January 1, 2015

Did Igorots Practice Cannibalism In The Past?

Was there a time in the storied history of the Igorots wherein they consumed the flesh of their fellow human beings? This is a query that is often asked during conversations about the past of the original settlers and inhabitants of the mountainous Cordillera region. Unfortunately, this is a query that can NOT be answered with a definitive yes or no.

When making observations and conclusions about what our ancestors did or did not do,  we have to go through a knowledge-accumulation process that involves combing over sources that tell us what our ancestors did. We look into books and papers written by historians. We listen to stories handed down by the tribes from one generation to another. We look into surviving written works that have references on the Igorots.

In the case of Igorot history, it's sad to say that we have very little materials and sources to work with. Only a handful of historians dedicated their time to studying Igorot history. Making matters worse, majority of these historians operated at a time when Igorots were in the process of fully embracing the type of civilization being offered by the West.

Igorots were also mentioned a lot of times in written accounts left by the Spaniards who colonized the archipelago for over three centuries. Many Igorots today subscribe to the myth that the Spaniards were never able to conquer the Cordilleras. In fact, they were able to but not as complete as the way they subdued the peoples of the lowlands.

The Spaniards had left some of their marks in the Cordillera region, some of which are easily discernible today. For instance, La Trinidad, the capital town of Benguet has a Spanish name. It was named after the wife of a Spanish conquistador.

The problem with the Igorot mentions in the accounts left by the Spaniards is that these were often exaggerated. The Spaniards had to paint a grimmer picture of the Igorots in order to give them more reasons to carry their Bibles and guns into the Cordillera mountains.

Back to the question of cannibalism being practiced by Igorots in the past, there is very little evidence to make it a viable conclusion. It is an established fact that Igorots practiced headhunting but this doesn't always include consuming. Many people have the misconception that Igorots hunted people to eat them. This is not true based on recorded history of the Igorots.

Below is an old photo that has recently spread online with a caption which implied that Igorots practiced cannibalism. The photo shows mummified remains somewhere in the Cordillera region. The fact that the remains were mummified is a sign of respect to the dead. This alone blows the cannibalism argument out of the water.
A big part of the reason why Igorots are often tagged as cannibals are the misleading information spread by writers and historians. They often throw the term "cannibals" around without presenting evidence or accounts that these indeed transpired. Here's an example:

"The Igorrotes have the reputation of being cannibals, and in the baggage car are some of their trophies in the shape of human heads." - From an article on the Republic dated 1904.

"Many hill tribes in northeastern India, especially in Assam, as well as several tribal groups in Burma, in the Malay Archipelago, and in Indonesia in general, still devoted themselves to all kinds of human sacrifices, combined nearly always with decapitation and frequently with cannibalism. The Igorots and Tagalogs of Luzon, Philippines, abandoned such practices in the middle of the twentieth century." - from the book Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures

In short, the proposition that Igorots practiced cannibalism is a product of over-fascination. As far as recorded history is concerned, there's not enough evidence to confirm the proposition.

In the beginning of this article, I said that the question of cannibalism in the Cordillera region is not answerable by a yes or a no. We don't know what was happening in the mists before the Spaniards came. It's possible that our ancestors, who are so far back in history that we cannot decipher what they did or did not eat, ate their own kind. After all, the Philippines is rather close to places and islands wherein cannibalism were previously practiced.

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