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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 and Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa, and Mesoamerica, as well as among certain tribes of the Celts, the West Germanic tribes, the Vikings and Scythians of ancient Europe. It occurred in Europe until the early 20th century in the Balkan Peninsula (mostly in Montenegro, Croatia, and western parts of Herzegovina) and to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Anglo-Scottish border regions.
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, prestige, and as a means of securing the services of the victim as a slave in the afterlife.
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.
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, including New Guinea. A missionary found 10,000 skulls on Goaribari Island in 1901.
In the past, Marind-anim in New Guinea were famed because of headhunting. This 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.
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. Some believe that Michael Rockefeller may have been taken by headhunters in the Asmat region of 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.
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.
In Southeast Asia, anthropological writings exist on the Murut, 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 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, and produced an in depth study of their society and beliefs. He found that the main purpose of headhunting was the belief that by owning another person's skull, the victim would serve as a slave of the owner for eternity in the afterlife, and thus human skulls were a valuable commodity. Sporadic headhunting continued in Nias island until very recent times, the last reported incident dating from 1998.
Headhunting was practised among Sumba people until early 20th century. It is done only in a large war parties, not in silence and secrecy like in hunting wild animals. The skulls collected were hung on the skull tree erected in the center of village. As recently as 1998, in Waikabubak, a major clash between clans resulted some people decapitated, reminiscent of the old 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. 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.
Around the 1930s, headhunting was suppressed among the Ilongot in the Philippines by the US authorities.
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. James Brooke first encountered the headhunting Ibans of The Saribas-Skrang in Sarawak at the Battle of Beting Maru in 1849 and the proposed signing of the Saribas Treaty between James Brooke and the Iban chief of that region by the name of Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana "Bayang". Subsequently, the Brooke dynasty expanded their territory from the first small Sarawak region to the present day whole size of the state of Sarawak by enlisting the Malay, Iban and other natives as a large but unpaid force to crush and pacify any rebellions in the states. The natives who participated in Brooke-approved punitive expeditions were exempted from paying annual tax to the Brooke government in return for their service.
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.
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. Twenty heads were returned to them by French authorities in January 2012. The heads, repatriated from the French museums, were sold to European collectors in the late 1800s, having been 'made to order' in some instances.
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.
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 as well as ethnically and culturally Ivatan people and thus associated with the peoples of the Philippines.
Taiwanese Plains Aborigines, Han Chinese and Japanese settlers were choice victims of headhunting raids, particularly the latter two groups, who were considered invaders, 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 continued during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan but ended in the 1930s due to the strict attention of the colonial Japanese government.
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 later abolished with Christianity introduced in the region.
The Shuar in Ecuador and Peru, along the Amazon River, practised headhunting in order to make shrunken heads, which they believed housed the soul of the person killed. The Shuar still produce replica heads that they sell to tourists, and there are still some splinter Shuar tribes that continue to practise headhunting .
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. 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 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 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 Anglo-Scottish marches. The religious reasons for collecting heads was 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, 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.
The Montenegrins are an ethnic group in the Balkan peninsula who are centered around the Dinaric mountains. They practiced headhunting as recently as 1912, allegedly carrying the head from a lock of hair grown specifically for that purpose. In 1830's, Montenegrin ruler Petar II Petrović-Njegoš started building a tower called "Tablja" above Cetinje Monastery. Tower was never finished, and Montenegrins used it to display Turkish heads. King Nicholas I of Montenegro ordered in 1876 that Montenegrins must no longer bring decapitated heads. Tablja was demolished in 1937.
Ottoman Turks are also alleged to have taken heads of the Montenegrins, when they came into conflict.
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 May 22, 1944, published a photograph of a young woman posing with the autographed skull sent to her by her Navy boyfriend, causing significant public outcry.
However, despite the voiced objections of private citizens, religious leaders and government officials, many Americans viewed the Japanese as lesser people.
The Dayaks of Borneo formed a force to help the Allies following their ill treatment by the Japanese. Australian and British special operatives of Z Special Unit 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.
A Gurkha soldier beheaded a supposed Taliban leader and took it from the battlefield to base for identification.
Head trophy, Munduruku Indians, northern Brazil, c. 1820
Captives who fell into the hands of Dahomey Amazons were often decapitated
An Ifugao warrior with some of his trophies, Philippines, 1912
Dayak women dancing with human heads, 1912