The Ifugao is a group that lives in a mountainous region of north-central Luzon around the of town Banaue. Also known as the Ifugaw, Ipugao, Yfugao, they are former headhunters who are famous for their spectacular mountain-hugging rice terraces. The Ifugao are believed to have arrived from China around 2000 years ago. Their first contact with the outside world was through American military officers and schoolteachers early in the 20th century. Communication with them was made easier when better roads were built to the areas where they live. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]
In the past the Ifugao were feared head-hunters, just as other tribes in the mountainous regions of northern Luzon. Their war-dance (the bangibang) is one of the cultural remnants of the time of tribal conflict. This dance is traditionally held on the walls of the rice terraces by the men, equipped with spears, axes and wooden shields and a headdress made of leaves. [Source: philippines.hvu.nl]
Ifugao name means "inhabitant of the known world." Many of the older Ifugao continue to live as their ancestors did. Some men still wear loincloths; and the practice of headhunting was given up only a few decades ago. In the late 1980s, I heard stories about a bus driver that hit and killed an Ifugao woman, whose relatives formed a head hunting party to seek revenge but were stopped before they could do anything.
The Ifugao are found of chewing beetle nut. I asked a couple Ifugao men why they liked chewing it and they said it cleans their teeth, and then smiled with half their teeth missing.
Surveys in the 1980s counted 70,000 Ifugao but few of these were pure blooded and few retained their tradition customs. Most have forsaken their traditional loin clothes, spears and beetlenut and moved to the town where money and jobs can be found.[Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987]
About half of all Ifugaos have embraced Christianity but their animist beliefs have been absorbed into their Christian beliefs. The Ifugao have traditionally believed their lives were ruled by spirits called anitos. Many Ifugao still believe the universe was divided into five levels. At the top is: 1) the heavens which itself has four "superimposed heavens." Beneath it is 2) Pugao, the known land. Below is 3) the underworld and there is also 4) the world upstream and 5) the world downstream. Each area has a large number of spirits, each of which has a name and belongs to one of 35 categories. Among them are ones associated with hero ancestors, diseases, omens, messengers, celestial bodies.
There are around 1,500 important spirits. They have precise locations in the Ifugao universe that carry with them specific roles and duties. They cover almost of every aspect of life: war, peace, fishing, weaving, rain, disease and so on. In addition to spirits there are deities who are immortal and have the power to change form. There is no one supreme god which has made it easy for the Ifugao to accept Christianity and not have the Christian god in competition with the spirits of their traditional religion. [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987**]
F. Jagor wrote in “Travels in the Philippines” (1875): “The anito of the Philippines is essentially a protecting spirit.” The Spaniard Pardo de Tavera wrote in in 1906: “The religion of the islands, what may be called the true religion of Filipinos, consisted of the worship of the anitos. These were not gods, but the souls of departed ancestors, and each family worshipped its own, in order to obtain their favorable influence.” According to the De Morga the anito was a representation of the devil under horrible and frightful forms, to which fruits and fowl and perfumes were offered. Each house had and “made” (or performed) its anitos, there being no temples, without ceremony or any special solemnity. “This word is ordinarily interpreted ‘idol,’ although it has other meanings. There were anitos of the mountains, of the fields, of the sea. The soul of an ancestor, according to some, became embodied as a new anito, hence the expression, ‘to make anitos.’ Even living beings, notably the crocodile, were regarded as anitos and worshiped. The anito-figura, generally shortened to anito, ... was usually a figurine of wood, though sometimes of gold.”
Ifugao Creation Myth
According to to Ifugao creation myth, the Ifugao gods created the heavens and earth way before they created man. When men were finally created most for the Gods had no interest in them and the patient god Wigan-i-abunyan was told he watch of them. The first men were ill suited for their environment and Wigan-i-abunyan sent his son Kagibat down to earth to show man how to use fire and build houses. When he returned he was so enthusiastic about what he saw that his sister Bugan descended to earth to teach men how to use the forces of air and water. Her report was equally glowing as that of Kagibat. Soon Kabunyan, the God of the Sun, Stars and Sky wanted to visit earth and see what all the fuss was about. But, from his vantage point in the sky he couldn't see anything so he moved in closer. With the sky so close to the earth, men had to hunch over and soon they couldn't even work. The nearness of the sun caused rivers to dry up and the crops to burn up. [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987**]
At this time the world still part of heaven. Mankind was having such a hard time they tried to tell Kabunyan to go away, but he couldn't understand their language. Finally an old woman who was so short she could stand up without having to hunch over started to mash some rice with a mortar and pestle. The pestle hit Kabunyan on the upswing to which god replied if you do that again I'm going to leave. The woman was deaf and because she could hear him she did hit him again. Kabunyan was annoyed by this he returned to heaven. The people were happy the sun and sky had returned to their normal position and from then on the sky and the earth have always been separated.**
Ifugao Religious Ceremonies
A great deal of Ifugao resources are devoted to religious ceremonies that are invoked for agriculture abundance, hunting success, augury and good omens. As many as 15 priests may be involved ins a single ceremony. Well versed in Ifugao myths, they perform the important rituals and tell the myths. During the myth dramas the priest often utter an unintelligible hum for as long as five hours. It is not usual for a half dozen pigs, one buffalo and scores of chickens to be scarified during a ceremony.
