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A 39,000-year-old Love Affair with Bamboo

The Philippines’ love affair with bamboo is a long-standing relationship, but how long has this affinity for this special plant existed? There is no doubt that bamboo has been in the zeitgeist of Filipino and Southeast Asian material culture for a long time. When one thinks of bamboo, one also thinks of bamboo houses, bamboo musical instruments, and how deeply ingrained it is in our roots as a people. With the opening of the Trajectories and Movements of the Filipino People Exhibition by Fort Santiago, let us explore our deep connection with bamboo and why we love the plant so much.


Biodegradable materials like bamboo are difficult to pinpoint in archaeology because they decay underground. Unless bamboo artifacts are deposited in extremely dry or extremely waterlogged environments, they will biodegrade before they get too old. As a result, archaeologists rarely find older bamboo artifacts.


One clue to our long-standing relationship with bamboo is the limited presence of stone tools. In 1948, Archaeologist Hallam Movius observed a lack of certain stone tool types in Paleolithic Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. It was initially thought that these complex stone tool manufacturing technologies simply did not reach the region. As more archaeologists, looked into the matter, another hypothesis came about – one that progressively became more plausible as more evidence was unearthed. What if these stone tools were absent because people had a more efficient material to work with?


Bamboo has fantastic material properties as tools. It can be spit to have a sharp cutting edge, it can be sharpened to a durable point, and it can be hardened with fire – on top of that it is much easier to work with compared to stone. Unfortunately, bamboo tools do not survive underground like stone tools. It was this thinking that was reviewed by archaeologist Adam Brumm (2010) in which the missing stone technology could be explained by a more favorable organic-based tool technology – notably that of bamboo.


One of the most ground-breaking findings on the matter came about just last year in 2023. Archaeologist and Professor from the University of the Philippines, School of Archaeology, Hermine Xhauflair and her colleagues investigated stone tools from Tabon Cave. Use-wear analysis of the artifacts revealed that they were used to process plant-matter like bamboo. Most notably these tools were dated as old as 39,000 years ago – romantically labeled by Popular Science magazine as a previously unknown “Age of Bamboo”.


We know that bamboo has long been a beloved material in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, but now that we have a time-depth of 39,000 years, it puts into perspective how much there is to love in this versatile plant. It is strong and flexible, it grows fast and abundant, and its presence does wonders for local micro-climates. It is no surprise that the practice of bamboo manufacture has been passed down through so many generations – from the spears, knives, and basketry of prehistory, to the bamboo houses and furniture of yesteryear, to the sustainable cutlery and bamboo bikes of today!


It is no secret that we love bamboo. Made into a Bambike, they are not just strong and weather resistant – they are also relatively light and have fantastic vibration-damping properties. Most importantly, bamboo is a fantastic material in terms of sustainability. Like any good relationship, bamboo gives back - it stands as a remarkable ally in promoting environmental sustainability. As a fast-growing and renewable resource, bamboo plays a crucial role in reducing deforestation and its associated negative impacts on ecosystems. Unlike traditional timber, bamboo matures rapidly, often reaching maturity within three to five years, making it an efficient and sustainable alternative for various applications. Additionally, bamboo has a high carbon sequestration capacity, absorbing more carbon dioxide and releasing more oxygen than equivalent stands of trees. Its extensive root system helps prevent soil erosion and contributes to water retention, fostering healthy landscapes. Furthermore, bamboo requires minimal pesticides and fertilizers, making it an eco-friendly choice for agriculture. Harnessing the versatility and eco-friendly attributes of bamboo presents an opportunity to mitigate environmental challenges and promote a more sustainable future.


Celebrate plant technologies in the past, present, future, and more in a special exhibit curated by “Pamana: Voices of Philippine Heritage” when you hop on our bamboo bikes at Intramuros. The “Trajectories and Movements of Filipino People” exhibit is open for all until May 14, 2024, located at Gallery 1 just in front of Fort Santiago. It is remarkable to see how far bamboo technology has come – from the baskets of Tabon cave to the latest advancements in natural composites like those found on our bamboo bikes.




Brumm, A. (2010). The Movius Line and the bamboo hypothesis: Early hominin stone technology in Southeast Asia. Lithic Technology, 35(1), 7-24.


Movius, H. L. (1948). The Lower Palaeolithic cultures of southern and eastern Asia. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 38(4), 329-420.


Xhauflair, H., Jago-On, S., Vitales, T. J., Manipon, D., Amano, N., Callado, J. R., ... & Pawlik, A. (2023). The invisible plant technology of Prehistoric Southeast Asia: Indirect evidence for basket and rope making at Tabon Cave, Philippines, 39–33,000 years ago. Plos one, 18(6), e0281415.



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