While there is scant mention of the specific names of the martial arts that pre-colonial Filipinos practiced, I believe that various prototypes of Filipino martial arts (FMA) were already in existence long before the arrival of Spain. To me, three things serve as indicators of the existence of indigenous FMA: organized method of warfare, metallurgical technology and sophisticated blade culture. All three aforementioned were chronicled by the Spaniards when they arrived in the Philippines.
Organized method of warfare
Asdang is the prehispanic Filipino term for hand-to-hand combat as mentioned by William Henry Scott in his excellent book Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society (1994), “Asdang was hand-to-hand combat. Bulu was a duel. Hulaw was a man known to be on the lookout for an enemy,” he wrote.
While it may be true that sheer number is the prime factor why the native army of Lapulapu defeated the forces of Magellan in Mactan, I am firm in my stand that the pre-colonial Filipinos were already schooled in their own methods of warfare.
Scott in his book wrote that the Visayan general term for warfare was gubat. He distinguished combat engagements into two—gahat (by land) and mangayaw (by sea). Salakay is the word used for attacking.”
On land attacks, he comments, “The preferred tactic on land was ambush—habon, saghid, hoom or pool—either by lying in wait or by such strategies as exposing a few agile warriors to enemy view to lure them into a trap. Sayang was to pass by hidden enemies unawares.”
Scott even referred to an individual tactic used while being pursued by the enemy as well as how the concept of death could affect a warrior’s psyche, “Pinaorihiyan was for a fleeing warrior to turn and spear his pursuer; naga kamatayan was to fight to the death; and mangin matay was a desperate man determined to die on the field of battle.”
Terminologies pertaining to military affairs also abound as the following lines from Scott’s book indicate, “Special roles connected with the conduct of war included away, enemy; bantay, sentinel; bila, allies; kagon, mediator; and laway, spy.”
The existence of means to weapons production is a solid evidence that the early Filipinos practice their own martial arts. Simply and logically put, they would not forge an enormous variety of bladed weapons unless they know how to use them.
The account of Panday Pira is a testament to the existence of a sophisticated prehispanic metallurgy and metal working in the Philippines. Panday Pira is credited for inventing the portable cannon lantaka. So advance was his metallurgical knowledge that he was eventually commissioned by the Spaniards to make cannons for their galleons and for the fortification of Intramuros, Manila’s walled city.
Scott, in another book, Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino, described some of the black smithing techniques of the Tagalogs of Luzon, “Lokot is forging, banhay is shaping, and asor is mauling or smithing in general, and includes specialized procedures like tanar, hammering into bars, or batbat, into flat sheets; tambal, working two pieces of metal into one; balon, beating iron and steel together; and binsal, sheathing iron with steel. Alob or balasbas is reforging used or damaged tools.”
Identifying the Filipinos’ primary sources of metal before and shortly after the arrival of Spain, he wrote, “Iron is obtained from three sources—steel bars from Spain binalon (literally “wrought”), ingots (babak) or bars, landok from China, ‘just as it comes from the mine,’ and Chinese cast iron pans, patalim, so called because they are the most common source for steel blades (talim).”
Sophisticated blade culture
One of the earliest writings about the Philippines is Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1609) by Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay. In the said work, Morga offers a graphic description of the early Filipinos affinity toward the blade and its corresponding lethal consequences, “At the waist they carry a dagger four fingers in breadth, the blade pointed, and a third vara in length (about 11 inches), the hilt is of gold or ivory. The pommel is open and has two crossbars or projections, without any other guard. They are called bararaos [balaraw]. They have two cutting edges, and are kept in wooden scabbards, of those of buffalo horn, admirably wrought. With these they strike with the point but more generally with the edge. When they go in pursuit of their opponents, they show great dexterity in seizing his hair with one hand, while the other they cut off his head with one stroke of the bararao and carry it away.”
The use of precious materials (gold and ivory) in the construction of the balaraw and the amazing temper of the blade itself (“admirably wrought,” according to Morga) are solid indications of weapons veneration and presence of a sophisticated blade culture.
On the other hand, the natives’ ability to cut through flesh and bone with one stroke using such a short knife is indicative of a repeatedly practiced combat skill.