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Headhunting is the practice of taking and preserving a person's head after killing the person. Headhunting was practised in historic times in parts of Oceania, South Asia and Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa, Mesoamerica, Europe, and East Asia. It occurred in Europe to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Anglo-Scottish border regions.
The headhunting practice has been the subject of intense study within the anthropological community, where scholars try to assess and interpret its social roles, functions, and motivations. Anthropological writings explore themes in headhunting that include mortification of the rival, ritual violence, cosmological balance, the display of manhood, cannibalism, dominance over the body and soul of his enemies in life and afterlife, as a trophy and proof of killing (achievement in hunting), show of greatness, prestige by taking on a rival's spirit and power, and as a means of securing the services of the victim as a slave in the afterlife.
Today's scholars generally agree that headhunting's primary function was ritual and ceremonial. It was part of the process of structuring, reinforcing, and defending hierarchical relationships between communities and individuals. Some experts theorize that the practice stemmed from the belief that the head contained "soul matter" or life force, which could be harnessed through its capture.
Asia and Oceania
Headhunting was practised by many Austronesian people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Headhunting has at one time or another been practised among most of the peoples of Melanesia, including New Guinea. A missionary found 10,000 skulls in a community longhouse on Goaribari Island in 1901.
Historically, the Marind-anim in New Guinea were famed because of their headhunting. The practice was rooted in their belief system and linked to the name-giving of the newborn. The skull was believed to contain a mana-like force. Headhunting was not motivated primarily by cannibalism, but the dead person's flesh was consumed in ceremonies following the capture and killing.
The Korowai, a Papuan tribe in the southeast of Irian Jaya, live in tree houses, some nearly 40 metres high. This is believed to be a defensive practice, presumably as protection against the Citak, a tribe of neighbouring headhunters. Some researchers believe that the American Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in New Guinea in 1961 while on a field trip, may have been taken by headhunters in the Asmat region. He was the son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
In The Cruise of the Snark (1911), the account by Jack London of his 1905 adventure sailing in Micronesia, he recounted that headhunters of Malaita attacked his ship during a stay in Langa Langa Lagoon, particularly around Laulasi Island. His and other ships were kidnapping villagers as workers on plantations, a practice known as blackbirding. Captain Mackenzie of the ship Minolta was beheaded by villagers as retribution for the loss of village men during an armed labour "recruiting" drive. The villagers believed that the ship's crew "owed" several more heads before the score was even.
In Southeast Asia, anthropological writings have explored headhunting and other practises of the Murut, Dusun Lotud, Ilongot, Igorot, Iban, Dayak, Berawan, Wana, and Mappurondo tribes. Among these groups, headhunting was usually a ritual activity rather than an act of war or feuding. A warrior would take a single head. Headhunting acted as a catalyst for the cessation of personal and collective mourning for the community's dead. Ideas of manhood and marriage were encompassed in the practice, and the taken heads were highly prized. Other reasons for headhunting included capture of enemies as slaves, looting of valuable properties, intra and inter-ethnic conflicts, and territorial expansion.
Italian anthropologist and explorer Elio Modigliani visited the headhunting communities in South Nias (an island to the west of Sumatra) in 1886; he wrote a detailed study of their society and beliefs. He found that the main purpose of headhunting was the belief that, if a man owned another person's skull, his victim would serve as a slave of the owner for eternity in the afterlife. Human skulls were a valuable commodity. Sporadic headhunting continued in Nias island until the late 20th century, the last reported incident dating from 1998.
Headhunting was practised among Sumba people until the early 20th century. It was done only in large war parties. When the men hunted wild animals, by contrast, they operated in silence and secrecy. The skulls collected were hung on the skull tree erected in the center of village. As recently as 1998, in Waikabubak, a major clash of clans resulted in some people being decapitated. This was reminiscent of the headhunting tradition.
Kenneth George wrote about annual headhunting rituals that he observed among the Mappurondo religious minority, an upland tribe in the southwest part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Heads are not taken; instead, surrogate heads in the form of coconuts are used in a ritual ceremony. The ritual, called pangngae, takes place at the conclusion of the rice-harvesting season. It functions to bring an end to communal mourning for the deceased of the past year; express intercultural tensions and polemics; allow for a display of manhood; distribute communal resources; and resist outside pressures to abandon Mappurondo ways of life.
