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  • Púgot: Head Taking, Ritual Cannibalism, and Human Sacrifice in the Philippines by Narciso C. Tan
  • George Emmanuel R. Borrinaga
Púgot: Head Taking, Ritual Cannibalism, and Human Sacrifice in the Philippines
Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, 2021. 388 pages.

Púgot: Head Taking, Ritual Cannibalism, and Human Sacrifice in the Philippines is a groundbreaking book that highlights the great similarities among the country’s diverse ethnolinguistic groups through the very practices that were in part used to justify colonization, first by the Spaniards starting in the sixteenth century and then by the Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. The author, Narciso C. Tan, is an independent scholar whose work-related travels to different countries in Asia and Africa appear to have significantly influenced his comparative approach to Philippine studies. Such an approach is utilized to great effect in the book but is often lacking in other works about this ethnolinguistically diverse nation. His [End Page 286] initial interest in Philippine indigenous weaponry led him to a ten-year research that resulted in this debut book.

Tan argues that the three practices covered by the study—human sacrifice, ritual cannibalism, and head taking—were closely linked to the religious or spiritual beliefs of their practitioners. To support his argument, he draws on a variety of historical, ethnographic, and archaeological source materials dealing with topics that are rarely discussed in previous studies about Philippine history and culture. Perhaps due to their gruesome character, such practices have often been either overlooked, underrepresented, or disavowed by scholars of the different ethnolinguistic groups especially since the rise of the nationalist movement toward the end of the nineteenth century.

The book builds on past scholarship on indigenous Philippine religions such as those by Ferdinand Blumentritt and Francisco Demetrio, SJ, which often omitted these practices. Many of these precolonial practices persisted after the onset of centuries of colonial rule. For the most part, however, they have largely disappeared from the spiritual practices of lowland groups and were later associated with remote indigenous groups that evaded and resisted colonization. Through a mixture of cross-cultural and historical approaches, Tan is able to show how such practices had also been central to the religious and spiritual lives of lowland groups that were subsequently Islamized and Christianized. Thus, as Prof. Barbara Watson Andaya points out in her foreword, the book fills a considerable gap in our knowledge of indigenous belief systems and their links to ritual violence by drawing together and scrutinizing a large number of materials on cultural practices from across the Philippines and Southeast Asia and on related historical events dating back to the twelfth century.

To establish the significance of these practices to a wide range of groups, the author cites both extensive and selected quotes (with accompanying English translations) from sources in various languages (e.g., Chinese, Spanish, German, etc.) in the main text, tables, and footnotes. These materials, whose original copies (many of them rare) are spread out across different archives and libraries throughout the world, are organized by island group (i.e., Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao) and by cultural, ethnolinguistic group. Tan notes that the diversity and changing character of the labels applied to these groups across time often presented a challenge in terms of matching various accounts and descriptions of specific groups with the names with which these groups are called in the present. In chapter 1, “Peoples of the Philippines,” [End Page 287] Tan meticulously dissects these labels, their variations, and their historicity as well as corrects misidentifications and clarifies subgroupings (often by citing historians and anthropologists familiar with these groups) before proceeding to the three core chapters of the book (i.e., chapter 2 on human sacrifice, chapter 3 on ritual cannibalism, and chapter 4 on head taking).

The copious footnotes provide background sketches of the authors and the provenance and locations of Tan’s source materials. The detailed character of these background descriptions of authors and their texts serves as a good introduction to scholars who are only starting to familiarize themselves with ethnohistorical source materials on the Philippines. It is also useful for established scholars of Philippine history and culture who might...