The Ilongot are a forest people that live in Nueva Vizcaya Province in Luzon. Also known as the Ibilao, Ibilaw, Ilungut, Ilyongt, Lingotes, they are former headhunters and live in an enclave and have resisted attempts to assimilate them. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]
The Ilongot are primarily in slash-and-burn agriculturalist, hunters and fishermen. They grow maize, manioc, rice, tobacco, sugar and vegetables and moves their fields once a year. Fields cleared from virgin forest are used for five years and left fallow for eight years. The men hunt with dogs several times a week and all meat is shared equally among the all households and consumed immediately. Sometimes longer hunting trips take place. Here the meat is dried. Fish are taken with nets, traps, spears and poison.
The Ilongot also collect forest products such as rattan for their own use and to trade, forge their own knives, picks and hoes. Item they obtain through trade include bullets, cloth, knives, liquor and salt. Much of the trading is done to obtain goods for bride payments.
Traditional Ilongot religion revolves around helpful and dangerous supernatural beings. Illnesses is believed to be caused by supernatural beings who lick or urinate on their victims. Shaman preside over curing ceremonies, and spirits are kept away by bathing, smoking and sweeping. Before the 1950s, when Protestants missionaries arrived in their homelands, the Ilongot had never been exposed to major world religions. Now many are evangelical Christians.
The Ilongot are buried in a sitting position. If a woman died in childbirth or experienced a violent death her hands tied to her feet to prevent her "ghost" from roaming.
There is no formal leadership in Ilongot society. Informal leadership lies with sons and brothers who have oratorical skills and have acquired knowledge of myths, ceremonies and genealogies. The oratorical skills are known as purun, which women reportedly can not understand.
Disputes are sometimes settled by giving offenders ordeals to establish their innocence. More often than not they evolve into feuds settled through head hunting raids. A death in a household requires a young man in that house avenge it. A pig is sacrificed when headhunters return. Some feuds are settled with negotiations and exchanges, Many go on for a long time.
Young men are expected to engage in a successful head hunt before marriage. Prospective marriage partners usually exchange gifts, work together in the fields and have sex before the get married. Pregnancy speeds up the process which is finalized until the two families who are going to be unified have settled all their disputes. Marriages are usually monogamous and cousins are preferred partners.
Ilongot youth have traditionally had their teeth filed as an act of initiation into adulthood. In 1947, Laurence Lee Wilson wrote: “Sometime in their middle teens, the maidens and youths have their teeth filed down. A group of her boyfriends will rally round a girl in her house and hold her down tight while one cuts her teeth down - no matter how much she screams from the excruciating pain. After the operation, one lad will take a pencil-sized twig from a guava tree or the stem of a batac plant, heat it in the fire, and rub the warm bark on the teeth: thus, stopping the blood and easing the pain. Thereafter the shortened teeth are strong for chewing - even bones, and picking the teeth after eating is unnecessary. When it is all over, wreaths are hung up and a gala time is had with basi [fermented wine], chicken, and rice. [Source: Teresita R. Infante, [Source: kasal.com *^*]
The Ilongot have traditionally lived a semi-nomadic life in groups with around 180 or so members. Each groups is made up of several settlements, which in turn have four to nine household, with five to 15 nuclear families and 40 to 70 individuals. Settlements are set up by their fields and are moved whenever they clear new fields. Houses are built on pilings 15 feet off the ground and have walls made of grass and bamboo,
Members of the Ilongot tribe are probably the closest things to real life Tarzans. Using 30 foot pieces of rattan Ilongots travel through the thick jungle by swinging from tree to tree. One end of the rattan vine has a hook on it which is hooked around a tree limb. Holding on to the vine with their hands and toes the tribesmen are to able to swing from one branch to another.
The Ilongots wear plain or dark blue or black loincloths with a colored band around the hips. A long red or black band is tied around the hands and no shoes are worn. Their handmade guitars often use human hair for strings. Maybe the Ilongots don't hunt heads anymore, and maybe they do it because there is no cat gut or steel around ot make strings for their guitars.