In Sarawak, the north-western region of the island of Borneo, James Brooke and his descendants established a colonial dynasty. They eradicated headhunting in the hundred years before World War II. Before Brooke's arrival, the Iban had migrated from the middle Kapuas region into the upper Batang Lupar river region by fighting and displacing the small existing tribes, such as the Seru and Bukitan. Another successful migration by the Iban was from the Saribas region into the Kanowit area in the middle of the Batang Rajang river, led by the famous Mujah "Buah Raya". They fought and displaced such tribes as the Kanowit and Baketan.
Brooke first encountered the headhunting Iban of the Saribas-Skrang in Sarawak at the Battle of Betting Maru in 1849. He gained the signing of the Saribas Treaty with the Iban chief of that region, who was named Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana "Bayang". Subsequently, the Brooke dynasty expanded their territory from the first small Sarawak region to the present-day state of Sarawak. They enlisted the Malay, Iban, and other natives as a large but unpaid force to crush and pacify any rebellions in the states. The Brooke government prohibited headhunting (ngayau in Iban language) and added penalties for disobeying the Rajah-led government decree. During expeditions sanctioned by the Brooke government, they allowed headhunting. The natives who participated in Brooke-approved punitive expeditions were exempted from paying annual tax to the Brooke government and/or given new territories in return for their service. There were intra-tribal and intertribal headhunting.
The most famous Iban warrior to resist the colonial Brooke government was Libau "Rentap". The Brooke government had to send three successive punitive expeditions in order to defeat Rentapi at his fortress on the top of Sadok Hill. The Brooke's force suffered defeats during the first two expeditions. During the third and final expedition, Brooke built an equivalent cannon called 'Bujang Sadok' (Prince of Sadok Mount) to rival Rentap's cannon nicknamed 'Bujang Timpang Berang' (The One Arm Bachelor) and made a truce with the sons of a famous chief, who supported Rentap in not recognizing the government of Brooke and practiced freedom and independence since time immemorial.
The Iban performed a third major migration from upper Batang Ai region in the Batang Lupar region into the Batang Kanyau (Embaloh) onwards the upper Katibas and then to the Baleh/Mujong regions in the upper Batang Rajang region. They displaced the existing tribes of the Kayan, Kajang, Ukit, etc. The Brooke government sanctioned the last migrations of the Iban, and reduced fighting to a minimum. The Iban conducted sacred ritual ceremonies with special and complex incantations to invoke god's blessings, which were associated with headhunting. An example was the Bird Festival in the Saribas/Skrang region and Proper Festival in the Baleh region, both required for men of the tribes to become effective warriors.
During the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, headhunting was revived among the natives. The Sukarno-led Indonesian forces fought against the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. Forces of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak fought in addition, and headhunting was observed during the communist insurgency in Sarawak and what was then Malaya. The Iban were noted for headhunting, and were later recognised as good rangers and trackers during military operations, during which they were awarded fourteen medals of valour and honour.
Since 1997 serious inter-ethnic violence has erupted on the island of Kalimantan, involving the indigenous Dayak peoples and immigrants from the island of Madura. Events have included the Sambas riots and Sampit conflict. In 2001 during the Sampit conflict in the Central Kalimantan town of Sampit, at least 500 Madurese were killed and up to 100,000 Madurese were forced to flee. Some Madurese bodies were decapitated in a ritual reminiscent of the Dayak headhunting tradition.
In what is now known as New Zealand, the Māori preserved the heads of enemies in a form known as mokomokai. They removed the brain and eyes, and smoked the head. The heads were sold to European collectors in the late 1800s, in some instances having been commissioned and "made to order". Currently the Māori are attempting to reclaim the heads of their own ancestors held in museums outside New Zealand. Twenty heads were returned to them by French authorities in January 2012, repatriated from museums.
During the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period, Qin soldiers frequently collected their enemies' heads. Most of the soldiers were conscripted serfs and were not paid. Instead, the soldiers earned promotions and rewards from superiors by collecting the heads of enemies, a type of body count. In this area, authorities displayed heads of executed criminals in public spaces up to the 20th century.
Tom O'Neill wrote:
Samurai also sought glory by headhunting. When a battle ended, the warrior, true to his mercenary origins, would ceremoniously present trophy heads to a general, who would variously reward him with promotions in rank, gold or silver, or land from the defeated clan. Generals displayed the heads of defeated rivals in public squares.
