Barangay (from the word balangay which means boat) was the typical community in the whole archipelago. It was the basic political and economic unit independent of similar others. Each consisted of thirty to a hundred houses and recognized the authority of its chief. The chief also received tribute from those under his control and dispensed justice without any written law.
During the pre-colonial period the laws were promulgated by a council of elders along with the chieftain of the barangay. A variety of penalties were imposed on offenders, ranging from a mere fine to sentence of death as well as removal of finger, exposure to ants or a requirement to swim for a given number of hours. The judgment of God ordeal by water or fire was sometimes used to establish guilt.
The social system of the Philippines in pre-colonial times had three distinct levels:
1) The maharlikas (noblemen) headed by the datu or rajah. They are the traditional governing class, the local aristocracy which had started to accumulate land that is owned privately or administered in the name of the clan or the community.
2) The timawas (freeman) had enough land for livelihood. They were required to join the datu in his various enterprises in return they were relieved from the payment of taxes.
3) Finally, there was the class of dependants. They were servants who had gotten into debts and who could at any time buy out their freedom from their masters. In Tagalog areas there were two degrees; the aliping namamahay, who were in effect serfs working in the master’s house or in the fields but had their own dwelling. Then the aliping saguiguilid who lived in their master’s house and were not allowed to possess any property. In the Visayas there were three categories, according to the amount of labour they were required to provide as much as their master asked for, one day in field or occasionally.
The status of a serf or a slave could arise from birth if both parents were slaves or from capture. It could also be a punishment for a crime, failure to pay debts and tribute.