Bapa Antoon
- Dina Sta. Maria () - April 5, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - For 50 of his 80 years, Antoon Postma lived as far away from his native Netherlands as can be imagined – he lived, and still lives, in the mountains of Panaytayan, Oriental Mindoro, among the Hanunuo, one of eight indigenous people groups collectively referred to as Mangyan.

For his 80th birthday last week, Postma was treated to two unique celebrations, one Dutch and one Mangyan. On March 26, he was knighted as Chevalier of the Order of Orange-Nassau by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, represented by

Ambassador Robert Brinks, at ceremonies at the Ayala Museum in Makati that kicked off Mangyan Heritage Week. It was an emotional occasion for Postma, who was told that he had to come to Manila for a board meeting of the Mangyan Heritage Center. His eldest daughter Anya composed and chanted an ambahan, a Mangyan poem, which was translated into Dutch – the first ever ambahan in Dutch – by Gerke van Beeke, and into English by Pandy Singian following the Mangyan format of seven syllables per line. The English ambahan reads:

Father we love you so much

And our wond’ring hearts are touched

You chose us mountain people –

For this we are so grateful.

Though our cultures aren’t the same,

From a distant land you came,

We are happy and so glad

That you are our dearest Dad. 

Back in Panaytayan, over 200 families turned up at a surprise birthday party organized by the Mangyan Heritage Center and the Ala-Ala Foundation celebrated the birthday of this wonderful man they fondly call Bapa Antoon. There was pancit and rice and pigs cooked the Mangyan way – and walnut birthday cake courtesy of the Dusit Thani hotel for everyone!

Postma is a paleographer, one who studies ancient writing, and is recognized as one of the best in the field in Asia. More than any other person, Filipino or non-Filipino, Postma has been responsible for the documentation, preservation and safeguarding of the Mangyan prehistoric script and their unique form of poetry, the ambahan. And largely through his efforts, two Mangyan scripts – the Hanunuo and Northern Buhid – as well as those of the Tagbanua and Palaw’an have been declared National Cultural Treasures and have been inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Registers.

Not very well known is his contribution to the deciphering of what has come to be known as the Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI), a metal fragment with ten lines excavated in 1989 in Laguna de Bay that is the oldest known written document in the Philippines. The LCI, a thin copperplate measuring less than 8x12 inches and dated to around 900 AD, shows that the islanders then had a legal, written culture, as well as flourishing trade with our Asian neighbors. Postma’s numerous publications on the ancient scripts of the Philippines and his unequaled expertise helped in deciphering this important document.

His five decades among the Mangyans have resulted in the transcription and translation of over 20,000 Mangyan ambahan (poems) and a collection of over 10,000 photographs, artifacts and materials on the Mangyan that are now accessible to scholars and the general public through the Mangyan Heritage Center. The Center also has a traveling exhibit, “The Mangyans of Mindoro: Myth and Meaning” which has been to 25 schools and museums all over the country. The exhibit features photographs, artifacts and handicrafts of the Mangyan tribes of Oriental Mindoro.

In conferring the award on Postma, Ambassador Brinks noted that Postma “has not only devoted five decades of his life in introducing the rich Mangyan culture to the world, but he has also lived for 50 years amongst them and shared with them often under humble circumstances their hardship, whilst encouraging generations of this ethno-linguistic group in Mindoro to survive the effects of modernization by documenting and writing about their own native culture. For an indigenous group that has long been marginalized and even discriminated against, the Mangyan and also the Filipino people owe Antoon Postma a debt of gratitude for ensuring that a rich traditional oral and written culture are still alive today…”

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