Ifugao priests preside over ceremonies and are believed have the power to influence the gods into performing earthly chores. There is no organized priesthood. It said that any tribe member with a good memory can perform the rituals. Priests attain their position voluntarily after a period of apprenticeship. They receive some compensation for their work but generally have other jobs. Their primary duty is to invoke spirtis of deceased ancestors and deities.
The Ifugao believe that illnesses are caused by deities taking souls in cooperation with ancestors. Priests treat illnesses through divination and curing rituals. in an effort to get the deity to return the souls. If the priests fails, the Ifugao believe, the person dies.
During a curing ritual Ifugao priests offer rice beer in wooden spoons to the spirits believed to be causing the disease. In more elaborate curing ceremonies a shaman in a trances goes to the sky-world to try to retrieve the souls of the ill person. During important ceremonies the entranced priest calls ancestors from his clan and uses his body as a medium so they can speak to living relatives. The dead ancestors drink rice beer through the shamans mouth. When deities are invoked they too drink rice beer through the priest' mouth. Chants are made.
During ceremonies that pay homage to the anitos (spritits) clan leaders wear headdresses adorned with wild pig tusks, hornbill beaks and feathers and monkey skulls. The hornbill is considered to be the messenger of the gods and the monkey is a comic symbol. According to custom and tradition the monkey skull on a head dress must face in the same direction as the person wearing it. [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987**]
During a festival to mark the planting of the crop in March or February the Ifugao hold a ceremony known as ulpi in which they leave the terraces for a few days and socialize, smoke and drink a palm liquor called bayah. During the harvest in July they thank the spirits by sacrificing chickens and then study the blood for omens. If everything is satisfactory the blood is smeared on wooden idols that watch over the grain supply. **
In 1912, Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “We moved up to the little parade in front of the cuartel, where an enormous crowd had already assembled. As at Campote, so here, and for the same reasons, very few old women were present, but about as many young ones and children as there were men. Our approach was the signal for the dancing to begin, and once begun, it lasted all day, the gansas never ceasing their invitation. Apparently anybody could join in, and many did, informal circles being formed here and there, for the Ifugaos, like all the other highlanders, dance around in a circle. Both men and women took part, eyes on a point of the ground a yard or so ahead, the knees a little bent, left foot in front, body slightly forward on the hips, left arm out in front, hand upstretched with fingers joined, right arm akimbo, with hand behind right hip. The musicians kneel, stick the forked-stick handle of the gansa in their gee-strings, with the gansa convex side up on their thighs, and use both hands, the right sounding the note with a downward stroke, the left serving to damp the sound. The step is a very dignified, slow shuffle, accompanied by slow turns and twists of the left hand, and a peculiar and rapid up-and-down motion of the right. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“True to what had been said the day before, a particularly large circle was formed, and Cootes and I were invited to join, which we did; if any conclusion may be drawn from the applause we got (for the Ifugaos clap hands), why, modesty apart, we upheld the honor of the Service. Every now and then the orators had their turn, for a resounding “Whoo-o-ee!” would silence the multitudes, and some speaker would mount the tribune and give vent to an impassioned discourse. One of these bore on the killing of the prisoner that morning: the orator declared that he was a bad man, and that he had met with a just end, that the people must understand that they must behave themselves properly, and so on. I forget how many speeches were made; but the tribune was never long unoccupied. Another performance of the day was the distribution of strips of white onion-skin paper. On one of his previous trips Mr. Worcester had noticed that the people had taken an old newspaper he had brought with him, cut it up into strips, and tied them to the hair by way of ornament. <>
“People kept on coming from their rancherías, one arrival creating something of a stir, being that of the Princesa, wife of the orator who had welcomed us the day before. She came in state, reclining in a sort of bag hanging from a bamboo borne on the shoulders of some of her followers. She had an umbrella, and, if I recollect aright, was smoking a cigar. On emerging from her bag, a circle formed about her, and she was graciously pleased to dance for us, no one venturing to join her. As she was fat and scant o’ breath,2 her performance, was characterized by portentous deliberation, precision, and dignity, and was as palpably agreeable to her as it was curious to us.” <>
Ifugao Killing of a Water Buffalo in 1912
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “Since these highlanders have but little meat to eat, it is the policy of the Government, on the occasion of these annual progresses, to furnish a few carabaos [water buffalos], so that some of the people, at least, while they are the guests of the Government, may have what they are fondest of and most infrequently get. And they have been until recently allowed to slaughter the carabao, according to their own custom, in competition, catch-as-catch-can, so to say. For the poor beast, tethered and eating grass all unconscious of its fate, or else directly led out, is surrounded by a mob of men and boys, each with his bolo. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
At a signal given, the crowd rushes on the animal, and each man hacks and cuts at the part nearest to him, the rule of the game being that any part cut off must be carried out of the rush and deposited on the ground before it can become the bearer’s property. Accordingly, no sooner is a piece separated and brought out than it is pounced on by others who try to take it away; usually a division takes place, subject to further sub-division, however, if other claimants are at hand. The competition is not only tremendous, but dangerous, for in their excitement the contestants frequently wound one another. The Government (i.e., Mr. Worcester), while at first necessarily allowing this sort of butchering, has steadily discouraged and gradually reduced it, so that at Kiangan, for example, the people were told that this was the last time they would ever be allowed to kill beef in this fashion. It was pointed out to them that the purpose being to furnish meat, their method of killing was so uneconomical that the beef was really ruined, and nobody got what he was really entitled to. <>
“On this occasion, the carabao was tied to a stake in a small swale and I nerved myself to look on. I saw the first cuts, the poor beast look up from his grass in astonishment, totter, reel, and fall as blows rained on him from all sides. The crowd, closing in, mercifully hid the rest from view; the victim dying game without a sound. In this respect, as well as in many others, the carabao is a very different animal from the pig. But, while looking on at the mound of cutting, hacking, sweating, and struggling butchers, the smell of fresh blood over all, something occurred that completely shifted the center of interest....When I turned again to see how they were getting on, I found that they had disappeared, and, walking to the place, saw not a trace of the butchery save the trampled ground and a small heap of undigested grass. Mr. Worcester had told me before that I should find this to be the case; not a shred of hoof, hide, or bone had been left behind.
