Approaching Death by “Headhunting”


Among the Ilongot people of the Northern Philippines, it was common to headhunt during the “rage of bereavement.” Upon the loss of a loved one, the men of the Ilongot would hunt and kill other men. It seems unthinkable to us, especially as death in Western culture leads (or is meant to lead) to a contemplation of the sanctity of life. Furthermore, in a culture where we have euphemisms like “prostrate with grief” or “paralyzed by sadness,” it is hard to imagine the pull towards so war-like an activity, especially when there is no revenge involved. Given the unusual and unusually violent nature of this ritual, we naturally look for explanations. What causes this behavior?

Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo writes extensively about the Ilongot and their bereavement rage–and about his own cultural assumptions. When he asked the tribesmen what drove them to the practice, they claimed that severing and throwing away a head was the same as throwing away the anger at death. The head becomes something “to carry” their anger away, a vessel for grief-born rage. To Rosaldo, this description didn’t really solve the problem, though, or not at first. What caused the rage to begin with? Was it life-for-life?

The answer is stranger (and yet more familiar) than you might think.

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1 Comment on "Approaching Death by “Headhunting”"

  1. Ted Heistman | Jul 25, 2013 at 1:29 pm |

    The Mohawks had a similar tradition but instead of head hunting they would just capture some people the enemy tribe to make up for their losses and after torturing them would adopt them into the tribe. The torture was a symbol for death and rebirth into their new tribe. Eventually the Mohawks were composed of all the people of the surrounding tribes. They even captured whites and this is one reason many Mohawks have blue/grey/green eyes.

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