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Headhunting in the Cordilleras

The truth behind the infamous Igorot headhunting practice in the Cordilleras.

 |  2 min read

The truth about the Igorot headhunting practice in the Cordilleras
The truth about the Igorot headhunting practice in the Cordilleras

Warning: This article contains material that you may find disturbing, offensive, or repulsive.

The headhunting in the Cordilleras was not done by the Igorot ancestors randomly, for various reasons, a broken peace agreement, a serious personal slight, a dispute involving rape, murder, or theft caused by a visitor or rivals from other tribes. A vendetta is declared and retribution becomes a matter of honor to the tribe and the individual.

Other factors include the desire for a bountiful harvest of cultivated products, the desire for greatness in the minds of the descendants, to increase wealth, to ensure the abundance of wild game and fish, to ensure the general health and favor in the hands of women, and to promote fertility in women.

Igorot holding his trophy (1909)
Igorot holding his trophy (1909)

Usually, practice is a ritual or test of manhood. For example, in an ethnolinguistic group, men could only marry after they had beheaded a man. But they did not just cut off anyone's head, instead, they did it in a contest. Beheading a competitor means they are "graduates" from childhood and are skilled enough to protect a wife and family.

Bontoc Igorot with
Bontoc Igorot with "Chaklag" (chest Tattoo)

In Igorot's headhunting practice, most of their enemies' heads were cut off by a battle-ax even before the wounded man dies.

If a fighter in the scene never gets a chance to behead someone, he will be permitted to cut off the head from a deceased body and thus be eligible for a unique headtaker tattoo called "Chaklag".

Igorot headhunting axe
Igorot headhunting axe

However, the possession of a freshly cut head should be "activated" by proper ceremony and ritual before it can "unleash" its spiritual and magical powers.

To try to stop the practice of headhunting, the Americans began to organize sporting events in the Cordilleras. You'll find lots of tug-of-war photos, relay races, and baseball games going on - an attempt to stop the ongoing killings taking place across the region.

Igorot boy burrows for coins in a pan of flour. Bontoc 1908
Igorot boy burrows for coins in a pan of flour. Bontoc 1908

The Igorots stopped practicing headhunting and there was no concrete evidence of cannibalism in the region.

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