Ifugao Marriage and Families
Monogamy is the norm among the Ifugao but some wealthy families practice polygyny. Incest prohibitions extend to first cousins. Marriage to more distant cousin can only be arranged after the payment of livestock penalties. Trial marriages between prospective couples is common. Courtship rituals take place at the girls houses. Wealthy families have traditionally arranged marriages through intermediaries. Families exchange gifts and maintain close ties after the marriage. Newlyweds often spend some time living with their parents before setting up housing of their own, often near a large rice field.
Divorces may occur after mutual consent or with the payment of damages if contested. Grounds for divorce include omens, no children, cruelty, desertion and change of affection. All property traditionally goes to the children. Widows and widowers are only allowed to remarry after making a payment to the deceased spouse’s family. Both sexes may inherit property, with the firstborn getting te largest share. Illegitimate children receive support from the father but do not have inheritance rights.
The men are responsible for building maintaining the terraces while women plant, weed and harvest the rice. Women use wooden pestles and stone mortars to pound rice into a shape dictated by ancient tradition. Women also spend many hours weaving fabrics that are unique to their village. Children are carried around by both men and women in scarves knotted around their bodies.
The Ifugaos have little in the way of a political system or institutionalized community. There are no chiefs or councils. They live in clan groups that extend to the third cousin. A typical household consists of a nuclear family. Once children are old enough to take care of themselves, they move to the boys house or the girls house.
Ifugao society is divided into three classes based on wealth traditionally defined in terms of rice land, water buffalo and slaves. A class of aristocrats known as kandangayan also guide the village about moral and judicial matters and lend money. Their houses are identified by a hardwood bench placed against the stilts. They display their wealth by footing the bill for festivals and possessing important objects such as hornbill headdresses, gold beads, swords, gongs and antique Chinese jars.
Below the kandangyan are the Natumuk, who own a little land, and the very poor. These groups are often forced to borrow from he kandangyan at high interest rates and become indentured to them. The nawatwar are the poorest of the poor. Most work as tenant farmers and servants to kandanyan.
In 1912, Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “It is pertinent to remark that the Ifugaos treat their women well; for example, the men do the heavy work, and there are no women cargadores. In fact, the sexes seemed to me to be on terms of perfect equality. The people in general appeared to be cheerful, good-humored, and hospitable. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
Ifugao Villages and Houses
The Ifugao live in small settlements set up in the valleys and along the mountainsides. Hamlets ( buble) typically have 8 to 12 dwellings, housing 30 or more people The houses are built on stilts close to the rice fields. There are also temporary buildings, such as houses for unmarried people, on the ground.
Each house consists of as single nine-foot-wide room. The roof is a thatch pyramid and the house itself is supported on four stilts or piles. The pyramid-shaped roof is used as a bedroom, kitchen and storeroom. All in one space! There are no windows. To please the gods, the skull of a sacrificed pig is fixed on the outside of the house. They are also granaries made of timber. The houses look like granaries but are larger and have a hearth.
To get inside the house it is necessary to climb a ladder which is pulled up at night, namely to keep rats out. The homes of rich people are adorned with skulls of sacrificed buffalos. The more buffalos a family can afford to sacrifice and in turn display the wealthier they are. Some upper class homes are decorated with paintings and geometric engravings. In the old days there were shelves with skulls of enemies killed in battle or head hunting raids. **
In 1912, Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “We walked about the village and examined one or two houses. These are all of one room, entered by a ladder drawn up at night, and set up on stout posts seven or eight feet high; the roof is thatched, and the walls, made of wattle (suali), flare out from the base determined by the tops of the posts. In cutting the posts down to suitable size (say 10 inches in diameter), a flange, or collar, is left near the top to keep rats out; chicken-coops hang around, and formerly human skulls, too, were set about. But the Ifugaos, thanks to Gallman, as already said, have abandoned head-hunting, and the skulls in hand, if kept at all, are now hidden inside their owner’s houses, their places being taken by carabao heads and horns. One house had a tahibi, or rest-couch; only rich people can own these, cut out as they are of a single log, in longitudinal cross-section like an inverted and very flat V with suitable head- and foot-supports. The notable who wishes to own one of these luxurious couches gets his friends to cut down the tree (which  is necessarily of very large size), to haul the log, and to carve out the couch, feeding them the while. Considering the lack of tools, trails, and animals, the labor must be incredible and the cost enormous. However, wealth will have its way in Kiangan as well as in Paris. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912]
Ifugao Clothes, Food and Crafts
Ifugao and Ilocano women have traditionally worn short, tight-fitting, hand-woven skirts with colorful horizontal stripes, with a white short-sleeve blouse and a loose striped jackets. They have traditionally gone barefoot and sometimes tied a colored band around their head. Some men still wear loincloths and go everywhere barefoot. They are quite sure-footed on mountain trails. Their toes and feet grip on to rocks like the hand of a pitcher grasping a baseball.