Ilongot Country in 1910
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “ These people, the Ilongots, although very few in number, only six thousand, stretch from Nueva Vizcaya to the Pacific Coast, inhabiting an immense region of forested and all but inaccessible mountains. Over these they roam without any specially fixed habitation. They have the reputation, and apparently deserve it, of being cruel and treacherous, as they certainly are shy and wild. It was these people who killed Doctor Jones, of the Marshall Field Museum, after he had been with them eight or nine months. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
Now our Government in the Philippines, by and through and because of Mr. Worcester, had made repeated efforts to reach these Ilongots, to bring them in, as it were, and only recently had these efforts met with any success. For one thing, it is a very serious matter to seek them out in the depths of their fastnesses if only because of the difficulty of reaching them; many of them even now have never seen a white man, and would escape, if I recollect aright, on the approach of our people. But in 1908 some fifty of them did “come in,” and, gaining confidence, this number grew to one hundred and fifty in 1909. They, or some of them at least, now sent an invitation to Mr. Worcester to come and see them, and he accepted on condition of their making a trail, saying that they could not expect a man of his stature to creep through their country on his hands and knees. This trail they had built, and they had assembled at Campote, four hours from Dúpax, for this first formal visit; It was the desire of Mr. Worcester that this visit should be happy in all respects; for, if not, the difficulties of intercourse with this people, already great, would be so seriously increased as to delay the civilizing intentions of the Government for many years to come. <>
“We rode off at about two o’clock, passing under numberless bamboo arches, on an astonishingly good road, built by Padre Juan Villaverde. About two miles out we left the road, turning off east across rice-paddies, and then followed a stream, which we crossed near the foot of a large bare mountain facing south. Up this we zigzagged four miles, a tiresome stretch with the sun shining full upon us. But at the top we had our reward: to the south reached a beautiful open valley, its floor a mass of green undulations, its walls purple mountains blazing in the full glory of the afternoon sun. At the extreme south, miles away, we could make out Las Salinas, Salt Springs, whose deposits sparkled and shone and scintillated and danced in the heated air. Grateful as it would have been to rest at the top and enjoy the scene, we nevertheless had to turn our backs upon it, for we had yet far to go over an unknown trail, and it was most desirable to get in before dark. So we turned and now plunged into a forest of tall trees so thick overhead and so deeply buried in vines, and creepers and underbrush generally, that just as no light got in from above, so one could not see ten yards in any direction off the trail. This effect was no doubt partly due to the shades of evening, and to our being on the eastern slope of the mountain. <>
“And that trail! The Ilongots, poor chaps, had done their best with it, and the labor of construction must have been fearful. But the footing was nothing but volcanic mud, laterite, all the worse from a recent rain. Our ponies sank over their fetlocks at every step, and required constant urging to move at all. Compared to the one I was riding, Bubud was a race-horse! Cootes, Strong, and I kept together, the others having ridden on. As the day grew darker and darker, the myriad notes of countless insects melted into one mighty, continuous shrill note high overhead, before us, behind us, in which not one break or intermission could be detected. Anything faster than a walk would now have been unsafe, even if it had been possible, for at times the ground sloped off sharply down the mountain, the footing grew more and more uncertain, and part of the time we could not see the trail at all. Indeed, Cootes’s pony stepped in a hole and fell, pitching Cootes clean over his head, and sending his helmet down the mountain-side, where Cootes had to go and get it. <>
“Soon after this, though, the forest thinned perceptibly, the trail grew better, and we met Connor, who had turned back to see how we were getting on, and who informed us we had only one-half hour more before us. Going on, we were greeted by a shout of welcome from our first Ilongot, standing in the trail, subligate, or gee-stringed, otherwise stark naked, and armed with a spear, the sentinel of a sort of outpost, equally naked, with which we soon came up. They were all armed, too, spears and shields, and all insisted on shaking hands with every one of us. You must shake hands when they offer to, an unpleasant matter sometimes, when you notice that the man who is paying you this attention is covered with toenia imbricata, or other rare tropical skin disease. Noblesse oblige, here as elsewhere; besides, a consideration for your own skin may require you to put aside your prejudices. The trail now turned down over a broad, cleared hog-back, at the flattened end of which we could see two shacks and a temporary shed for our mounts. Smoke was rising cheerfully in the air and people were moving about. This was Campote.” <>
