One might think that it is its look that makes this backpack unusual. And I suppose it is true; the shredded, almost hair-like fibres decorating the backpack makes it look like less of a container for your things, and more like the back of some sort of strangely groomed animal.
The backpack was collected by Danish explorer Axel Boysen-Møller in 1958, on a journey to The Philippines. He acquired in in the village of Hapac near the municipality of Banaue, now famous for its beautiful rice terraces. And one might imagine that a local Ifugao man or woman would wear this backpack on a journey from one village to the next, walking along a path through the lush, green landscape of 1950s Banaue. And indeed, Boysen-Møller noted that these backpacks were usually used for carrying small personal items on journeys.
But, he writes, it was also handy for storing severed heads, if you were to end up in a fight on your journey, and wanted to bring your enemy’s head with you.
From the Philippines to Borneo, New Zealand to the Amazon, The Ottoman Empire to American soldiers in World War II and the Vietnam War, headhunting and the collection and preserving of human heads for trophies is a phenomenon which has gained widespread notoriety. And though it is an undeniably grizzly practice, which has, seemingly, mostly disappeared, you cannot deny the symbolic or ritual power, which taking your enemy’s head might have. And anthropologists, like Danish Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen, have documented that while we might think that the end of headhunting in places like The Philippines is an undeniably good thing, it has brought its share of problems too. Because when your path to manhood is defined by the taking of a human head, where does that leave you when this is no longer possible? How to become an adult when the most significant rite of passage is forbidden?
Thankfully head-free, our Philippine backpack now tells a story of a significant cultural practice which has now disappeared. And while I can’t state that headhunting is a good thing, it does make me wonder; what now?