Perhaps the most famous anthropological study of the practice is Renato Rosaldo’s Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974. The Ilongot, who inhabit the Filipino island of Luzon, are peculiar in that they don’t preserve their captured heads as keepsakes. Rather, they discard the heads, literally tossing the grisly objects into remote corners of the forest where they’ll never be discovered. As Rosaldo recounts, there is deep symbolic meaning in this act:
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 the death in the family, or the increasing “weight” of remaining a novice when one’s peers have left that status.
Regarded as a ritual, headhunting resembles a piacular sacrifice: it involves the taking of a human life with a view toward cleansing the participants of the contaminating burdens of their own lives. Taking a head is a symbolic process designed less to acquire anything (where so-called soul stuff or fertility) than to remove something. What is ritually removed, Ilongots say, is the weight that grows on one’s life like vines on a tree.