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LOCATION: Philippines (northern Luzon)
POPULATION: 50,786 (1990)
RELIGION: Native beliefs; Protestantism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Filipinos; Kalinga; Ifugao


Although sharing certain affinities with the swidden-farming (shifting-cultivation) Northern group of Cordillera peoples [seeKalinga and Ifugao ], the Ilongot stand apart even from them in their extreme egalitarianism and relative cultural simplicity (in some ways comparable to the Dumagat Negritos with whom some of them have mixed). The question remains whether the culture of the "Bugkalut" (as they call themselves; the lowlander name "Ilongot" comes from 'irungut, "forest people") is actually a largely unchanged survival of ancient north Luzon, culture or rather a version of a more complex culture pared down to the essentials in the process of the people's self-isolation.

Although Spanish soldiers and missionaries had penetrated the upper Cagayan valley by the beginning of the 17th century, they had little impact on the Ilongot whose reputation as a fierce, wild, and unsubjugated people endured well into the American period and the Japanese occupation, when a third of the group are said to have perished in fighting the new invaders. The Ilongot even avoided the trade relations with lowlanders that other independent tribes deemed indispensable.

The latter relationship is very concisely reflected in an Ilongot creation myth recorded by Laurence Wilson in the 1940s. According to this myth, the creators and guardians of all things are two quarreling brothers, Caín and Abál (the biblical Cain and Abel in Spanish). Caín is the ancestor of the Ilongot, who like him are killers and headhunters. Abál, on the other hand, is the ancestor of the lowlanders, who have inherited his mastery of water buffalo and other domesticated animals. In the Ilongot telling, Abál is the stronger of the two brothers, which explains the superior power of the lowlanders.

The arrival in recent decades of the lumbering industry and the airstrips of the New Tribes Mission (Protestant) have ended Ilongot isolation. In any case, farmers of Christian ethnic groups are encroaching inexorably upon Ilongot territory. Violent confrontations between Ilongot and settlers have been frequent and even reached the notice of the national press in the 1960s. In Nueva Vizcaya province, the Ilongot now comprise a tiny proportion of the population, less than one half of one percent in 2000 if one counts only those self-identifying as Bugkalut; though that year's census' category of "Other," largely composed of groups indigenous to the province itself, amounted to 8.2%.


The Ilongot (numbering 50,786 in 1990) inhabit an 840-sqkm (325-sq-mi) area of rolling hills 0.3 m to 900 m (1–3,000 ft) above sea level in southern Nueva Vizcaya province at the point where the Cordillera Central through the Caraballo Range connects to the Sierra Madre running down Luzon's east coast; these lands are drained by the headwaters of the Cagayan. A group of modernized Ilongot live along Baler Bay. Christian Gaddang, Isinai, Tagalog, and Ilocanos have settled the surrounding lowlands.

1970s figures estimated the number of Ilongot at around 2,500. According to the 2000 census, 1,180 inhabitants of Nueva Vizcaya province identified themselves as Bugkalut (i.e. as Ilongot). Another 2000 estimate counted 50,786 Ilongot (the discrepancy among the figures may be attributed to different criteria for defining an Ilongot—almost 30,000 people in Nueva Vizcaya province and over 14,000 in Quezon province were classified as "Other" [indigenous ethnicity] and not as Tagalogs, Ilocanos, Ifugao, Ibaloi, Ayangan, or Bugkalut, suggesting that people who might be classified as Ilongot did not identify themselves as Bugkalut).


By linguists' estimates, the Ilongot language has developed separately from other Philippine languages for over 3,000 years (in comparison, Bontok and Ifugao were a single tongue only 1,000 years ago). Among its peculiarities is its numeral system that counts thus: numbers one through five are each expressed by distinct words, but six through nine are expressed as "five and one," etc. Higher numbers are composed along similar lines: 49, for example, is "fifty and five and four," 60 is "fifty and ten."


Folktales (dimolat) are the principal entertainment of the Ilongot, either in a short form told by individuals taking a short rest together or otherwise meeting each other by chance, or in a long form reserved to pass long evenings or periods of torrential rains. The long form involves an old woman or man with a wealth of lore at her or his disposal singing tales that freely mix supernatural, human, and animal characters and highlight practical jokes. The storytellers embroider the basic plot with repetitions and minor happenings (often for comic relief) and draw out final syllables or add meaningless words to conform to the fixed melody; listeners enjoy the style of presentation rather than the mere content.


