HomeThe Journal of Historyvol. 50 no. 1 - 4 (2004)

Cordillera Anthropomorphic Carvings: Form and Function

Delfin L. Tolentino Jr.

Discipline: History



The depiction of the human form is a singular characteristic of traditional sculpture in the Cordillera, Northern Philippines. Anthropomorphic figures often embellish handcarved implements and utensils such as food bowls, spoons, mortals and pestles, even awls used in basket weaving. They may also be seen in architectural details, e.g., in house posts, doors, and boards. The use of human form, however, is not purely ornamental in purpose but closely associated with the articulation of social values and religious beliefs. Ornamented food bowls, for example, are often reserved for ceremonial use. Carvings on wall panels may indicate social prestige. The anthropomorphic figure that is carved on the kingpost ofsome Ifugao houses is actually a representation of the god Kinnabigat.


The best known of the anthropomorphic carvings done by the people of the Cordillera is unquestionably the Ifugao bul-ul, representing the rice god but also, in many instances, an ancestor. The extreme popularity of the bul-ul as specimen of 'primitive art' as icon and as tourist souvenir not to mention its centrality to lfugao culture, has led to the use of the term as a generic name for Cordillera anthropomorphic carvings. There is, however, a need to draw distinctions between the bul-ul and other similar anthropomorphic carvings from other parts of the Cordillera. This paper focuses on these anthropomorphic carvings which are rooted in ritual and religion. In addition to the bul-ul, the paper discusses the form and function of the lesser-known carving traditions, such as the Kankana-ey tinagtaggu, the Tingguian lablabbon, and the Kalanguya tot-too. Their present status in Cordillera societies is considered in this paper, which is also a preliminary account of the history of their decline.