In 1912, Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “ As elsewhere, but few clothes are seen: the women wear a short striped skirt sarong-wise, but bare the bosom. However, they are beginning to cover it, just as a few of them had regular umbrellas. They leave the navel uncovered; to conceal it would be immodest. The men are naked save the gee-string, unless a leglet of brass wire under the knee be regarded as a garment; the bodies of many of them are tattooed in a leaf-like pattern. A few men had the native blanket hanging from their shoulders, but leaving the body bare in front. The prevailing color is blue; at Campote it is red. The hair looked as though a bowl had been clapped on the head at an angle of forty-five degrees, and all projecting locks cut off. If the hair is long, it means that the wearer has made a vow to let it grow until he has killed someone or burnt an enemy’s house. We saw such a long-haired man this day. Some of the men wore over their gee-strings belts made of shell (mother-of-pearl), with a long free end hanging down in front. These belts are very costly and highly thought of. Earrings are common, but apparently the lobe of the ear is not unduly distended. Here at Kiangan, the earring consists of a spiral of very fine brass wire. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“At Banawe we saw more examples of native arts and crafts than we had heretofore. For example, the pipe is smoked, and we saw some curious specimens in brass, much decorated with pendent chains; others were of wood, some double-bowled on the same stem. Some of the men wore helmets, or skull-caps, cut out of a single piece of wood. Other carved objects were statuettes, sitting and standing; these are anitos, frequently buried in the  rice-paddies to make the crop good; besides, there were wooden spoons with human figures for handles, the bowls being symmetrical and well finished. Then there were rice-bowls, double and single, some of them stained black and varnished. Excellent baskets were seen, so solidly and strongly made of bejuco as to be well-nigh indestructible under ordinary conditions. Mr. Maimban got me a pair of defensive spears (so-called because never thrown, but used at close quarters) with hollow-ground blades of tempered steel, the head of the shaft being wrapped with bejuco, ornamentally stained and put on in geometrical patterns.” <>
Since the end of World War II the production and sale of woodcarvings has become and important source of income for the Ifugao. They also have skills in making bowls, baskets, weapons and clothing. The mountain tribes of Luzon traditionally distinguished themselves by their cultural expressions, clothing and adornment. The Ifugao still practice the same skills as in the past: Woodcarving and weaving clothes. They discovered the tourists are a welcome clienta for their products as most young Ifugao prefer Western clothes. [Source:philippines.hvu.nl]
Bender (1975, p. 78) notes that "The Ifugao of the Philippines eat three species of dragon fly and locusts. These are boiled, dried, and powdered. They also relish red ants, water bugs, and beetles, as well as flying ants, which are usually fried in lard." Showalter (1929) furnishes a photograph of Ifugao women in Luzon preparing locusts by roasting them (p. 39), and another showing an Ifugao locust catcher with his large net.[Source: www.food-insects.com >>>]
Ifugao Legal Matters and Headhunting
Ifugao communities are organized into districts, defined by a ritual rice field, whose owners make decisions about agricultural matters. Social control is exerted through kinship pressure and control by a monbaga, a legal authority whose power rests in his wealth and knowledge of customary laws ( adat). He levies fines and makes decisions about death penalties.
Most Ifugao headhunting has traditionally been the result of feuds between kin group and warfare with outsiders. Feuds often lasted a long time and traditionally only ended when there was a marriage between the feuding groups. Warfare usually took the form of raiding parties with a 100 or so men. The raiders not only took heads to display on skull shelves at their homes but also took slaves which they sold to lowlanders.
The Ifugao are said to have given up headhunting and feuding during the American occupation in the first part of the 20th century. However when I was there in 1989 I heard stories about a bus driver that hit and killed an Ifugao woman. The people in her village supposedly got a head hunting party together but were stopped before they could do anything.