Headhunting was a common practice among Taiwanese aborigines. All tribes practised headhunting except the Yami people, who were previously isolated on Orchid Island, and the Ivatan people. It was associated with the peoples of the Philippines.
Taiwanese Plains Aborigines, Taiwanese people (Han) and Japanese settlers were choice victims of headhunting raids by Taiwanese Mountain Aborigines. The latter two groups were considered invaders, liars, and enemies. A headhunting raid would often strike at workers in the fields or set a dwelling on fire, and then kill and behead those who fled from the burning structure. The practice continued during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, but ended in the 1930s due to suppression by the colonial Japanese government.
The Taiwanese Aboriginal tribes, who were allied with the Dutch against the Chinese during the Guo Huaiyi Rebellion in 1652, turned against the Dutch in turn during the Siege of Fort Zeelandia. They defected to Koxinga's Chinese forces. The Aboriginals (Formosans) of Sincan defected to Koxinga after he offered them amnesty. The Sincan Aboriginals fought for the Chinese and beheaded Dutch people in executions. The frontier aboriginals in the mountains and plains also surrendered and defected to the Chinese on May 17, 1661, celebrating their freedom from compulsory education under Dutch rule. They hunted down Dutch people, beheading them and trashing their Christian school textbooks.
At the Battle of Tamsui in the Keelung Campaign during the Sino-French War on 8 October 1884, the Chinese took prisoners and beheaded 11 French marines who were injured, in addition to La Gailissonniere's captain Fontaine. The heads were mounted on bamboo poles and displayed to incite anti-French feelings. In China, pictures of the beheading of the Frenchmen were published in the Tien-shih-tsai Pictorial Journal in Shanghai.
A most unmistakable scene in the market place occurred. Some six heads of Frenchmen, heads of the true French type were exhibited, much to the disgust of foreigners. A few visited the place where they were stuck up, and were glad to leave it—not only on account of the disgusting and barbarous character of the scene, but because the surrounding crowd showed signs of turbulence. At the camp also were eight other Frenchmen's heads, a sight which might have satisfied a savage or a Hill-man, but hardly consistent with the comparatively enlightened tastes, one would think, of Chinese soldiers even of to-day. It is not known how many of the French were killed and wounded; fourteen left their bodies on shore, and no doubt several wounded were taken back to the ships. (Chinese accounts state that twenty were killed and large numbers wounded.)
In the evening Captain Boteler and Consul Frater called on General Sun, remonstrating with him on the subject of cutting heads off, and allowing them to be exhibited. Consul Frater wrote him a despatch on the subject strongly deprecating such practices, and we understand that the general promised it should not occur again, and orders were at once given to bury the heads. It is difficult for a general even situated as Sun is—having to command troops like the Hillmen, who are the veriest savages in the treatment of their enemies—to prevent such barbarities.
It is said the Chinese buried the dead bodies of the Frenchmen after the engagement on 8th instant by order of General Sun. The Chinese are in possession of a machine gun taken or found on the beach.— James Wheeler Davidson, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present: History, people, resources, and commercial prospects. Tea, camphor, sugar, gold, coal, sulphur, economical plants, and other productions
Han and Taiwanese Aboriginals revolted against the Japanese in the Beipu Uprising in 1907 and Tapani Incident in 1915. The Seediq aboriginals revolted against the Japanese in the 1930 Wushe Incident and resurrected the practice of headhunting, beheading Japanese during the revolt.
Headhunting has been a practice among the Mizo, the Garo and the Naga tribes of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar till the 19th century. The practice may have been common up to the 20th century but have eventually ceased to exist now with Christian religion being in practice.
Several tribes of the Jivaroan group, including the Shuar in Eastern Ecuador and Northern Peru, along the rivers Chinchipe, Bobonaza, Morona, Upano, and Pastaza, main tributaries of the Amazon, practised headhunting for trophies. The heads were shrunk, and were known locally as Tzan-Tzas. The people believed that the head housed the soul of the person killed.
In the 21st century, the Shuar produce Tzan-tza replicas. They use their traditional process on heads of monkeys and sloths, selling the items to tourists. It is believed that splinter groups in the local tribes continue with these practises when there is a tribal feud over territory or as revenge for a crime of passion.
