The Practice of Headhunting

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Human skull trophy

Ifugoa Tribe Head trophy, Philippines.  Picture courtesy of


By Linda Heaphy

It is a fact that unusual or bizarre behaviour in other humans has the ability to both fascinate and repel us, and the practice of headhunting easily falls into this category.

Head taking has been practiced by numerous people throughout the world from ancient times all the way into the 21th century. The term describes the practice of cutting off and preserving the head or skull of a fallen enemy. But why do people take heads?

Head hunting may have originally evolved from cannibalism. Many people believe that the head represents the core of the personality and to take it is therefore both an act of violence against and an insult to the victim. It is a common belief that the soul is concentrated in the head and that taking an enemy's head therefore weakens the enemy's entire community. In many headhunting societies taking a head is considered a rite of manhood, denoting the transition from childhood to adulthood, and young men may not marry until they have taken one. Victorious hunters claim the heads as trophies and display them prominently to increase their personal reputations and that of the tribe as a whole, with the added bonus of helping to intimidate current and future enemies. Headhunting has a long history as a supremely effective weapon and those that practice it often have extremely fierce reputations.

Given this fascination with headhunting practices, it is hardly surprising that artefacts collected from head taking tribes are particularly desirable to collectors around the world. This fascination extends to the paraphernalia associated with taking heads, either to do with the act itself or to denote the status of warriors and their families within the head hunting community. In tribal societies ornaments can symbolise valorous deeds, social status, wealth, and clan identification. Such artefacts include weapons, carved objects, weavings, headdresses and jewellery, and sometimes the heads themselves.

The taking of heads was once far more widely practiced than it is today.  The spread of colonial rule in the 1800's and the unceasing vigilance of Christian missionaries resulted in a great reduction of head taking peoples to a handful of tribes in South America, Burma, Assam in India, Taiwan, the Philippines, highland Melanesia and Indonesia.

Only one group is known from recent times to practice the ancient art of shrinking human heads (tsantsa). They are the Shuar and Jivaro Indians who live deep in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon. Their practice is to preserve the skin alone and to produce a shrunken head the size of an orange. Interestingly enough the arrival of Westerners actually resulted in a significant increase in head hunting as Europeans, ever fascinated by violence, provided an eager market for the curiosities and traded them for firearms and ammunition. Eventually the Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments passed laws to ban the export of human heads. Once sold for mere dollars, shrunken Jivaro heads now command prices of thousands of dollars each.

Jivaro shrunken head

A Jivaro shrunken head, located in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Photo courtesy of Narayan


Many of the Philippine tribes engaged in head taking practices, including the Bontoc (Illongots), Kalinga, Ifugoa and Ga'dung people of Northern Luzon. They are hardy farmers and thousands of years ago built incredible stone-walled rice terraces that now form one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. They were also fierce headhunters. The death of a fellow tribesman was avenged by taking the head of a member of the killer's group, resulting in a vicious circle of revenge and war that could last for years. In addition to being a matter of honour, headhunting was regarded as a great sport that all young warriors aspired to. The undertaking of an expedition involved considerable ritual and the observance of omens. Enemy villages were raided at dawn and a triumphant result was followed by days of feasting and dancing. Successful hunters were tattooed with special blue markings, but also took a piece of the skull, usually the jawbone or the top of the cranium, and fashioned it into a gong-handle. These gongs were then hung as status symbols of great importance on the walls of the warrior's homes.

Today these peoples adhere to a mixture of Christianity and their traditional animist beliefs. While the practice of head taking remained active until at least the 1970's, even today it is considered an acceptable act of revenge. And locals in Bontoc province note that modern young "warriors" sometimes lie in wait for a rice farmer on the terraces to shoot him or her dead, taking their head in a grisly modern ritual of peer approval. Police investigate the incidence of all headless bodies by examining local youths for new tattoos as a means of finding culprits, however they have found new ways to mark themselves that are not familiar to the police.

In Taiwan the highland tribes were considered notorious for their skill in headhunting. Here, headhunting was considered synonymous with bravery and valor. Often the heads were invited to join the tribe as members to watch over them and keep them safe. Heads were boiled and left to dry, often hanging from trees or head shelves and a party returning with a head was cause for celebration and rejoicing as it would bring good luck. Chinese settlers were frequent victims of headhunting raids as they were considered by the tribes to be liars and enemies. It was also customary to raise the victim's children as full members of the tribe. Japanese suppression ended the practice by 1930.

Until the early 1900s parts of the Solomons archipelago were inhabited by groups of head-hunter warriors who employed narrow and lightly built canoes in their war raids. Head-hunting was practised to gain prestige and mana, or metaphysical power, thought to derive from success in fighting. Much of the tribes' ritual life related to the head-hunting complex, involving a host of artefacts ranging from weapons and charms to the war canoe. The end of head-hunting took place around 1910 with the intervention of the British navy and the establishment of the Seventh Day Adventist church. Headhunting practices and rituals were quickly abandoned, artefacts hidden or destroyed, and war canoes burned. Even the practice of woodcarving fell out of use. The selling of old artefacts was considered quite acceptable for it was a means of repudiating the old religion and such artefacts now command very high prices on the open market.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is inhabited by the Dayak, a collective term used to describe a variety of indigenous native tribes. The Dayaks are animists who believe that everything living - animal, vegetable, or human - is endowed with a spiritual identity. One of the souls of a person is believed to reside in the head and by taking someone else's you capture their soul as well as their status, strength, skill and power. Once taken and preserved, human heads and their spirits became adopted members of the group. In the eyes of the gods and ancestors, the taking of fresh heads was pleasing and rewarded with gifts. In addition a man's status was not established until he had hunted successfully. The most important symbol marking this participation was the tattoo, but carvings of Hornbill birds were also very important in rites and ceremonies. The heads themselves were displayed in the village longhouse. The more heads a man collected, the higher his prestige and social status was.

Headhunting is outlawed by the Malaysian government, although a brutal ethnic war between the Dayaks and immigrant Madurese in recent years has resulted in an upsurge in head hunting and cannibalistic practices. Dayak head taking swords, called mandau, are well known to collectors as beautiful relicts of a largely bygone way of life.

Dayak head hunter

Young Dayak headhunter dislaying trophy heads: Every year or two the Dayaks hold a feast called Gawai Autu in honour of the departed spirits which they believe surround the heads which hang in their houses. In this manner they hope to keep in favour with the spirits and so have good fortune. Picture courtesy of Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute


The practices of the tribes of New Guinea are still changing with reference to the modern world. Headhunting raids are now frowned upon by government authorities and religious organisations, although tribal customs remain deeply entrenched. In the past when community longhouses were erected, a freshly procured human head was buried under each post. Since wooden structures were exposed to extremely humid conditions and continuous termite activity, frequent replacement and therefore a great many heads were required. These days, trophy heads are carved from wood and placed in the post holes as substitutes. Head hunting horns from New Guinea, made from bamboo and beautifully carved, are highly desirable collector items. Their function was to be blown on entering battle to startle the enemy during a raid and to be blown triumphantly on the return of the raiding party to announce their victory to the waiting village.

Ouroun head hunters new guniea

Old men head hunters of the Ouroun people of Papua New Guinea. