There are times in history where it is not what a culture has written about itself that stands the test of time, but what neighboring civilizations have observed, experienced, and recorded instead. In an era untouched by the Internet, stories were still capable of travelling terrific distances – but it took much longer, and usually required remarkable actions and deeds that were noteworthy and awe-inspiring even to people from distant communities. In the beginning, stories were passed on verbally from generation to generation, but once humans developed the ability to write, it changed the way stories were passed on. It allowed us to save our writings and compile the texts passed down from our ancestors, eventually resulting in the written history that we study today.
One of these historical texts, known as the Boxer Codex, survives to this day. Now kept at the Lilly Library in the University of Indiana, this ancient book was an attempt to collect information about various settlements and cultures of Southeast Asia and Micronesia in the year 1590 AD. Though the artist’s identity remains unknown, it is assumed that he or she was Chinese based solely on the art style found in the text. It included observations of the early inhabitants of what is now known as the Philippines – including detailed, hand-drawn images of the Tagalogs, the Zambals, the Aeta, the Visayans, the Pintados, and more. In these illustrations, it can be noted that there are figures of different classes clad in what seems to be expensive jewelry and clothing among the different peoples observed. These early depictions suggest the presence of a wealthy society with complex and organized social structures as well as a hierarchy of royalty and nobility.
Beyond its beautiful illustrations, The Boxer Codex also contained descriptions of the many superstitions of the early “Filipinos”, a valuable link to the past that helps us understand what our predecessors were like prior to Spanish occupation. The artist found it noteworthy that our ancestors believed that eating in the same place that rice is cultivated would result in madness or even death – indicating an understanding of the importance of the staple and their wish to respect the lands dedicated for farming such a vital crop that fed their communities. It was also noted that it was a common sight to see people making use of herbs to make various aphrodisiacs, potions, and even poisons – proof that ancient apothecaries were aware of the different properties of the nature surrounding them, and were therefore valuable members of society.
Unfortunately, the Boxer Codex ends abruptly and is followed by a section of blank pages – which indicates that the piece was left unfinished. Be that as it may, the sections that were completed paint a vivid picture of an old reality which would have been forgotten had it not been for this artist, who traded his or her own identity to help shed light on ours.