Ilongot recognize a range of supernatural beings including a creator-overseer deity associated with the sun, as well as ancestral spirits. They are most concerned, however, with nature spirits and illness-giving spirits. The most powerful and feared is 'Agimeng, the "companion of the forest," guardian of hunting and headhunting but also a giver of disease; his female counterpart holds dominion over cultivated fields. Usually associated with geographical features, disease-giving spirits are identified with typical symptoms and the plants that cure them, and, as familiars, may develop an association with particular individuals.

While dreams may lead a person to health or hunting charms, visions and illness itself introduce many people to such spiritual familiars. Only a few such people become shamans qualified to perform diagnostic and curing rites, preside over special chants, and summon the souls of future head-hunting victims. Those cured by a shaman can share in the power of the spiritual familiar and thus can conduct minor rituals themselves. Other supernatural skills that individuals may possess are sucking out disease and using a bow to tell the future.

Disease usually arises from spirits licking or urinating on a victim, although harm may also come from deceased ancestors who long for the company of the living, or from guardian spirits of field and forest who feel abused by humans in some way. Healing rites first invoke the spirits and then expel them by manipulating plants (of which 700 kinds are in use); they may also entail threatening the spirits, blowing them away, steaming them out, bathing to wash them out, beating them out, or drinking to purge them out. One can also burn or beat a contagious plant in order to eliminate the symptom. Rites may also turn a sickness back on the spirit that had caused it.

Since the 1950s, Protestant missionaries have been making conversions among the Ilongot.


Harvest rituals are the only regular communal rites. Others include occasional headhunting and peacemaking rites.


A first ear-piercing takes place for girls when they are babies and for boys before their teens. At age 15, boys and girls may choose to have their teeth filed and blackened; one has this done only to beautify oneself, although feasting and oath-taking accompany the operation. As headhunters, all young men should succeed in taking a head, preferably before marrying.

Adolescents of the opposite sex may exchange betel and sleep together before being recognized as couples. An informal association involving casual field help (from the male), gifts, and sex is the prelude to formal wedding negotiations. A pregnancy generates tensions between the families, leading to both gift-giving and threats of violence, which are usually only resolved through marriage.

The langu or bride-price is meant to quell the anger of the woman's kinfolk and may include payments to members of distant behrtan that can claim a connection to her. The negotiation of langu and the protracted period of paying it gives kinfolk a chance to air grievances and settle them by mollifying the aggrieved parties with langu goods. Beginning with a pu'rut, an initial (often hostile) confrontation between the man's and the woman's parties, langu installments include guns, bullets, metal pots, cloth, jewelry, and knives. At a series of pi'yat meetings, the man's side presents meat and goods to the in-laws and finally "buys the woman." The woman's side then returns this by an 'arakad, bringing pounded rice and liquor to the man's kin.

Each person possesses a spirit that roams away from the body during sleep and survives death as an entity dangerous to the living. Funerary rites aim to banish the deceased's spirit through ritual sweeping, smoking, bathing, and invocation.

The corpse is wrapped in bark or put in a box to be buried near the home in a sitting position or curled on its right side; valuable goods are hung on a post at the foot of the grave. The corpses of young children are enshrouded in bark and placed high in trees, for proximity to the earth is thought to be painful and perilous for them.


Ilongot society has been described as an ordered anarchy where all persons are equal and recognize no authority figures. In practice, leadership in a community tends to come from a set of brothers who are skilled in oratory (purung) and possess knowledge of genealogy and customary law. There is no organization encompassing more than an individual community, although several settlements may recognize a common behrtan (local community) allegiance; in all, there are 13 such behrtan, each with its own name and dialect.

As Ilongot society has no hierarchy in which superiors command the obedience of inferiors, each man must rely on his personal eloquence to persuade his fellows to follow a course of action that he desires. At public gatherings, a man attempts to move those present toward a consensus, one to which they may individually already be inclined, as he finds out in prior discussions with each one; consensus is essential since no sanctions can be applied to compel anyone to do anything. Such discussions are exclusively a male affair, as women claim not to understand purung, much less to be capable of it.

The settling of disputes or grievances involves the exchange of betel, swearing by salt, and animal sacrifices. The victim of petty theft may demand that the accused submit to trial by ordeal.

In conferences between settlements (such as for peacemaking), those most adept at purung in one settlement pit themselves against their counterparts in the other. Bride-price negotiations provide an occasion for parties to demand redress of past grievances or recompense for contributing to previous bride-prices.

Among the Ilongot, every male is expected to headhunt, preferably before marrying, and most contemporary men have done so. Unlike in other headhunting cultures, the Ilongot do not take heads as magic to increase the fertility of the soil, to gain personal spiritual potency, to gain social distinction, nor exclusively to pursue a vendetta. A man takes heads in order to "relieve his heart" from an anxiety, the source of which may be a death in his own household or an unsettled feud. Often, a man makes a binatan, an oath of personal sacrifice, e.g., not to eat rice from the granary or to avoid sex until taking a head. Taking a head gives a young man the right to wear prestigious cowrie shells, feathers, and red hornbill ornaments. The act does significantly raise the young man's status, but as all males have experienced it, this merely maintains the egalitarianism of society as a whole.

