Human trophy collecting

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American sailor with the skull of a Japanese soldier during World War II .

The practice of human trophy collecting involves the acquisition of human body parts as trophy, usually as war trophy. The intent may be to demonstrate dominance over the deceased (such as scalp-taking or forming necklaces of severed ears or teeth), to humiliate or intimidate the enemy (such as shrunken heads or skull cups), or in some rare cases to commemorate the deceased (such as the veneration of the relics of saints). It can be done to prove one's body count in battle,[1] to boast one's prowess and achievements to peers,[2] or as a status symbol of superior masculinity[citation needed]. Psychopathic serial murderers' collection of their victims' body parts have also been described as a form of trophy-taking.

While older customs generally included the burial of human war trophies along with the collector, such items have been sold in modern times.[3]


In the Old Testament, King Saul asked David to bring him one hundred Philistine foreskins as bride price for his daughter Michal. David and his men fought a battle, and he presented the king with two hundred.[4]

Headhunting has been practised across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania for millennia.[3] One analysis of the practice in early North American societies linked it to social distance from the victim.[5] Groups such as the Scythians collected the skulls of the vanquished to make a skull cup.[citation needed]

In the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598), the noses and ears of slain Koreans and Chinese were collected and brought back to Japan, where they were placed in the Mimizuka monument in Kyoto. As of 2022, it still stands.[citation needed]

In North America, it was common practice before, during or after the lynching of African-Americans for the European Americans involved to take souvenirs such as body parts, skin, bones, genitalia, etc.[6][7]

In the United States, trophies were also acquired during conquest of indigenous lands by settlers and other Native American groups. The scalp, skull, and wrist-bones of Little Crow, the Mdewakanton leader during the Minnesota hostilities of 1862, were obtained and displayed for decades at the Minnesota Historical Society as war trophies from Minnesota's bounty on the Santee Sioux. The MHS established in the Constitution of the Minnesota Territory.[8] In another instance connected to battlefield success and to the American mutilation of Japanese war dead, President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt was given a gift of a letter-opener made of a Japanese soldier's arm by U.S. Representative Francis E. Walter in 1944.[9][10] After a call by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Tokyo for "respect for the laws of humanity even in total war" Roosevelt ordered the item to be returned to its sender and recommended it be properly buried.[11]

In addition to human body parts appearing in museums and artifact collections in the explicit context of historical conquest, they are also included for both putative and actual scientific reasons, particularly scientific racism establishing justification for dominance over subject races. The body of William Lanne, the last "full-blooded" Tasmanian Aboriginal man, was mutilated after his death in 1869 by William Crowther[12] who later became the Premier of Tasmania, and Lanne's skull was sent to the Royal College of Surgeons in London to supposedly demonstrate "the improvement that takes place in the lower race when subjected to the effects of education and civilisation".[13] Crowther's mutilation of Lanne proved immensely controversial in Tasmania.[14]

During the German Empire's Herero and Namaqua genocide in German South West Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, specimens of African body parts were obtained and taken to German museums and academic institutions, in some instances in the aftermath of medical experimentation on human subjects.[15] In 2011, when some of these items were returned to present-day Namibia, the rector of the University of Freiburg referred to the period of their acquisition as "one of the dark chapters in the history of European science".[16] Later in the century the Jewish skull collection and other medical resources were the result of Nazi Germany's human experimentation programs and other elements of the Holocaust.

The practice occurred during World War II and the Vietnam War. About 60% of the bodies of Japanese soldiers recovered in the Mariana Islands and returned to Japan lacked skulls.[3] The practice continued up until the 20th century in the Balkans.

Other examples[edit]

Well, these white guys would sometimes take the dog-tag chain and fill that up with ears. For different reasons. They would take the ear off to make sure the VC was dead. And to confirm that they had a kill. And to put some notches on they guns. If we were movin' through the jungle, they'd just put the bloody ear on the chain and stick the ear in their pocket and keep on going. Wouldn't take time to dry it off. Then when we get back, they would nail 'em up on the walls to our hootch, you know, as a trophy. They was rotten and stinkin' after awhile, and finally we make 'em take 'em down.


