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File:Chromesun mississippian priest digital painting.jpg

A Mississippian-era priest, with a ceremonial flint mace and a severed head. By Herb Roe, based on a repousse copper plate.

Headhunting is the practice of taking a person's head after killing them. Headhunting was practised in historic times in parts of China, India, Nigeria, Nuristan, Myanmar, Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Micronesia, Melanesia, New Zealand, and the Amazon Basin, as well as among certain tribes of the Celts and Scythians of ancient Europe. In fact, it occurred in Europe until the early 20th century in the Balkan Peninsula and to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Scottish marches.[1] More recently, it has been practised in World War II and the Vietnam War.

As a practice, headhunting has been the subject of intense discussion within the anthropological community as to its possible social roles, functions, and motivations. Themes that arise in anthropological writings about headhunting include mortification of the rival, ritual violence, cosmological balance, the display of manhood, cannibalism, and prestige. Contemporary scholars generally agree that its primary function was ceremonial and that 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.

Southeast Asia and Oceania


A two-head tray artifact, and a photograph of a seven-head tray, from Papua New Guinea, early 1900s. The display would have been hung on a wall in a communal men's house. (Field Museum of Natural History).

Headhunting was practised by many Austronesian people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Headhunting has at one time or another existed among most of the peoples of Melanesia,[2] including New Guinea.[3] In 1901, on Goaribari Island in the Gulf of Papua, a missionary, Harry Dauncey, found 10,000 skulls in the island’s Long Houses.[4] In Southeast Asia, anthropological writings exist on the Ilongot, Iban, Dayak, Berawan, Wana, and Mappurondo tribes. Among these groups, headhunting was usually a ritual activity rather than an act of war or feuding and involved the taking of a single head. Headhunting acted as a catalyst for the cessation of personal and collective mourning for the community's dead. Ideas of manhood were encompassed in the practice, and the taken heads were prized.

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. Actual heads are not taken; instead, surrogate heads are used, in the form of coconuts. 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 the past, Marind-anim in New Guinea were famed because of headhunting as well.[5] This was rooted in their belief system and linked to the name-giving of the newborn.[6] The skull was believed to contain a mana-like force.[7] Headhunting was not motivated primarily by cannibalism, but the dead person's flesh was consumed.[8]

Around the 1930s, headhunting was suppressed among the Ilongot in the Philippines by the US authorities.

The Wa tribe, whose domain straddles the Burma-China border, were once known as the Wild Wa for their "savage" behavior. The Wa were, until the 1970s, ferocious headhunters.[9]

In Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, the colonial dynasty of James Brooke and his descendants eradicated headhunting in the hundred years before World War II. There have been serious outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence on the island of Kalimantan since 1997, involving the indigenous Dayak peoples and immigrants from the island of Madura. In 2001, 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 headhunting tradition of the Dayaks of old.[10]

The Korowai, a Papuan tribe in the southeast of Irian Jaya, live in tree houses, some nearly 40 metres high, presumably as protection against a tribe of neighbouring headhunters, the Citak.[11] Some believe that Michael Rockefeller may have been taken by headhunters in western New Guinea as recently as 1961.

In his book PT 105, Dick Keresey writes that he was approached by Solomon Island natives in a canoe carrying heads of Japanese soldiers. He initially thought that they wanted to trade, but they continued on their way.


Shrunken head from the upper Amazon region, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

In the book by Jack London of his 1905 adventure in the Stark, he writes of the headhunters of Malaita attacking his ship during a stay in Langa Langa Lagoon, particularly around Laulasi Island. On one occasion, Captain Mackenzie of the blackbirding vessel Minolta was beheaded as retribution for the attack of another village during a labour "recruiting" drive. The ship apparently "owed" several more heads before the score was even.[12]


The Shuar in Ecuador and Peru, along the Amazon River, practised headhunting in order to make shrunken heads for ritual use. The Shuar still produce replica heads that they sell to tourists, and there are still some splinter Shuar tribes that continue to practise headhunting.

New Zealand

In what is now known as New Zealand, the Māori preserved the heads of enemies, removing the skull and smoking the head. Māori are currently attempting to reclaim the heads of their ancestors held in museums outside New Zealand.

Mesoamerican civilizations

File:Tzompantli Tovar.jpeg

A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a depiction of an Aztec temple dedicated to the deity Huitzilopochtli; from Juan de Tovar's 1587 manuscript, also known as the Ramírez Codex.

A tzompantli is a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations that was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims.

There is evidence that a tzompantli-like structure has been excavated from the Proto-Classic Zapotec civilization at the La Coyotera, Oaxaca, site, dated from c. 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE.[13] 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[14] has calculated 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.

Other examples are indicated from Maya civilization sites. A particularly fine and intact inscription example survives at the extensive Chichen Itza site.[15]


During the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, Qin soldiers were prone to collect their enemies' heads. Most of the soldiers were conscripted serfs and were not paid. Instead, the soldiers earned promotions and rewards by collecting the heads of enemies. The act of Qin soldiers carrying heads in battles usually terrified their foes; as such, headhunting is attributed as being one of the factors in the Qin dynasty defeating six other nations and unifying China. The sight of Qin soldiers with human heads hanging from their waist was enough to demoralize the armies of other kingdoms in many cases. After the fall of Qin dynasty, headhunting ceased to be practised amongst Chinese people.


