Renato Rosaldo – Ilongot Headhunting

Renato Rosaldo. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980)

Rosaldo’s book is an illuminating example of what has been termed “microhistory”, tracing the lives of a relatively local group of people over less than a century not only as a way of explicating social processes in action, but to provide a fundamental reconsideration of the notion of social structure more generally. Based on fieldwork in northern Luzon in the Philippines, Ilongot Headhunting uses the titular cultural practice as a framework for the study of a people who “simply lacked the standard institutions—segmentary lineages, ranked age-grades, men’s houses, dual organizations, matrilateral cross-cousin marriage rules, and the like—that have so often given ethnographies their classical elegance” (Rosaldo 1980:9). The standard synchronic approach common to mid-20th century anthropology was simply inadequate to the task of elucidating Rosaldo’s field materials, which required a turn to ethnographic history.

A key feature of Rosaldo’s book was the careful analysis of groups called bērtan (class, kind, species, group), which the Ilongot used to refer both to co-residential and mostly endogamous groups, as well as to residentially dispersed groups that did not act together; the use of the same term for two very different modes of sociality was only intelligible for Rosaldo when he shifted to a diachronic analysis (ibid.: 15). Although the details certainly differ, the use of the term bäpurru among the Yolngu to refer to a range of differently-organized groupings (cf. Keen 1995) points to what is obviously a widespread issue in social anthropology: that is, how best to translate local ways of talking about the lived experience of sociality into the analytical modes of anthropology. Rosaldo notes that all bērtan are spoken of as enduring units that are clearly demarcated, although when examined historically it becomes clear that their social salience fluctuates over time (ibid.: 221).

Like the Yolngu term bäpurru, bērtan do not always refer to groups of people anyway. It is an “all-purpose classifier” (ibid.: 222) that references people who share a common name, names distinctive “kinds of people”, and may simply refer to place names. Roy Wagner (1974) has written about the dangers of conflating names and things named in social analysis, with the result that names associated with people are taken to refer to concrete, bounded entities whose “reality” in social analysis is not the same as it is in lived social life. Rosaldo notes that:

the sense of collective identity shared by residentially concentrated bērtan members derives less from co-residence at a particular moment in time than from their continuity over a series of residential moves. Concentrated bērtan are united by the diffuse enduring solidarity that grows among those who, as Ilongots say, hold hands and follow one another. Not their common roots in a particular place, but rather their shared histories of living together as they have moved together lend people…an enduring sense of collective identity. (ibid.: 226-7)

What is more, individuals may claim multiple bērtan identities (traced cognatically), which may be asserted strategically and contingently over their lives.

As a result of this recognition, Rosaldo needed to make an historical turn, but not before some admitted false starts. Stories provided a key for understanding Ilongot historical consciousness, but initially Rosaldo viewed them as “disposable texts” (ibid.: 16) that filled up his notebooks but provided little that appeared to be “data”. These stories often consisted of a sequential litany of places where people hunted, camped, or slept, as they did at the end of World War Two when the Philippines were occupied by retreating Japanese soldiers. According to Rosaldo, 

while people were moved to tears as they recited place name after place name—every rock, hill, and stream where they are, rested, or slept—my usual response was to continue transcribing in uncomprehending boredom. Unmoved by the endless, evidently aimless episodes of death and hunger, I failed to see the culturally distinctive sense of history that these tales embodied. (ibid.: 16)

Rosaldo came to realize that these stories were representations of a unique historical consciousness that in turn shed light on Ilongot social processes: “As the shape of Ilongot history began to emerge, my perception of Ilongot social structure started, quite unexpectedly, to shift at its very foundations” (ibid.: 18).

Rosaldo began to develop “an ethnographic history that seeks to follow a collection of lives as they unfold through time” (ibid.: 46), focusing on residential movements, feuding histories, and patterns of intermarriage. What he discovered were general patterns whereby the Ilongot moved from geographical peripheries to centres as a response to crises imposed from the outside (early 20th century American colonialism, WWII Japanese invasion, martial law and the encroachment of squatters in the 1970s). He also discovered that traditional cultural practices tended to rise and fall away in waves: cohorts of men of roughly the same age tended to “follow one another” in the taking of heads and in getting married, resulting in the long-term waxing and waning of inter-group relations of amity and enmity. His detailed analysis of one specific intermarrying cohort of 20 men and women is a fascinating example of a historical and biographical approach to social anthropology.

As for headhunting practices themselves, Rosaldo situates these within Ilongot cultural and historical processes as a prototypical case of making the strange familiar:

The point in Ilongot headhunting is not for one man to take more heads than others, but for all men who are peers to take at least one head and thereby lose once and for all their status as novices. To take a head is, in Ilongot terms, not to capture a trophy, but to “throw away” a body part, which by a principle of sympathetic magic represents the cathartic throwing away of certain burdens of life—the grudge an insult has created, or the grief over a death in the family, or the increasing “weight” of remaining a novice when one’s peers have left that status. (ibid.: 140)

Overall, Rosaldo’s treatment of headhunting is rather matter-of-fact, as indeed it seems to be for the Ilongot themselves. A multifaceted way of dealing with the emotional contingencies of life, and integrated in a variety of ways with subsistence, marriage, and the life cycle, headhunting and its cessation due to the widespread social changes brought by the integration into the modern nation-state provides a telling window into the consequential decisions that indigenous peoples must sometimes make to give up on their distinctive cultural practices. 

At the end of his book, Rosaldo recounts the story of a man named Radu, who lost his six-month old son to illness in 1974 (having previously lost six other children, including three in a matter of days in 1971). Such a burden of grief would previously have driven a man to take an enemy’s head, a course of action not available in 1974. Radu instead converted to Christianity, a move that Rosalso did not completely understand. He asked his friend Tepeg, “Can anybody be so blind as to believe that their children will never die if they accept the new religion?”

Tepeg, a reflective skeptic, told me I had missed the point: what Radu in fact sought in the new religion was not the denial of our inevitable deaths, but a means of coping with his grief. With the advent of martial law, headhunting was out of the question as a means of venting his wrath and thereby lessening his grief. Were he to remain in his Ilongot way of life, the pain of his sorrow would simply be too much to bear. (ibid.: 288)

So it goes. Cultural practices are often so deeply interconnected with one another that one cannot simply be given up without a profound cascading effect on social life more generally. Rosaldo’s appreciation of social processes in their historical trajectory not only provides an insight into the dynamics of social life, but also into how best to understand the widespread social changes affecting indigenous peoples as they face the challenges of nationalism, modernity, and globalization.

References Cited

Keen, Ian. 1995. Metaphor and the Metalanguage: ‘Groups’ in Northeast Arnhem Land. American Ethnologist 22(3): 502-27.

Rosaldo, Renato. 1980. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wagner, Roy. 1974. Are There Social Groups in the New Guinea Highlands? In Murray Leaf (ed.), Frontiers of Anthropology, 95-122. New York: Van Nostrand.