Header image

Custom Search
Journalists as Cultural Terrorists?
By Elson T. Elizaga
A “pirated” copy of an article from the Archaeological Studies Program (ASP) was recently handed to me courtesy of Michael Baños, who received it from Agnes Paulita Roa (aka Nanette Roa) of the Historical and Cultural Commission (HISCCOM). Pirated because it’s incomplete. Some pages are missing, and the date of publication is unknown.

A large section of the article, written by Vito Hernandez, is a criticism of errors in newspaper reports about Huluga published in July to November 2003.  It mentions, for instance, a confusion about Huluga caves and open site, and the wrong date of 1, 600 BC initially assigned to the Huluga skull sample.

I remember that we in the Heritage Conservation Advocates (HCA) were disappointed about these and other errors, so we made the primer on Huluga in September 2003 and gave copies to journalists and other people. I also created heritage.elizaga.net which, among other articles, contains a Visayan version of the primer written by Lourd Ostique. This site also includes an article about archaeological ethics, where I wrote my invitation: “Ideas from ASP teachers and students are welcome. “ The page about artifacts also presents a view by Dr. Craig Skinner that the obsidian flakes are not foreign in origin, contrary to the speculation of ASP archaeologist Leee Anthony Neri. We also have an egroup. [Leee Anthony Neri is often misspelled as Lee Neri in news articles.]

In March 2004, historian and anthropologist Antonio J. Montalvan II published his book, “A Cagayan de Oro Ethnohistory Reader”, which is based on his doctorate thesis, and contains a narrative about Huluga. Nowhere in this document is found 1,600 BC and other errors written about Huluga. If there is a book about Cagayan de Oro history that deserves a review from scholars, this is the one, not the obsolete, erroneous articles in 2003. I also have an essay about ASP’s treatment of Huluga in the 25th edition of Tambara (December 2008), the journal of Ateneo de Davao University.

Despite our information efforts, however, old misconceptions and new ones continue to appear. In Wikipedia is a distorted view about Huluga caves. In 2007, a feature about quarrying in Huluga in The Philippine Daily Inquirer 1 was pockmarked with errors. That same year, a story in Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro recycled a misunderstanding about the caves.

Because of these frustrating repetitions, I wrote to Ely del Rosario of GMA7 after receiving a request to document Huluga in September 2008: “I suggest that before news on Huluga is made public, that the script or footages be first seen by Montalvan or [Museo de Oro director Dr. Erlinda] Burton, because in most of the stories about Huluga made by non-anthropologists, many facts get distorted … [Moreover] Some of us do not feel comfortable about the use of the word ‘treasure’ to refer to the artifacts and fossils, because some people mistakenly interpret this to mean Yamashita treasure and the like.”

As far as I know, these errors in the media or coming from the HCA are results of failure to acquire accurate information, or misinterpretation, or editing. They are not caused by intention to mislead.

Hernandez, however, associates these lapses with cultural terrorism. On page 17 of his article, he writes: "Indeed there has been 'cultural terrorism' going on in Huluga. This is the term that Antonio Montalvan II used in his July 14, 2003 Philippine Daily Inquirer column. Two kinds of cultural terrorism have been identified here: First, the kind that the local government has engaged in, the destruction of an archaeological heritage site; and second, the kind that most of the identified journalists have engaged in, the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of archaeological, scientific, and historical data."

I'm glad that, at least, Hernandez agrees with Montalvan on cultural terrorism of the government kind; for this perhaps he deserves an honorary membership in the HCA. But the terrorism he assigns to journalists is way off.2 Journalism is “literature in a hurry”. So, errors are common. And these errors, by their very nature, are accidental -- and free.

In contrast, ASP authored a political propaganda disguised as science and was paid P450, 000 by the person who destroyed the archaeological site. This is the recorded amount, and it is shamelessly diverted from a poverty alleviation fund of City Hall. We don't know if there were additional unofficial benefits given, but Hernandez should tell us because he was a member of the ASP team that came to Cagayan de Oro.

Although I’m not mentioned in Hernandez’s article, I stand corrected on his opinion about the date of the Huluga skull sample. He is right in stating that the date should be 350 AD, not 377 AD – give or take 15 years. The reason for this revision is too technical to explain here, but it is based on the scientific definition of “before present” (BP). Whether 350 or 377 AD, however, the time would still be Late Neolithic.

Also, I thank Hernandez for clarifying that amino acid racemization is "still in its experimental stage".  Amino acid racemization was the technique used to determine the age of the Huluga skull. There is a webpage about the limitation of this process in tinyurl.com/f895e. Also a review of new methods in tinyurl.com/awz8o8.3

Despite this constraint, however, Dr. Burton’s decision to send the skull sample to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for amino acid racemization dating in 1977 was commendable. That partly explains why she was honored by City Hall with a Datu Salangsang award. Otherwise, we would have no idea about the age of the fossil. There is no stopping anyone who has sufficient funds to send a second sample of the skull for analysis using state-of-the-art procedures. This is what ASP should have done when they came over to Cagayan de Oro in 2004. Indeed, Roa claimed on GMA7 that part of the P450, 000 paid to ASP was used for laboratory tests. But ASP’s consequent report doesn’t mention this.

Does this mean that ASP found new fossils and artifacts and subjected them to laboratory tests but chose to hide the results because they might upset the fund-raiser? What happened to the fossil I gave to Neri at the midden, Vit? Why was this and other HCA finds not mentioned in the ASP report? Why did I see an ancient Spanish coin, a wild boar jaw, a whale harpoon, and a meteorite in Huluga when I’m not an archaeologist? And why were nine archaeologists from a super university and a supposed Indiana Jones from the National Museum “unable” to find a midden there? What kind of scientists are you and your colleagues, Vit?

Free Vote Caster from Bravenet.com Click the button to cast your vote on questions about ethics and archaeology.

1 The article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer is no longer online. But the same article is available in wordpress.com. It has several errors. It states, for example, that Dr. Erlinda M. Burton is a member of the historical commission, that Pelaez bridge was inaugurated in 2006, and that the Huluga caves are now part of Lawndale Spring Resort.

2 Associating journalists with cultural terrorism does not also help ease the regular assassinations of journalists in the Philippines. One week after this article was published online, gunmen killed radio broadcaster Ernie Rollin of Oroquieta City. Read statement of National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. | On March 5, 2009, a man shot DxCC broadcaster Nilo Labares in Cagayan de Oro. Labares is being treated in a hospital.

3 Thanks to Steve Farmer, moderator of Indo-Eurasian Research yahoogroup, for the URL.

Copyright © Elson T. Elizaga.