Headhunting was a common practice among the Taiwanese aborigines. Almost every tribe except the Yami (Tao) practiced headhunting. Han Chinese settlers were often the victims of headhunting raids as they were considered by the aborigines to be liars and enemies. A headhunting raid would often strike at workers in the fields or employ the ruse of setting a dwelling alight and then decapitating the inhabitants as they fled the burning structure. The practice ended around the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan.

South Asia

File:Naga skulls.JPG

Skulls from Naga headhunting days at the Kohima Museum, Nagaland

Headhunting has been a practice among the Naga tribes of India and Myanmar. The practice was common up to the 20th century and may still be practised in isolated Naga tribes of Burma. Many of the Naga warriors still bear the marks (tattoos and others) of a successful headhunt. In Assam, in the northeast of India, all the peoples living south of the Brahmaputra River—Garos, Khasis, Nagas, and Kukis—formerly were headhunters including the Mizo of the Lusei Hills who also hunt heads of their enemies which was latter abolished with Christianity introduced in the region.[16]


The Celts of Europe practiced 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.[17] Headhunting was still practiced for a great deal longer by the Celtic Gaels—in the Ulster Cycle, Cúchulainn beheads the three sons of Nechtan and mounts their heads on his chariot—though this was probably as a traditional, rather than religious, practice. The practice continued approximately to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Scottish marches.[16] The religious reasons for collecting heads was likely lost after the Celts' conversion to Christianity. Heads were also taken among the Germanic tribes and Iberians, but the purpose is unknown.


The Scythians were excellent horsemen, and some of their tribes, Herodotus wrote, were indeed wild and fierce, practising human sacrifice, drinking blood, scalping their enemies and drinking wine from the enemies' skulls.[18]

World War II

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Portret van een Dajak krijger op Borneo met twee van hoofddeksels voorziene schedels in zijn handen en een kleed over zijn schouder TMnr 60043379.jpg

Dayak headhunter, Borneo.

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; German and Italian skulls were not taken.) The Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, in September 1942, mandated strong disciplinary action for any soldier who took enemy body parts as souvenirs. Nevertheless, trophy-hunting persisted: Life, in its issue of 22 May 1944, published a photograph of a young woman posing with the autographed skull sent to her by her Navy boyfriend, causing significant public outcry.[19][20]

However, despite the voiced objections of private citizens, religious leaders and government officials, many Americans viewed the Japanese as lesser people.[21]

The Dayaks of Borneo formed a force to help the Allies following their ill treatment by the Japanese. The U.S. airmen and Australian special operatives transformed some of the inland Dayak tribesmen into a thousand-man headhunting army. This army of tribesmen killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers.[22]

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, some U.S. soldiers again engaged in the taking of "trophy skulls".[23][24] This practice is depicted in the 1995 film Dead Presidents.

See also


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica (2009-02-23). "headhunting (anthropology) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  2. 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
  3. "Hunter Gatherers – New Guinea". Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  4. Laurence Goldman (1999).The Anthropology of Cannibalism. p.19.
  5. Nevermann 1957: 9
  6. Nevermann 1957: 111
  7. Nevermann 1957: blurb
  8. Nevermann 1957: 13
  9. Soldiers of Fortune, TIME Asia
  10. "Behind Ethnic War, Indonesia's Old Migration Policy". 2001-03-01. Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  11. "Head-Hunters Drove Papuan Tribe Into Tree-Houses". 1998-03-09. Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  12. Jack london (1911). The Cruise of the Snark. Harvard University Digitized Jan 19, 2006.
  13. Spencer (1982), pp.236–239
  14. Ortíz de Montellano 1983
  15. Miller and Taube (1993), p.176.
  16. 16.0 16.1, Encyclopaedia Britannica entry 1996
  17. see e.g. Diodorus Siculus, 5.2
  18. Jona Lendering. "Summary of and commentary on Herodotus' Histories, book 4". Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  19. Fussel 1990: 117
  20. Harrison 2006: 817ff
  21. Weingartner 1992: 67
  22. 'Guests' can succeed where occupiers fail, November 9, 2007
  23. Michelle Boorstein (2007-07-03). "Eerie Souvenirs From the Vietnam War". Retrieved 2010-06-26.
  24. "Signs of the Times - Trophy Skulls". 1996-08-08. Retrieved 2010-05-25.[dead link]


  • Fussell, Paul (1990). Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • George, Kenneth (1996). Showing signs of violence: The cultural politics of a twentieth-century headhunting ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20041-1.
  • 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.
  • Nevermann, Hans (1957) (in German). Söhne des tötenden Vaters. Dämonen- und Kopfjägergeschichten aus Neu-Guinea. Das Gesichtder Völker. Eisenach • Kassel: Erich Röth-Verlag. The title means Sons of the killing father. Stories about demons and headhunting, recorded in New Guinea.
  • Rubenstein, Steven L. (2006). "Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads". Cultural Anthropology 22 (3): 357–399. doi:10.1525/can.2007.22.3.357.
  • James J. Weingartner (1992) "Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941 – 1945" Pacific Historical Review

External links

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