Trophy skulls with purported colonial-era ethnic engravings were widely sold online at various platforms. In 2005, Royal Malaysian Customs Department seized 16 human skulls with engravings that were purported to originate from northwest of West Kalimantan province, somewhere between Pontianak and the Sarawak border, and bound for an unknown buyer in Australia. These seized skulls were transferred to Sarawak State Museum in 2015.[19]


Body-snatchings are sometimes conducted to retain a body part as a trophy.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Academic American Encyclopedia, vol. 10, Grolier, 1997, ISBN 978-0717220687, In some cultures head-hunting can be considered a manifestation of the widespread practice of removing parts of the body of a slain enemy – as in scalping or the severing of an ear or nose – for war trophies.
  2. ^ Selbie, John A. (1913), "The head as trophy or cult object", Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 6, p. 534, ISBN 978-0543978707
  3. ^ a b c Christine Quigley (2005). The Corpse: A History. McFarland. pp. 249–251. ISBN 978-0786424498. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  4. ^ "1 Samuel 18:25-27" . King James Version. 1611 – via Wikisource.
  5. ^ Richard J. Chacon; David H. Dye (2007). The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians. Springer. pp. 32, 33. ISBN 978-0387483009. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  6. ^ Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (Report) (3rd ed.). Montgomery, Alabama: Equal Justice Initiative. 2017. p. 14. Archived from the original on 10 May 2018. Public spectacle lynchings were those in which large crowds of European Ameicans, often numbering in the thousands, gathered to witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim. Many were carnival-like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim's body parts collected as souvenirs.
  7. ^ Sinclair, William Albert (1905). The Aftermath of Slavery; A Study of the Condition and Environment of the American Negro. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. p. 250. hdl:2027/nyp.33433081793485. The Nashville (Tennessee) American gives an account of a lynching in Mississippi as follows: "But there was a lynching in that state that for fiendish brutality has not yet been surpassed, even when the victims have been roasted at the stake. It occurred at Doddsville, recently, and these are the circumstances as related by local newspapers: Luther Holbert, a negro, had a quarrel with a white man and, following the usual Mississippi method, they exchanged shots, the negro escaping and the white man being killed. The negro, knowing the penalty for killing a white man in that section, fled, of course, accompanied by his wife, who had had no part in the quarrel. They were captured by the mob and this is what was done to them, according to the statement of an eye-witness in the Vicksburg Herald."'When the two negroes were captured they were tied to trees, and while the funeral pyres were being prepared they were forced to suffer the most fiendish tortures. The blacks were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears of the murderers were cut off. Holbert was severely beaten, his skull was fractured, and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket. Neither the man nor the woman begged for mercy, nor made a groan or plea. When the executioners came forward to lop off fingers, Holbert extended his hand without being asked. The most excruciating form of punishment consisted in the use of a large corkscrew in the hands of one of the mob. This instrument was bored into the flesh of the man and the woman, in the arms, legs, and body, and pulled out, the spiral tearing out big pieces of raw, quivering flesh every time it was withdrawn.'""
  8. ^ "Little War on the Prairie". This American Life. Season 2012. Episode 479. 23 November 2012. 48 minutes in. Little Crow was shot six months after the hangings and his scalp, skull, and wristbones were displayed at the Minnesota Historical Society for decades.
  9. ^ Weingartner, James J. (February 1992). "Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941-1945". Pacific Historical Review. University of California Press. 61 (1): 65. doi:10.2307/3640788. JSTOR 3640788. Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  10. ^ Harrison, Simon (2006). "Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: transgressive objects of remembrance". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 12 (4): 825. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2006.00365.x.
  11. ^ "Roosevelt Rejects Gift Made of Japanese Bone". Business Financial. The New York Times. Associated Press. 10 August 1944. p. 30. ISSN 0362-4331.
  12. ^ "Atrocious Outrage on the Last Native Tasmanian" . Grey River Argus. 6 April 1869.
  13. ^ Lawson, Tom (2014). The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania. I.B. Tauris. pp. 166–168. ISBN 9781780766263.
  14. ^ Crowther, William Edward Lodewyk Hamilton (1969). Crowther, William Lodewyk (1817–1885). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3. MUP. pp. 501–503. Retrieved 1 September 2007.
  15. ^ "Germans return skulls to Namibia". The Times. Johannesburg. 27 September 2011. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011.
  16. ^ "Repatriation of Skulls from Namibia: University of Freiburg hands over human remains in ceremony" (Press release). University of Freiburg. 4 March 2014. Archived from the original on 23 April 2015. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  17. ^ Richard J. Chacon; David H. Dye (2007). The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians. Springer. p. 26. ISBN 978-0387483009.
  18. ^ Terry, Wallace (1984). Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. Random House. p. 26. ISBN 978-0394530284.
  19. ^ Huffer, Damien; Guerreiro, Antonio; Graham, Shawn (July 2021). "Osteological Assessment of a Seized Shipment of Modified Human Crania: Implications for Dayak Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Global Human Remains Trade". Journal of Borneo-Kalimantan. 7 (1). Retrieved 18 July 2021.
  20. ^ Ellis, Bill (2000). Raising the devil: Satanism, new religions, and the media. University Press of Kentucky. p. 235. ISBN 978-0813121703. Retrieved 30 January 2011. [...] a self-confessed robber came forward and admitted the body-snatching [...] leaving the body in the car [...] he took the head home and kept it on his matelpiece as a trophy of his visit [...]

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