Indigenous Warfare

Luzon tribes


Dry agriculture tribes in Luzon were located on the border of the Cagayan valley which divided the northern region. The Apayao and Kalinga were strong hunters and fighters who engaged in open warfare and defeat was taken in good spirit. Their weapons: spears, knives, head axes, and blow guns showed great ability and artistry. Pits and traps were used in warfare as well as small bamboo spikes saoñag were left in the ground. 

Ifugao community territory was separated into three zones — neutral, feudal, and war — according to trade relations with neighbouring tribes. The neutral zone allowed for trade and marriage arrangements between tribes. The feudal zone was reserved as a place of war between family enemies. The war zone was for warfare and beheading rituals. Igorot communities would offer peace pacts with other tribes to allow for people to cross into their territory. Pacts would last a few years however once expired anyone who crossed the boundary line was attacked. Certain places of worship were held in respect such as the ifugao granary which was a significant religous place for the community. If someone offended the spirits grievously by tresspassing without proper ritual and consent they were speared through the back.


Times of warfare was known as digma. Gahat was to fight on land and mangayaw to war by sea. Indigenous warriors in the northern region preferred to ambush their enemies and fight from concealment. Several ambush tactics: habon, saghid, hoom, and pool were employed. Warriors would hide themselves by lying flat across the earth waiting for the enemy to approach and finally attack once they were in range. Some warriors would purposely expose themselves to lure enemies into their trap. Warriors who were fleeing their enemy were sometimes ordered pinaorihiyan — to turn around and spear their pursuer. Sayang occured if men passed by hidden enemies unaware. Nga kamatayan referred to warriors who chose to fight to their death and mangin matay were warriors who were desperate to die in battle.

“The Apayao and eastern Kalingas in particular are handsome, picturesque people wearing colourful clothing and ornaments. The men have long hair and spend hours each day on their own appearance, but they are good hunters and fighters, and always busy.” “These tribes have many features in common. They are strong, manly, open, honest people, and use open warfare, even taking defeat in good spirit.” “Some tribes do highly skilful weaving, pottery-making and embroidery. Their ornaments of mother-of-pearl, silver and even gold, and their weapons, spears, knives, and blow-guns, according to the tribe, often show considerable ability and artistic sense.” “Others make head-axes for the tourist trade and reluctantly pose for photographs at a price.” (A.J. Broomhall, Philippine Tribes: Fields for Reaping, 1955, The Camelot Press, pg. 9-12)

“The orientation of a man’s weapon was an indicator of his mood or intentions. If the weapon such as a spear was held with the blade facing forwards and upwards, he was on the hunt or going to war. If a man’s sword or bladed weapon was down, he was in mourning or of a non-aggressive disposition.”(Lane Wilcken, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, Schiffer Publishing, 2010, pg. 72)

“Two American anthropologists were trekking through Ifugao country and stayed the night in a village. The headman invited them into his home and they refused, choosing to sleep of their own choice in a granary. Such places are often associated with deep religious significance, and on this occasion they apparantly offended the spirits grievously, for they were speared through the back and killed when they emerged the next morning.” (A.J. Broomhall, Philippine Tribes: Fields for Reaping, 1955, The Camelot Press, pg. 14)

Mindanao Tribes

Clothing reflected one’s social standing and in regards to warriors how many enemies they had killed. Red clothing meant that they had killed an enemy in battle. Materials such as abaca fibers were representative of warriors in high regard. Warriors who killed more than five enemies wore distinctive red suits with white designs and are known as Mabolot while young men sought after the rank of Magani. Warriors who killed twenty-five enemies received the title of Maiseg and dressed entirely in black with his hair covered with red flowers.

“For defense they (Bagobos) carry shields, either round or oblong and cover the body with so many strips of hemp cloth that a knife thrust is warded off. Turning his body sideways to the enemy, the warrior crouches behind his shield, keeping up a continuous capering, rushing forward or dancing backward, seeking for an opening but seldom coming to close quarters. Arrows and spears are glanced off with the shield. An attack is usually initiated by the throwing of spears, then, if the enemy is at a disadvantage or confused, the warriors rush in to close combat. For this purpose they rely entirely on their knives, and as fencers they are unexcelled. They are but indifferent shots with the bow and arrow, and that weapon is but little used in actual combat. It has been frequently stated that these arrows are poisoned but I was unable to discover a single specimen so prepared.” (Fay-Cooper Cole, The Wild Tribes of Davao District, 1913)

“Mention has already been made of the use of pits and traps in warfare. In addition to these it is customary for a returning war party to conceal in the trail many saoñag, small stiletto-shaped bamboo sticks, which pierce the feet of those in pursuit. A night camp is effectively protected in the same manner against barefooted enemies. The arms used are spears, fighting knives with wide bellied blades, daggers, narrow shields with which weapons are defected, and in some sections bows and arrows. The fighting knives and daggers deserve more than casual notice. The heavy bellied blades of the knives are highly tempered, and not infrequently are bored through and inlaid with silver, in which instances they are known as binuta,—blind. The sheaths, with their sharply upturned ends, are made of light wood on which are carved decorations, attached or inlaid bands of silver, or stained designs. The handles of the weapons are also decorated with incised silver bands. Much as the fighting knives are prized, the dagger, bayadau or bádau, is in even greater favor. It is worn on the front left-hand part of the body in ready reach of the right hand, and is never removed unless the owner is in the company of trusted relatives. A light thread, easily broken, holds the dagger in its sheath and the slightest disturbance is enough to cause the owner to draw his weapon. The older warriors claim that it formerly was their custom to protect themselves with strips of hemp cloth, limbotung, which they wound many times around their bodies in order to ward off knife thrusts, but this method of protection seems to have fallen into disuse. This type of protective armor is still used by the Bukidnon of Central Mindanao. Individual warriors lie in ambush for their foes, but when a great raid is planned the party is under the command of a bagani. These attacks are arranged to take place during the full moon and the warriors usually assault a settlement which they think can be taken by surprise, and hence unprepared. It is very seldom that these people fight in the open, and invaders do not attempt a combat unless they feel sure of the outcome. If they find a house well protected they may attempt to fire it by attaching a torch to an arrow and shooting it into the grass roof, the occupants being slaughtered as they rush out. If one of the enemy puts up an especially good fight his body is opened and the warriors eat a portion of his heart and liver, thinking thus to gain in valor. Mr. Maxey mentions the use of poisoned weapons in the neighborhood of Cateel, but the Mandaya of the south seem to be entirely ignorant of this custom, Maxey's account of the preparation of the poison is as follows: "The poison is, according to the writer's informant, prepared as follows: A long bamboo is cut and carried to a tree called camandag. The bamboo must be long enough to reach to the limit of the shadow cast by the tree to the trunk of the same, as the tree is so poisonous that it even affects those who stand beneath it. The bamboo has a sharp point which is stuck into the tree and receives the milk which exudes from the cut. After several days the bamboo is removed and the contents emptied into another bamboo which serves for a sheath or quiver for the arrows, these being placed in it point down. The slightest scratch will cause death. A peculiar thing about the tree from which the poison is extracted, is that the person extracting must not only not get under the tree, but must approach it from the windward, as the effects of even the odor are unpleasant and dangerous." (Fay-Cooper Cole, The Wild Tribes of Davao District, 1913,



A.J. Broomhall, Philippine Tribes: Fields for Reaping, 1955, The Camelot Press, pg. 9, 12, 14-15

Fay-Cooper Cole, The Wild Tribes of Davao District, 1913,

Willam Henry Scott, Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society, 1994,

Lane Wilcken, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, Schiffer Publishing, 2010, pg. 72