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “Mr. Worcester pointed out that whereas most of the men present were unarmed (at any rate, they had neither spears nor shields), in his early trips through this country, as elsewhere, every man came on fully armed, and the ground was stuck full of spears, each with its shield leaning on it, the owner near by with the rest of his ranchería, and all ready at a moment’s notice to kill and take heads. For although these people are all of the same blood and speak nearly the same language, still there is no tribal government; the people live in independent settlements (rancherías), all as recently as five or six years ago hostile to one another, and taking heads at every opportunity. This state of affairs was undoubtedly partly due to the almost complete lack of communication then prevailing, thus limiting the activities of each ranchería to the growing of food, varied by an effort to take as many heads as possible from the ranchería across the valley, without undue loss of its own. And what is said here of the Ifugao is true also of the Ilongot, the Igorot, the Kalinga, the Apayao, and of all the rest of the head-hunting highlanders of Northern Luzon. The results accomplished by Mr. Worcester with all these people simply exceed belief. But this subject, being worthy of more than passing mention, will be considered later. The afternoon is wearing on, and we must get at the two exceptions mentioned some little time ago. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
Ifugao Headhunter Dance
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “The great performance of the morning, however, was a head-hunter dance, arranged by Barton; that is, he had gone out a day or two before and told a neighboring ranchería, that they must furnish a show of the sort for the apos whose visit was imminent. But, according to the old women of the village, he had made a great mistake in that he said it was not necessary to hold a cañao in advance. A cañao (buni in Ifugao), as already explained, is a ceremonious occasion, celebrated by dancing, much drinking of bubud, the killing of a pig, speeches. Whenever an affair of moment is in hand, such as a funeral or a head-hunting expedition, a cañao is held. Our entire stay at Kiangan might be called a cañao, or, rather, it was made up of cañaos. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“Now when Barton, two or three days before, refused to cañao, the old women shook their heads, declaring that something would happen, and the killings of the morning were at once summoned as proof that they were right and he was wrong. However this may be, not long after the Princesa’s dance we heard below us a cadenced sound and saw a long column in file slowly approaching. Its head was formed of warriors armed with spears and shields stained black with white zig-zags across; the leading warrior walked backward, continually making thrusts at the next man with his spear. A pig had immediately preceded, trussed by his feet to a bamboo, and interfering mightily with the music that followed. This was percussive in character, and was produced by twenty-five or thirty men beating curved instruments, made of very hard, resonant wood, with sticks. These musicians marched along almost doubled over, and would lean in unison first to the right and then to the left, striking first one end, then the other of their instruments, which they held in the middle by a bejuco string from a hole made for the purpose. The note was not unmusical. Many of the men had their head-baskets on their backs, and one or two of them the palm-leaf rain-coat. I had never imagined that it was possible for human beings to advance as slowly as did these warriors; in respect of speed, our most dignified funerals would suffer by comparison. <>
“The truth is, they were dancing. They got up the hill at last, however; laid the pig down in the middle of the vast circle that had instantly formed, and then began the ceremonious head-dance. Two or three men, after various words had been said, would march around in stately fashion, winding up at the pig, across whose body they would lay their spears. On this an old man would run out, and remove the spears, when the thing would be repeated. At last, a tall, handsome young man, splendidly turned out in all his native embellishments, on reaching the pig, allowed his companions to retire while he himself stood, and, facing his party with a smile, said a few words. Then, without looking at his victim, and without ceasing to speak, he suddenly thrust his spear into the pig’s heart, withdrawing it so quickly that the blade remained unstained with blood; as quick and accurate a thing as ever seen! Of course, this entire cañao was full of meaning to the initiated. Barton said it was a failure, and he ought to know; but it was very interesting to us. I was particularly struck by the bearing of these men, their bold, free carriage and fearless expression of countenance.” <>
After a person dies the orifices of the body are plugged and the corpse is placed in a death chair. The body lies in this state by a fire and is “awakened” each night by a corpse tender. The more wealthy a person is the longer this ritual lasts to a maximum of 13 days. Burial is in a family sepulcher or in coffins that are placed in a mausoleum under the house. Sometimes a second burial takes place, especially if illnesses and misfortunes are blamed on the deceased being restless and unhappy. Some Ifugao bury males and females separately and intern children in jars.
As is true with the Bontocs, Ifugao funerals are not only sad events because of the loss of a loved one, but are celebrations that deceased has moved on to a better life after death. Six years after the body is buried, the bones are dug up, after which a second celebration takes place. This ritual is repeated one more time after another six years. Sometimes the Ifugao invite tourists to see the bones of their ancestor. A tourist named Jon wrote on philippines.hvu.nl: "As we wandered further, a lady approached us and asked us if we would like to look at 'the bones'....and she produced a large bundle wrapped in a blanket that she unfolded to reveal the skeleton of her Grandfather Po Po. “ [Source: philippines.hvu.nl]
In 1912 Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “Mr. Barton went out to see the funeral of the Constabulary private killed. He was strongly advised not to go, because these highlanders resent more or less the presence of strangers at their funeral ceremonies. Passing through Manila a month or two later, he very kindly dictated for me an account of what he saw, and I give it here, with his permission, in his own words: [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“On the third day after the soldier was killed, the principal funeral ceremonies took place. To these ceremonies came a great number of people from their various rancherías, the party from each ranchería being led by the relatives of the soldier, some of them very distant relatives. “Aliguyen, the dead soldier, lived in the ranchería of Nagukaran, a ranchería until quite recently very unfriendly to Kiangan, where I live. Aliguyen, however, had some kin in Kiangan, and this kin, together with their friends, went to the funeral. Their shields, as well as the shields of all who attended, were painted with white markings, taking some the form of men, some of lizards, some were zig-zags. All men who attended had a head-dress made of the leaf petiole of the betel tree and the red leaves of the dongola plant. To these leaves were attached pendant white feathers. Everybody was dressed in his best clout, and the women in their best loin-cloths and in all their finery of gold beads and agate necklaces. <>