A tzompantli is a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations. It was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims.
A tzompantli-type structure has been excavated at the La Coyotera, Oaxaca, site. It is dated to the Proto-Classic Zapotec civilization, which flourished from c. 2nd century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Tzompantli are also noted in other Mesoamerican pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Toltec and Mixtec.
Based on numbers given by the conquistador Andrés de Tapia and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano has calculated in the late 20th century that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the Hueyi Tzompantli (great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. There were at least five more skullracks in Tenochtitlan, but, by all accounts, they were much smaller.
The Celts of Europe practised headhunting as the head was believed to house a person's soul. Ancient Romans and Greeks recorded the Celts' habits of nailing heads of personal enemies to walls or dangling them from the necks of horses. Headhunting was still practised for a great deal longer by the Celtic Gaels. In the Ulster Cycle, Cúchulainn is described as beheading the three sons of Nechtan and mounting their heads on his chariot. This is believed to have been a traditional warrior, rather than religious, practice. The practice continued approximately to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Anglo-Scottish marches. The religious reasons for collecting heads were likely lost after the Celts' conversion to Christianity. Heads were also taken among the Germanic tribes and among Iberians, but the purpose is unknown.
The Scythians were excellent horsemen. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that some of their tribes practised human sacrifice, drinking the blood of victims, scalping their enemies, and drinking wine from the enemies' skulls.
The Montenegrins are an ethnic group in Southeastern Europe who are centered around the Dinaric mountains. They practiced headhunting until 1876, allegedly carrying the head from a lock of hair grown specifically for that purpose. In the 1830s, Montenegrin ruler Petar II Petrović-Njegoš started building a tower called "Tablja" above Cetinje Monastery. The tower was never finished, and Montenegrins used it to display Turkish heads taken in battle, as they were in frequent conflict with the Ottoman Empire. In 1876 King Nicholas I of Montenegro ordered that the practice should end. He knew that European diplomats considered it to be barbaric. The Tablja was demolished in 1937.
Second Sino-Japanese War
Many Chinese soldiers and civilians were beheaded by some Japanese soldiers, who even made contests to see who would kill more people (see contest to kill 100 people using a sword), and took photos with the piles of heads as souvenirs.
World War II
During World War II, Allied (specifically including American) troops occasionally collected the skulls of dead Japanese as personal trophies, as souvenirs for friends and family at home, and for sale to others. (The practice was unique to the Pacific theater; United States forces did not take skulls of German and Italian soldiers.) In September 1942, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet mandated strong disciplinary action against any soldier who took enemy body parts as souvenirs. But such trophy-hunting persisted: Life published a photograph in its issue of May 22, 1944, of a young woman posing with the autographed skull sent to her by her Navy boyfriend. There was public outrage in the US in response.
Historians have suggested that the practice related to Americans viewing the Japanese as lesser people, and in response to mutilation and torture of American dead. In Borneo, retaliation by natives against the Japanese was based on atrocities having been committed by the Japanese Army in that area. Following their ill treatment by the Japanese, the Dayak of Borneo formed a force to help the Allies. Australian and British special operatives of Z Special Unit developed some of the inland Dayak tribesmen into a thousand-man headhunting army. This army of tribesmen killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers.
Head trophy, Munduruku Indians, northern Brazil, c. 1820
An Ifugao warrior with some of his trophies, Philippines, 1912
Dayak women dancing with human heads, 1912
The Dayak longhouse
Japanese samurai holding a severed head
Severed heads of Nanking Massacre victims in 1937–38
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- Hutton, J. H. "The Significance of Head-Hunting in Assam." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 58, 1928, pp. 399–408.
- Some Head-Hunting Traditions of Southern New Guinea, by Justus M. van der Kroef, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun. 1952), pp. 221–235
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- Nevermann 1957: 9
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- see e.g. Diodorus Siculus, 5.2
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- Fussel 1990: 117
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- Harrison, Simon (2006). "Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of remembrance./Les Trophees De la Guerre Du Pacifique Des Cranes Comme Souvenirs Transgressifs". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 12 (4): 817. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2006.00365.x.
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- Head-Hunting Roman Cavalry - article about single combat and the taking of heads and scalps as trophies by Roman warriors
- Les Romains, chasseurs de têtes - paper by Jean-Louis Voisin about the Roman practice of head hunting
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