regional studies of ceramic produc­tion and distribution. One of the major strengths of the Kalinga Project lies in its efforts to integrate experi­mental, etlmoarchaeological, and ar­chaeological approaches to ceramic analysis. The other strength is its long-term perspective, enabling us to track material culture change, a uniquely archaeological concern. Kalinga research continues, and the next two decades promise to provide even greater contributions for ar­chaeologists.

Cite This Article

Longacre, William A., Skibo, James M. and Stark, Miriam T.. "Ethnoarchaeology at the Top of the World." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 1 (March, 1991): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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