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The Batanes group of islands is the northernmost province of the Philippines. It is located between 121° 45′ to 122° 15′ east longitudes, and at 20°15′ north latitudes. Batanes is closer to Taiwan than to the northern tip of Luzon. Of the 10 volcanic islands composing the province, only three are inhabited. They are Batan (where the provincial capital of Vasay (Basco) is located), Sabtang, and Itbayat. A fourth, Ivuhos, lying about a kilometer and a half cast of Sabtang, has a handful of families tending cattle. The other uninhabited islands are Yami, North, Mavudis, Siayan, Di-nem and Dequey. The province has a total land area of 230 km, the country’s smallest (Alonzo, 1965).

       Batanes is classified as having Type A climate, a pleasant semi-temperate climate. The Ivatan (people of Batanes) recognize two seasons: rayun (summer), which lasts from March to May, amian (winter) from November to February. Kachachimuyen are the rainy months for the rest of the year, except for a brief spell of warm weather (dekey a rayun) in the two weeks between September and October.

       The province has six towns: Ivana, Uyugan, Mahatao, Basco (all in Batan island), and the island-municipalities of Sablang and Itbayat.

The People

       One of the earliest eyewitness accounts on the Ivatan is that of the British buccaneer William Dampier in 1687. He described the people as “short, squat people: generally round visaged, hazel eyes, small yet bigger than Chinese (hazel eyes are light reddish brown, usually flecked with green or gray); low foreheads; thick eyebrows; short low noses; white teeth; black thick hair, lank that is worn short, just covering the ears, cut round, very even; and very dark, copper-colored skin.”

       The 1990 census of the National Statistics Office reported a total population of 15,026, an increase of  24% over the 1980 population of 12, 091. These were distributed on the six municipalities with 38% residing in Basco, 23% in Itbayat, 12% in Sabtang, 11% in Mahatao, and 8% both for Uyugan and Ivana.


       Where did the people of Batanes come from? Available documents, legends, and other folk materials do not tell us much about their origin. Scholars are still debating whether the prehistoric Ivatan came from the northern part of Luzon or from the southern part of mainland China or Taiwan. However, their racial affinities to the Malays and the structure of their language make it almost certain that they proceeded from some other part of the Philippines. Genetic studies of Omoto (1996), a Japanese anthropologist, of the Yami of Orchid Island (Lanyu) show closer genetic affinity of the Yami to the Tagalog and Visayan and linguistically to the Basiic sub-branch of the Malayo-Polynesian branch. The Yami traces their roots through their folklore from the Batanes Islands.


       The language is also called Ivatan. It is a distinct Austronesian language different from the northern Luzon languages. It has two dialects, namely, Ivatan spoken in the islands of Batan and Sabtang and Itbayat spoken in the islands of  Itbayat. English and Tagalog are widely spoken and understood by the Ivatan (Hidalgo, 1996). The Ivatan language in spite of its obvious difference from all other Filipino languages, reveals on a closer analysis, an identity of structure in the composition of particles in its root (Hidalgo, 1996).


       Batanes have a literacy rate of  95% higher than the national average of  93%. There are 19 elementary schools in the province, 11 of which offer complete courses from grades one to six. All of the six municipalities have secondary schools and a comprehensive national high school is located in the capital Basco with branches in Mahatao and Ivana. There is also a School of Fisheries in Sabtang, the Batanes Polytechnic College in Basco, while an agricultural high school has been put up in Itbayat. St. Dominic College is the only school that offers vocational courses, baccalaureate courses in arts, commerce and education, and recently, graduate courses in education.


       The Batanes group of islands came in late into the folds of  Spanish colonial power. “Freedom had been the Ivatan experience for as long as they existed. That ended on June 26, 1783, with the annexation of Batanes by the Spanish Colonial State in the Philippines. Not that the Ivatans were conquered on the day but June 26 marked the beginning of the process of eventual conquest. The Ivatans would be under Spain for 115 years and would not be free again until September 18, 1898.” (Hidalgo 1996:113). Ironically, June 26 is being celebrated by the entire province as Batanes Day (Foundation Day).

Culture and Traditions

       No other cultures in the Philippines have mastered the rages of the seasonal typhoons as the Ivatan. Their culture is a product of long history of struggle and adaptation to typhoons, the rough seas, and meager resources. It exemplifies the harmonious relationship of people with their environment.