Men may headhunt solo or in raiding parties of up to 40 individuals. Prior to setting out, the men gather in front of a house, and a shaman summons the souls of the victims into a bamboo receptacle. In the forest, the men listen for bird omens and may play the death-associated violin or reed flute. Distinctions to be sought include being the first to strike or shoot, to reach a felled body, to cut a head, and/or to fling the head away. The heads are not kept as in cultures where the skulls would be preserved as a status symbol or source of spiritual power, although the men may bring victims' hands back for the children to chop up. The return of the headhunters to the settlement is celebrated with singing, dancing, and slaughtering a pig.

Peace between warring parties is achieved through a series of debates and exchanges, after which members of the two groups may visit each other, enter into marriage with each other, or even go on joint raids on other groups. However, if no intermarriage takes place, hostilities resume within two generations.


A settlement consists of four to nine households (five to nine nuclear families, totaling 40 to 70 persons). Initially, the houses are rarely adjacent but always within calling distance of each other. Over time, as each household abandons old fields and opens new ones, the houses relocate nearer the new fields, until the settlement becomes more and more dispersed (by the same token, as long-fallow fields are reclaimed, the houses may approach each other again). The only instance of concentrated settlements is the clusters of houses near the New Tribes Mission's airstrips.

A house (kamari) has a square floor plan, is raised 2 m to 5 m (6–15 ft) off the ground, and has walls of woven grass or bamboo and a pyramidal or single-ridged roof. An unpartitioned central space is edged by a slightly raised wooden platform where the hearths are located (up to three hearths, one for each resident nuclear family). The Ilongot also build smaller, temporary field houses ('abun).

Nueva Vizcaya province is poor compared to other provinces of the Cagayan Valley region, itself tied with Northern Mindanao for sixth highest in average annual family income. According to the 2000 census, 50.8% of houses were lit with electricity, compared to 70% in neighboring Isabela province. 15.3% of households obtained water from springs, lakes, or rivers, compared to 1.9% in Isabela.


Marriage between second cousins is the preferred pattern. As it is usual for a particular set of brothers to offer leadership in a community, marrying that set of brothers with a set of sisters (also their close cousins) is also common.

Peculiarities of Ilongot kinship terminology include a single term covering grandparents, parents-in-law, and children-inlaw ('apu) and a single term for a sibling's spouse and a spouse's sibling ('aum). One must not refer to one's 'aum by name and must treat her or him with particular respect. Although sex with one's 'aum is forbidden, a surviving spouse often weds a sibling of the deceased spouse.

One to three nuclear families live under a single roof, each with its own hearth and sleeping area. These nuclear families tend to consist of the parents' family and the families of the youngest married daughters. Sons leave home when they marry, but daughters stay in the parental home, leaving only when younger daughters marry and bring in their husbands. A married couple can only return to the man's birth community when he has paid up the bride-price.

In situations such as attempting to make persuasive arguments in public debates (e.g., bride-price negotiations), an individual finds it useful to claim affiliation with one or more behrtan. At its simplest, the behrtan is a grouping of several settlements that has a collective name, usually referring to a landmark, a plant, a color, or a place, and its own dialect; it is the local group within which one tends to marry and upon whose members revenge (head-taking) can be taken for the crime of one of its members. An individual inherits the right to claim connection to a behrtan from either parent and may claim as many as four such connections (via the four grandparents). A woman prefers to take her mother's behrtan, while a man prefers not only to take his father's behrtan but also to pass it on to his children, which is only possible after he has paid up the bride-price. The behrtan, it should be stressed, is not a corporate group of any kind; very often it is merely a way of defining an interest group of the moment (such as the two parties in bride-price negotiations), and a stranger entering a discussion and asserting solidarity with one of the parties may claim a behrtan connection that no genealogy grants him or her.


Traditional Ilongot clothing consists of lengths of bark pounded to the consistency of soft leather. Men wear a length of cloth passed between the legs and secured with a belt of rattan or brass wire. Women wear a short sarong (waist to knees) along with earrings, bead necklaces, and brass wire spiraling over the arms. Children go naked.


The staple food is rice eaten with vegetables (root crops are a secondary source of starch). Wild plants, such as fruits, ferns, and hearts of palm, are also gathered for food.

