The Colorful Cultures of Pre-Colonial Mindanao

Bridging the gap between what seems like ‘exotic’ Mindanao starts with understanding the culture of its people and realizing that they are as integral as us.

Few pre-colonial cultures are as diverse as that of Mindanao, which combined influences from the Visayans, the Muslims, and the nearby Indian and Majapahit empires. Most important, it stood in stark contrast against the prevailing idea that Philippine society and culture simply didn’t exist or that the people living in the Philippines needed Spanish colonization in order to advance.

A cursory look at the cultures of Mindanao easily proves this wrong. There is a reason why the Spanish had a hard time colonizing the southern island of the archipelago, and why this cultural divide persists to this day.

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Mindanao and the Visayans

Mindanao was heavily influenced by Visayan culture. From dress and worship to language and other aspects of culture, a lot of things observed in the Visayas can also be found in Mindanao. Perhaps this could be attributed to the constant raiding by the Visayans, who were, after all, feared for their propensity for pangangayaw or sea raiding. 

In any case, coastal settlements in Mindanao were very similar in culture with the Visayans. The Spaniards even learned of the name “Vizaya” from settlements in modern-day Surigao del Sur and Davao Oriental.

Pre-Colonial Mindanao

A key observation by Spanish chroniclers was their propensity for raiding, even more than the Visayans. Sebastian de Puerto, a Spanish deserter, described them as “living off the sea by raid and trade.” Spanish priests also noted their fierce raiding tradition. 

Raiding parties had a complex tradition. Raiders were not allowed to eat octopus, squid, or fish caught in nets. No lights were allowed while cooking during the voyage. Before setting off, prayers were given and chants were offered. After the raid, the best captives were sacrificed to the raiding captain’s ancestors, humalagar. A second sacrifice was dispatched at the captain’s house by his wife.

Mindanao and the Moros of the South

Outside of Visayan influence, one of the most distinct elements in Mindanao is its Moro influence. Until now the image of Mindanao is inextricably linked with Islam. No small surprise, considering the largest and most powerful polities in pre-colonial Mindanao were Muslim.

The most powerful was the Sultanate of Maguindanao, whose name came from the word danaw (lake) and meant “to be inundated,” referring to the two mouths of the Pulangi River. It was a centralized Muslim state, unlike the loose tribal federations found in Luzon and the Visayas, with a chief datu recognized as the sultan and a Muslim court serving him. The famed Sultan Kudarat, who rallied the Muslims of nearby Lanao against Spanish incursion, reigned as Sultan of Maguindanao, though he sometimes engaged in non-Islamic practices such as human sacrifice.

Pre-Colonial Mindanao
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Further south is the Sultanate of Sulu. Established by Abu Bakr before Maguindanao, Sulu was known for its trade with the Chinese and its legendary pearls. Sulu was also known for its fierce rivalry with Borneo, whose influence reached all the way to Tondo and Maynila, and the Sulu royal family alternately fought and intermarried with the Bornean nobility.

For centuries, both states resisted Spanish incursion and were wildly successful in doing so. The royal families exist until today, and in some ways, the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao still exercise a lot of power in Mindanao politics.

Mindanao and the Golden City of Butuan

Near the northern tip of Mindanao lies the Rajahnate of Butuan. It wasn’t like the Muslim states to the south, nor was it a loose tribal federation like the Visayas. Established as early as 1001, Butuan served as a major power in the archipelago for centuries and even enjoyed status as a Chinese tributary state. The Butuans were excellent traders and their position near the mouth of the Agusan River allowed them to flourish in agriculture.

Pre-Colonial Mindanao

Culturally, they were similar to the other Mindanao Visayans in the area, from Caraga to Lanao and Zamboanga. But Butuan was unique in its sheer abundance of gold. Antonio Pigafetta noted: 

“Pieces of gold, the size of walnuts and eggs, are found by sifting the earth in the island of that king who came to our ships. All the dishes of that king are of gold and also some portion of his house as we were told by that king himself...He had a covering of silk on his head, and wore two large golden earrings fastened in his ears...At his side hung a dagger, the haft of which was somewhat long and all of gold, and its scabbard of carved wood. He had three spots of gold on every tooth, and his teeth appeared as if bound with gold.”

Sadly, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly just how rich Butuan was. Some researchers think Butuan was wealthier than the influential Srivijaya Empire that existed at around the same time. But there is agreement that Butuan served an important role in Southeast Asian trade and was a key port in the area.

Mindanao and the Ancestral Lumad

The Lumad isn't a single ethnic group—the name is Cebuano for “native” or “indigenous.” The Lumad of Mindanao includes all the ethnic tribes and peoples who are not Muslims or Christians. From Manobo tribes to Subanon and all the tribes in between, they were the first settlers of Mindanao and boast a highly diverse and colorful culture that exists until today.

There is no singular Lumad culture; each tribe has its own customs and beliefs, though some find common ground. Lumad tribes have various colorful epics, such as the Subanon Tale of Sandayo, the epic hero who was handsome as the rising sun, or the Manobo epic of Ulahingan, which was closely related to the Ilianon Agyu epic. All epics were sung or chanted during important public celebrations and featured members of the nobility such as datus or some lesser prince. 

Pre-Colonial Mindanao

Recitation was often accompanied by instrumentation from instruments like the pondag, a flute, or the bamboo sigitan. Perhaps the most famous Lumad instrument, however, is the agung, a set of two suspended gongs accompanied by a kulintang.

Today, Mindanao culture persists in its relevance. There is a sort of “othering” of the people of Mindanao, stemming from the island’s distance from Manila and the undue privilege of culture being centered around Luzon. In the worst case, political strife puts Moros in a bad light due to connections with terrorists like Abu Sayyaf or the Maute Group or disenfranchises Lumads due to Lumad killings and community bombings by the military. But an important step for us to bridge the gap between what seems like “exotic” Mindanao is for us to better understand the culture of its people, and realize that they are as integral as us.



Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Eugenio, Damiana. Philippine Folk Literature Vol. VIIIThe Epics. University of the Philippines Press.

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Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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