Ilongot Head Hunting
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “So recently as 1907 they made a descent on Dúpax, killing people and taking their heads. When they mean to kill a man fairly, according to their ideas, they hand him a fish. This is a signal that he must be on his guard: to refuse the fish is of no use, because by so doing one puts one’s self beyond the pale, and may be killed in any fashion. We heard a story here of a Negrito stealing a pig from two Ilongots who had a Negrito brother-in-law. Failing to recover the pig, they decided that they  must have a Negrito head, and so took their brother-in-law’s. Pig-stealing, by the way, in the mountain country is regarded much as horse-stealing used to be out West. Besides the spear and head knife, the Ilongots, like the Negritos, with whom they have intermarried to a certain extent, use the bow and arrow, and are correspondingly dreaded. For it seems to be believed in Luzon that bow-and-arrow savages are more dangerous than spear-and-ax-men; that the use of this projectile weapon, the arrow, induces craftiness, hard to contend against. An Ilongot can silently shoot you in the back, after you have passed. A spear-man has to get closer, and can not use an ambush so readily. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
According to some accounts, the Highlanders, in throwing the spear, give it a rotation around its longest axis, twirling it rapidly in the hand as this is brought up before the throw. In other words, they have discovered that a rotating spear has greater accuracy than a non-rotating one. If this is true, this discovery is worthy to be bracketed with the use of the fire-syringe by the Tinguians of the North, and by certain other wild people of the Archipelago.
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “The next morning we turned out early, and got our first real “look-see.” Campote is completely surrounded by mountains, the hogback dropping off into the valley below us. About four or five hundred people had assembled, men, women, and children. As a rule, they were small and well built, but not so well built as the tribes farther north. The men were fully armed with spears, bows and arrows, shields, and head-knives; gee-strings apart, they were naked. Some of them wore on the head the scarlet beak of the hornbill; these had taken heads. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“Quite a number, both men and women, had a small cross-like pattern tattooed on the forehead; the significance of this I did not learn. The shield is in one piece, in longitudinal cross-section like a very wide flat V open toward the bearer, the top terminating in a piece rising between two scoops, one on each side of the median line. The women had on short skirts and little jackets (like what, I am told, we call bolero jackets), the bosom being bare. Around the waist they wore bands of brass wire or of bamboo stained red and wound around with fine brass wire. These bamboo bands were pretty and artistic. You saw the children as they happened to be; the only thing to note about them being that they were quite bright-looking. What the men lacked in clothes they made up in their hair, for they wore it long and some of them had it done up in the most absolute Psyche knots. Such earrings as we saw were worn in the upper cartilage of the ear. It may be remarked, too, that the women had a contented and satisfied air, as though sure of their power and position; we found this to be the case generally throughout the Mountain Country.” <>
Meeting with the Ilongots
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: The purpose of the visit being to cultivate pleasant relations with and receive the confidence of these shy people, the real business of the day was soon opened. Mr. Worcester took his place in the shade of his shack, and proceeded to the distribution of red calico, beads, combs, mirrors, and other small stuff, the people coming up by rancherías (settlements or villages); none of the highlanders seem to have any conception of tribal organization, a condition no doubt due to the absence of communications. A cabecilla, or head man, would receive two meters, his wife one, and others smaller measures. This sort of thing was carefully studied out, so far as rank was concerned, for it would never do to give a common person even approximately as much as a cabecilla. One ranchería would take all red beads, another white, another blue, and so on. Not once did I see a trace of greediness or even eagerness, though interest was marked. The whole thing was conducted in the most orderly fashion, the various rancherías awaiting their turn with exemplary patience. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
It was now mid-day. The various arms, shields, and other things we had bought were collected to be cargadoed back to Pangasinán. Among them, alas! were not two beautiful head-knives, which their wearers had absolutely declined to part with on any terms whatever. They resisted the Governor-General even. I give a photograph here of a knife and scabbard that Connor sent me on later. It is a handsome one, but not as handsome as those two jewels! <>
