HomeThe Journal of Historyvol. 46 no. 1 - 4 (2000)

Ifugao Ethnomedicine in History

Leah B. Enkiwe

Discipline: History



Ethnomedicine is a subfield in Medical Anthropology, concerned with beliefs and practices relating to illness which are embedded in a matrix of culture-ideational as well as ecological patterns. Ifugao ethnomedicine is subsumed in the people’s culture system, particularly in indigenous religion and patterns of ecological conservation. Supernatural beings, such as deities, ancestors and spirits cause illnesses when they are disappointed with collective as well as individual behaviors and activities. The people are expected to maintain a favorable social relation with them and enhance their ecological habitat (people consider this as the abode of the supernatural beings) in order to maintain a healthy condition. Through time, people developed health institutions to respond to changes of their social and ecological conditions. They ask supernatural beings to guard them from their enemies in the nearby villages. People resettle in another area during outbreaks of epidemics. The indigenous practice of tungaw (village prohibition to work and going out from the village) has been used as a mechanism to block the entry and/or spread of epidemics in the village.


Several other mechanisms are employed by the people to maintain a healthy condition—defined by a commendable relationship with the supernatural beings. Beliefs and practices such as pfunih (rituals of particular illnesses such as ameleng (skin illnesses), pfujuy, apfu-ab (recitals), the concept of paniyaw (taboo) and the use of holo’ an meakhah (herbs) are employed by people to restore the social order and/or conserve their ecology and, finally, restore their health condition. Some people are gifted with special powers to communicate with the supernatural beings to intercede on behalf of the requests and desires of people, especially when illness is experienced by the family and/or by the villagers.


Through time, Ifugao experienced societal changes that affected their ethnomedical system. The introduction of foreign religion, Western education, commercialization, western medicine and modern technologies are among the factors that brought changes to Ifugao society. This paper will present the dynamics of Ifugao culture-historical experiences with their social as well as ecological habitat that led to the decline of some of their ethnomedical practices and the development of the syncretic and ethnomedical system.