       The Houses. Before the coming of the Spaniards, the Ivatan lived in very small and low cogon houses well situated to maximize the protection against strong winds. The Spaniards introduced large-scale production of lime for the construction of the now famous “traditional” Ivatan stone-houses, with exceptionally thick cogon roofs, that could withstand the strongest typhoon.

       Food and Production. Small islands usually have limited carrying capacities. The seas are hospitable only for a few months (March, April, May) every year. Flying fish (dibang) and dolphinfish (arayu) fishing are the highlights of the fishing season. The meager resources taught the Ivatan to scrimp on every resource that they have. They do not waste food or anything. Food security of the household is a continous concern of every household. The scarcity of resources produced food patterns unique to this culture. They have uvud (banana stalk pith), vunes (dried taro stalk), kudit (dried cow, carabao, or pig skin), lunyis (pork cooked in its own fat) as insurance against unexpected food shortages. They are also masters of recycling; few things go to the garbage dump. They are also excellent farmers producing most of the food that they need, especially rootcrops like yam (uvi, dukay), sweet potato (wakay), and taro (sudi). Each household is oftentimes self-sufficient enjoying a considerable degree of independence. Chickens, goats, and pigs are occassional protein sources. Cattle are raised mainly for cash but also slaughtered during festivities. Garlic is the other cash crop. Most recently, the Ivatan started to depend on rice, supplied by the National Food Authority from Luzon, as their staple instead of the usual rootcrops.

       Religion. Today, the Ivatan are basically Catholic. Their religious devoutness can be attributed to the persistent and dedicated works of the early Dominican priests. However, there are a growing number of other Christian denominations especially in the capital town. Regardless of this, the Ivatan still believe in the influenceof the world of the anyitus (ghosts or soul of dead ancestors. Although they do not worship them, they conduct rituals and offerings to appease or placate an anyitu.

       Kinship. The family is still the strongest social unit among the Ivatan. Extended families are still widely accepted among many Ivatan households. Because of the constant threat from the elements, the Ivatan has to rely on its close family ties or kinsmen (kalipusan) and friends for support. “The family concept developed a networking system based on blood relations, kinship, so that marriages across subtribes and those from other territories expanded this network. These relations, by tradition, were constantly cultivated through visits , sharing whatever produce, catch, animals were available; attendance and participation in family celebrations and gatherings. It was bad manners not to pay a call to a kin, if one were in the neighborhood. Strengthening these ties was so important.” (Hidalgo 1996.97).

       Other cultural markers of the Ivatan. Like most lowland Philippine communities, the Ivatan were totally Christianized by the Dominican friars. But unlike most of these communities, the Ivatan retained quite a number of its distinct cultures. Payuhwan and yaru are work groups that until now are the mainstays of community and farm work. The vakul is also distinctly Ivatan. It is a woman’s headgear that covers the head and back keeping the wearer cool during the long hours of work in the field. The Ivatan’s tataya is another cultural marker. Unlike any other boats all over southeast Asia and Oceania, the tataya is closer to the European boat-making tradition. The uvud and vunes (mentioned earlier) are the greatest food extenders that challenge any discriminating palate. The ritual and festivities associated with uvu planting cannot be found anywhere else in the Philippines. The mayvanuvanua ritual to open the fishing season of dibang (flying fish) and arayu (dolphin fish) is only found among the Yami of Orchid Island in Taiwan. They have the palu-palu (traditional dance), ururan (grinding stone),chayi and natu (fruits), kalusan (work songs), laji (ancient lyrical songs) and their passion for alcohol is proverbial. The list will be endless the longer we learn and understand the Ivatan culture.

Dampier, William (1687). “Dampier in Philippines” in The Philippine Islands 1493-1898 by Blair and Robertson eds. Cleveland Ohio: The A.H. Clark Co., 1962

Alonzo, Julio G. OP (1966). The Batanes Islands. Acta Manilana UST Research Center

Hidalgo, Cesar A. (1996). The Making of the Ivatans: the Cultural History of Batanes. Cognita TRC, Pasig, MM

Madrigal, Ana Maria I. (1983). A Blending of Cultures: The Batanes 1686-1898. Manila: Historical Society

About the Author:
Francisco A. Datar is an anthropologist/human biologist who has done extensive fieldwork in Batanes, specifically the Batan island. He started photo-documenting the Ivatan culture during the “dekey a rayum” (little summer) of 1984 and hopes to continue doing it. Dr. Datar serves as Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.