“Nagukaran is one ranchería of several in a very large valley. When I reached a point in the trail commanding this valley, there could be seen from various rancherías in the valley a procession from each of them wending their way slowly toward Aliguyen’s home. From the time that they came within sight of the house, which was sometimes when they were a mile and a half or two miles from it, each procession danced its way, beating on the striped shields with their drum-sticks and on their bangibang. This last is a kind of wooden stick, made of resonant hard wood, coated over with chicken blood. It is extremely old. It is curved slightly and is about two feet long, and is held in one hand suspended by a bejuco string so that the vibrations are not interfered with. It is beaten with a drum-stick, as is also the shield. The gansa, or brass gong, the usual musical instrument of the Ifugaos, is never used in the funeral of a beheaded man. The two men who headed each procession carried two spears each. Behind came a man carrying a spear and shield. The two in front faced the on-coming procession, stepping most of the time backward, making thrusts toward the two who bore the spears and shields. The bearers of spear and shield made thrusts at them, the whole being a dance which in some respects resembles one of the head-dances of the Bontoc Igorots. From the high place on the trail where I was, they looked, in the distance, like nothing so much as columns of centipedes or files of ants all creeping slowly along the dikes of the rice-paddies toward the central place. It usually takes an hour for such a procession to cover one mile. The beating of shield and stick could easily be heard across the wide valley on that still morning. <>
“Arriving at Aliguyen’s house, we found him sitting on a block facing the sun, lying against his shield, which was supported by the side of the house. The body was in a terrible state of decomposition. It was swollen to three times its living girth. Great blisters had collected under the epidermis, which broke from time to time, a brownish red fluid escaping. The spear wound in his neck was plugged by a wooden spear-head. In each hand Aliguyen held a wooden spear. No attempt whatever had been made to prevent decomposition of the body or the entrance to it of flies. From the mouth gas bubbled out continually. Two old women on each side with penholder-shaped loom-sticks about two feet long continually poked at Aliguyen’s face and the wound to wake him up. From time to time they caught the grewsome head by the hair and shook it violently, shouting, Who-oo-oo! Aliguyen, wake up! Open your eyes! Look down on Kurug. [Kurug being the ranchería from which came Aliguyen’s murderer.] Take his father and his mother, his wife and his children, and his first cousins and his second cousins, and his relatives by marriage. They wanted him to kill you. All your kin are women. [They say this in order to deceive Aliguyen into avenging himself.] They can’t avenge you. You will have to avenge yourself! There is ordén [law]; no one can kill them but you! Take them all! <>
“This calling on Aliguyen’s soul never ceased. When an old woman got hoarse, another took her place. As the procession came to the house it filed past Aliguyen and its leaders stopped and shouted words to the same effect. The key-note of the whole ceremony was vengeance. It is true that both persons who were involved in killing Aliguyen were themselves killed, but the people of a ranchería regard themselves as being about the only real people in the world and hold that three, four, or five men of another ranchería are not equal to one of theirs. <>
“Nagukaran being the ranchería that speared and nearly killed my predecessor, Mr.———, I explained my presence to the people there by saying that the soldier, being an agent of our Government, was in a way a relative of mine. The explanation was a perfectly natural one to the people, and they treated me with the greatest courtesy and helped me to see whatever was to be seen. <>
“The grave was a kind of sepulchre dug out of a bank. It was walled up with stones after Aliguyen was placed in it, and an egg thrown against the tomb, whereupon the people yelled: ’Batna kana okukulan di bujolmi ud Kurug! (‘So may it happen to our enemies at Kurug!’) The poles on which were strung the head-dresses were taken and hung over the door of Aliguyen’s house. After this the people dispersed to their homes. On the way home they stopped at a stream and washed themselves, praying somewhat as follows: ‘Wash, Water, but do not wash away our lives, our pigs, our chickens, our rice, our children. Wash away death by violence, death by the spear, death by sickness. Wash away pests, hunger, and crop-failure, and our enemies. Wash away the visits of the Spear-bearing Nightcomer, the Mountain Haunters, the Ghosts, the Westcomers. Wash away our enemies. Wash as vengeance for him who has gone before.’” <>
Vengeance Feast at Ifugao Funeral
Mr. Barton told Cornélis De Witt Willcox in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: ““Toward noon they told me that they were going to perform the feast which looked towards securing vengeance for Aliguyen’s death. They went to where the people had built a shed to protect them from the sun’s fierce rays on a little hillock some distance from any house. Two pigs were provided there, one being very small. Only the old  men were permitted to gather around the pigs and the rice-wine and the other appurtenances of the feast. The feast began by a prayer to the ancestors, followed by an invocation to the various deities. The most interesting and the principal part of the feast was the invocation to the celestial bodies, who are believed to be the deities of War and Justice, Mánaháut (The Deceiver), a companion of the Sun God, was first invoked. The people cried: Who-oo-oo! Mánaháut, look down! Come down and drink the rice-wine and take the pig! Don’t deceive us! Deceive our enemies! Take them into the remotest quarters of the sky-world; lock them up there forever so that they may not return! Vengeance for him who has gone before!’ Then an old man put his hands over his forehead and called: ‘Come down, Mánaháut.’ Mánaháut came and possessed him, causing him to call out: ‘Sa-ay! sa-ay! I come down Mánaháut; I drink the rice-wine; I will deceive your enemies, but I will not deceive you.” [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“The old man, possessed, jumps up and, with characteristic Ifugao dance step, dances about the rice-wine jar and about the pig. Quickly follows him a feaster who has called Umalgo, the Spirit of the Sun, and was possessed by him. Mánaháut dances ahead of Umalgo to show him the pig. Umalgo seizes a spear, dances about the pig two or three  times, when he steps over to it and with a thrust, seemingly without effort, pierces its heart. The blood spurts out of the pig’s side and there quickly follows a feaster who has been possessed by Umbulan, who throws himself on the pig and drinks its blood. He would remain there forever, say the people, drinking the pig’s blood, were it not that one of the Stars, his son, possesses a feaster, causing him to dance over to Umbulan, catch him by the hair and lead him from the pig. Following these ceremonies, there came feasters of various spirits of the Stars to cut the pig’s feet and his head off. Then comes the cutting up of the pig to cook in the pots. The blood that has settled in its chest is carefully caught; it is used to smear the bangibang and the jipag. The jipag are interesting. They are little images of two or three of the deities that help men to take heads. The images are of wood about six or eight inches high. Sometimes there are images of dogs also. When an Ifugao goes on a head-hunting expedition, he takes the images in his head-basket, together with a stone to make the enemy’s feet heavy so that he cannot run away, and a little wooden stick in representation of a spear, to the end of which is attached a stone—this to make the enemy’s spear strike the earth so that it might not strike him. <>
“As the pig was being put in the pot to be cooked for the old men who had performed the feast, some unmannerly young fellow started to make away with one piece of the flesh. Immediately there was a scramble which was joined by some three or four hundred Ifugaos of all the different rancherías. Then the feasters (I think there were about one thousand who attended the feast) leaped for their spears and shields. The people who had come from Kiangan rushed to where I was and took their stand in front of and around me, and told me to stay there and that they would protect me from any harm; all of which, as may well be supposed, produced no trifling amount of warmth in my feelings toward them. Fortunately nothing came of the scramble. <>
“I have no hesitancy in saying that two or three years ago, before Governor Gallman had performed his excellent and truly wonderful work among the Ifugaos, this scramble would have become a fight in which somebody would have lost his life. That such a thing could take place without danger was incomprehensible to the old women of Kiangan, who doubtless remembered sons or husbands, brothers or cousins, who had lost their lives in such an affair. With the memory of these old times in their minds they caught me by the arms and by the waist and said, ‘Barton, come home; we don’t know the mind of the people; they are likely to kill you.’ When I refused to miss seeing the rest of the feast, they told me to keep my revolver ready. <>
“Looking back on this incident, I am sure that I was in little, I believe no danger, but must give credit to my Ifugao boy who attended me in having the wisest head in the party. This boy immediately thought of my horse, which was picketed near, and ran to it, taking with him one or two responsible Kiangan men to help him watch and defend it. Had he not done so, some meat-hungry, hot-headed Ifugao might easily have stuck a bolo in his side during the scramble and its confusion; and immediately some five hundred or more Ifugaos would have been right on top of the carcase, hand-hacking at it with their long war-knives, and it would probably have been impossible ever to find out who gave the first thrust. <>
“The old men who had performed the feast, after things had quieted down somewhat, began scolding and cursing those who had run away with the meat. Finally they managed to prevail upon the meat-snatchers to bring back three small pieces, about the size of their hands, from which I concluded that Ifugao is a language which is admirably adapted to making people ashamed of themselves. For I knew how hungry for meat these Ifugao become. <>
“Three old men stuck their spears in a piece of meat and began a long story whose text was the confusion of enemies in some past time. At the conclusion of each story, they said: ‘Not there, but here; not then, but now.’ By a sort of simple witchcraft, the mere telling of these stories is believed to secure a like confusion and destruction of the enemies of the present. When this ceremony had been completed, each old man raised his spear quickly and so was enabled to secure for himself the meat impaled. In one case, one of the old men just missed ripping open the abdomen of the man who stood in front. <>
“The feast being finished, the people made an attempt to assemble by rancherías. Then they filed along the trail to bury Aliguyen. Nagukaran ranchería took the lead. As the procession came near the grave the men took off their head-dresses and strung them on a long pole, which was laid across the trail. A Nagukaran ranchero went to where Aliguyen was sitting and picked him up, carried him to the grave, and placed him in a sitting posture facing Kurug, the ranchería that killed him, Aliguyen was not wrapped in a death-blanket, as corpses usually are. His body was neglected in order to make him angry, so to incite him to vengeance.” <>
Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao
The Hudhud chants of the Ifugao were inscribed in 2008 by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Hudhud consists of narrative chants traditionally performed by the Ifugao community, which is well known for its rice terraces extending over the highlands of the northern island of the Philippine archipelago. It is practised during the rice sowing season, at harvest time and at funeral wakes and rituals. Thought to have originated before the seventh century, the Hudhud comprises more than 200 chants, each divided into 40 episodes. A complete recitation may last several days. [Source: UNESCO]
Since the Ifugao’s culture is matrilineal, the wife generally takes the main part in the chants, and her brother occupies a higher position than her husband. The language of the stories abounds in figurative expressions and repetitions and employs metonymy, metaphor and onomatopoeia, rendering transcription very difficult. Thus, there are very few written expressions of this tradition. The chant tells about ancestral heroes, customary law, religious beliefs and traditional practices, and reflects the importance of rice cultivation. The narrators, mainly elderly women, hold a key position in the community, both as historians and preachers. The Hudhud epic is chanted alternately by the first narrator and a choir, employing a single melody for all the verses.