For animal protein, Ilongot eat wild pigs, deer, and fish but do not eat the meat of the pigs and chickens that they raise for sale to lowlanders; domestic animals are said to eat excrement and thus should not be consumed. Essential to hunting, dogs live inside the house and are never eaten.

While eating with the hands from flat lengths of leaf is found widely in Southeast Asia, the Ilongot also fashion disposable cups for vegetable broth from the anahao leaf.

Ilongot make basi, alcohol from sugarcane, and the men often get together to have drinking sessions.


The Ilongot isolation has meant that modern education has not reached them as it has most other Filipinos, lowlanders, and highlanders, Christian and non-Christian alike, although Protestant missions are offering some Ilongot exposure to it.


Musical instruments include the bamboo flute, brass gongs, a bamboo-tube zither, and a kind of violin with a body of bark and animal skin and strings of women's hair. Young men play such instruments while courting young women. Gatherings feature singing with alternating groups (antiphonal) and dances of which there are many kinds, e.g., female group dances, a male solo, or men dancing while beating hand-held gongs.


Ilongot cultivate dry-rice, maize, and cassava side by side on swidden fields. After the harvest, they plant such fields with tobacco and vegetables. When the field is about to be abandoned, it is given over to sweet potatoes, bananas, and sugarcane. A given field may be worked from one to five years, depending on its fertility. When its fertility is exhausted, the farmer moves on to clear another plot out of the forest, going as far as 32 km (20 mi) away and returning to the first spot only after 8 to 10 fallow years. Land belongs to the individual who clears it for use and may be reopened and cultivated by anyone else at a later date. In general having little inherited property, Ilongot do not bequeath agricultural lands. Because of low population density in their territory, wild land is always available. Gathering forest plants also contributes to the diet.

Twice a week, groups of men hunt game with dogs, dividing the meat equally among the householders. The meat obtained in three- to five-day hunting expeditions without dogs is the personal property of the hunter and is dried in strips to be sold or traded. Fishing ranges from individuals using nets, traps, and spears to groups of up to 250 men cooperating to catch fish by damming streams or employing poisons. The catch is divided equally.

The Ilongot trade baskets and metalwork among themselves, but most such wares circulate as part of bride-prices or inter-kin gifts. Ilongot barter dried meat, captured fawns, pigs, and chickens for bullets, liquor, cloth, salt, and knives from lowlanders. To conduct these exchanges, Ilocano or Tagalog traders come to the borders of Ilongot territory, and Ilongot go down to the lowland towns.


While girls play with rag dolls, boys enjoy shooting contests with miniature bows and arrows made by their father for them when they reach the age of four. Boys also like to climb trees and play tag in them.

Adult Ilongot are known to use a 12-m (40-ft) length of rattan with a hook at one end and a loop at the other to move through the trees. Clinging to one tree, they cast this flexible "rope" to catch on to another tree. In this way, Ilongot can travel through dense forest very rapidly. This, however, is not a sport so much as an efficient way of working (as when a man wants to cut branches from trees that will later be felled to open a field).


Ilongot entertain themselves primarily by telling folktales.


Among the Ilongot, there are no specializations: each man forges his own knives, hoes, and picks and weaves his own rattan baskets; each woman weaves and sews clothing for her own family.


The increasing invasion of Ilongot territory by other ethnic groups sparks violent confrontations between the Ilongot and the new settlers. This violence is bound to continue for some time to come.


Discussions that seek to build consensus on a common course of action are regarded as exclusively a male affair, since women claim not to understand, much less be capable of, the purung (oratory) necessary to persuade other. According to the 2000 census, among the Ilongot self-identifying as Bugkalut, men slightly (51.7%) outnumbered women. In the Nueva Vizcaya population as a whole, more women had a college undergraduate education or higher and received more academic degrees than men by a substantial margin; elementary school completion, a measure likely more relevant to the Bugkalut, was lower for girls than for boys (53.3% of elementary school graduates were male while only 51% of the population was male). Women tend to invoke connections with their mother's behrtan, men with their father's (see "Interpersonal Relationships").


Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. Dallas: Texas: SIL International, 2005. (November 21, 2008).

LeBar, Frank M., ed. Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Vol 2, The Philippines and Formosa. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

National Statistics Office: Republic of the Philippines. "Cagayan Valley: Nive in Ten Houses Amortized/Mortgaged Their Housing Units. (November 23, 2008).

———. "Nueva Vizcaya: Annual Growth Rate at 1.67 Percent." (November 23, 2008)

Rosaldo, Michelle. Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Rosaldo, Renato. Ilongot headhunting, 1883–1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Wilson, Laurence L. Ilongot Life and Legends. Baguio, Philippines: Southeast Asia Institute, 1947.

—revised by A. Abalahin