“Our last performance was to look at the garden and to see the school at work, making thread and rope, weaving mats, and so on. I take it that this school was really the significant thing at Campote, apart from the significance of the occasion itself. We spent but little time over it, however, our interest in the arts of war having left us only a few minutes for those of peace. Nevertheless, here is a beginning that will bear fruit, and in the meantime Connor rides alone and in safety among these wild people, which proves a good many things, when you select the right man to do your hard work. <>
“Mr. Worcester expressed the liveliest satisfaction with the meeting. These people, returning to their rancherías, he said, would talk for a year of their treatment at the hands of the Americans, of the gift of palay (rice) to four hundred people, for two days, to say nothing of two vacas (cows) and of other gifts. Next year, he hoped, half of them would come in; besides, the start made was good; the presence of so many women and children was a good sign, and equally good was the total absence of old women. For these are a source of trouble and mischief with their complaints of the degeneracy of the times. They address themselves particularly to the young men, accusing them of a lack of courage and of other parts, taunting them with the fact that the young women will have none of them, that in their day their young men brought in heads, etc. Thus it has happened, especially when any native drink was going about, that trouble has followed. It is the practice, therefore, of our Government when arranging these meetings to suggest that the old women be left at home, and if so left, it is a good indication.” <>
Ilongot Dances and Sports
Cornélis De Witt Willcox wrote in “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon”: “The issue over, dancing began. In this only men and boys took part, to the music of small rude fiddles, tuned in fifths, played by the men, and of a queer instrument consisting of two or three joints of bamboo with strings stretched over bridges, beaten with little sticks by the women. The fiddles must be of European origin. The orchestra, seven or eight all told, sat in the shade, surrounded by an admiring crowd. Among them was a damsel holding a civilized umbrella over her head, whereof the stick and the rib-points were coquettishly decorated with white horse-hair tied in little brushes, doubtless furnished by our white pony. [Source:“The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon” by Cornélis De Witt Willcox, Lieutenant-Colonel U.S. Army, Professor United States Military Academy, 1912 <>]
“The dancing at once fixed our attention. Two or three men, though usually only two, took position on the little terreplein below the shack, and began a slow movement, taking very short, formal, staccato steps in a circle against the sun. Keeping back to back and side to side, they maintained the whole body in a tense, rigid posture with the chest out, head up and thrown back, abdomen drawn in, right hand straight out, the left also, holding a shield, eyes glazed and fixed, knees bent forward. Between the steps, the dancers would stand in this strained, tense position, then move forward a few inches, and so on around the circle. After a little of this business, for that is just what it was, the next part came on, a simulation of fighting: and, as everything before was as stiff, strained, and rigid as it was possible to be, so now everything was light, graceful, agile, and quick; leaps forward and back, leaps sideways, the two combatants maneuvering, as it were, one around the other, for position. It was hard to realize that human motions could be so graceful, light and easy. Then head-knives were drawn, and cuts right, and cuts left, cuts at every part of the body from the head to the ankles, were added to the motion; the man on the defensive for the moment making suitable parries with his shield. <>
“The dance completed, the dancers would advance and face Mr. Worcester, put their heels together in true military fashion, hold their arms out right and left, and make a slight inclination of the head, a sort of salute, in fact, to the one they regarded as the principal personage of the party. The dancing was followed by archery, the target being a small banana stem at some thirty paces. This calls for no especial comment, except that many hits were made, and many of the misses would have hit a man. More interesting was an ambush they laid for us, to show how they attacked. While collecting for it, to our astonishment the entire party suddenly ran in all directions at top speed and hid behind whatever offered. On their return, in four or five minutes, they explained that a spirit had suddenly appeared among them, and that they had had to run. On our asking how they knew a spirit had turned up, they asked if we had not noticed leaves and grass flying in a spiral. As a matter of fact, some of us had, a very small and very gentle whirlwind having formed for a second or two. They had seen it, too, and that was the spirit.” <>
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