The conversion of the Ifugao to Catholicism has weakened their traditional culture. Furthermore, the Hudhud is linked to the manual harvesting of rice, which is now mechanized. Although the rice terraces are listed as a World Heritage Site, the number of growers has been in constant decline. The few remaining narrators, who are already very old, need to be supported in their efforts to transmit their knowledge and to raise awareness among young people.
Ifugao Agriculture, and Hunting
Rice is of utmost importance to the Ifugao. It s thought their name comes form ipugo, meaning “rice eaters.” Bulo is the Ifugao rice god and a symbol of wealth. Many Ifugao use to keep a wooden image of the god in their houses to insure prosperity. Unfortunately many families have sold them to tourists.
The Ifugao used to have festivals for the planting, growing and harvesting of rice. They have traditionally grown tinawon rice, which many say has a delightful aromatic taste that most Ifugao love. In recent years some have stop growing it in favor of more high yield varieties,
About 40 percent of the Ifugao diet comes from agriculture, most of it wetland rice. Ten percent is from fish, clams and snails living in the rice fields. They also grow taro, cotton, beans radishes, cabbage and peaches in the rice fields and use slash and burn agriculture to produce sweet potatoes and corn elsewhere.
Ifugao men hunt rodents, small mammals and wild pigs with spears, which come in three varieties: one which is used as a hunting stick, another with a magically-shaped iron tip reserved for big game, and yet another used for ceremonial dances, which never leaves the village. Hunters carry provisions of rice and sweet potato in backpacks fashioned from wild pig hide.**
Banaue Rice Terraces
The Banaue area (six hours from Manila by bus) contains magnificent rice terraces that have been described as the eighth wonder of the world. Originally constructed by the Ifugao people, who still maintain them, the terraces rise from the steep river gorges and ascend—and sometimes engulf— the mountains like green amphitheaters. The rice terraces around Banaue were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995.
There is some evidence that the first rice terraces may have been carved out of the mountains as early as 1000 B.C. Most were built in the last four centuries. By some estimated the rice terraces would extend for 11,400 miles if placed from end to end. Among the Ifugao, a man’s status is based on his rice fields. Ownership of the paddies and terraces, and the responsibility for taking care is passed down from one generation to the next. The system, allows the Ifugao to live in fair dense concentrations.
Irrigation is achieved through a network of dikes and sluices. The size of the fields range from a few square meters to more than one hectare, with the average size being 270 square meters. In rocky terrain the terraces are built from the top down, by first hollowing out the top of a mountain and surrounding the outside with narrow platforms. Stones that are removed from the fields are used to construct the terrace walls, whose cracks are filled with chalk-base plaster. The platforms are then filled with earth. In this fashion the terraces are built down the mountain until the reach the valley.
If the soil is crumbly work begins at the bottom and moves upwards. Under these circumstances the terrace builders they try to dig out the earth to reach the rock which is used as a solid base and which, if necessary, can be supported with tree trunks. Unfortunately, the terraces are starting to erode and deteriorate somewhat because younger Ifugao are not taking care of them as their attention is distracted by other things like television, smart phones and making money.
According to UNESCO: “For 2,000 years, the high rice fields of the Ifugao have followed the contours of the mountains. The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment. The terraces are located in the remote areas of the Philippine Cordillera mountain range on the northern island of Luzon. While the historic terraces cover an extensive area, the inscribed property consists of five clusters of the most intact and impressive terraces, located in four municipalities. They are all the product of the Ifugao ethnic group, a minority community that has occupied these mountains for thousands of years. [Source: UNESCO ^^^]
“The five inscribed clusters are: 1) the Nagacadan terrace cluster in the municipality of Kiangan, a rice terrace cluster manifested in two distinct ascending rows of terraces bisected by a river; 2) the Hungduan terrace cluster that uniquely emerges into a spider web; 3) the central Mayoyao terrace cluster which is characterized by terraces interspersed with traditional farmers’ bale (houses) and alang (granaries); 4) the Bangaan terrace cluster in the municipality of Banaue that backdrops a typical Ifugao traditional village; and 5) the Batad terrace cluster of the municipality of Banaue that is nestled in amphitheatre-like semi-circular terraces with a village at its base. ^^^
“The Ifugao Rice Terraces epitomize the absolute blending of the physical, socio-cultural, economic, religious, and political environment. Indeed, it is a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty. Reaching a higher altitude and being built on steeper slopes than many other terraces, the Ifugao complex of stone or mud walls and the careful carving of the natural contours of hills and mountains to make terraced pond fields, coupled with the development of intricate irrigation systems, harvesting water from the forests of the mountain tops, and an elaborate farming system, reflect a mastery of engineering that is appreciated to the present. ^^^
“The terraces illustrate a persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, since archaeological evidence reveals that this technique has been in use in the region for 2000 years virtually unchanged. They offer many lessons for application in similar environments elsewhere. The maintenance of the living rice terraces reflects a primarily cooperative approach of the whole community which is based on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao agro-ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, mastery of a most complex pest control regime based on the processing of a variety of herbs, accompanied by religious rituals.” ^^^
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015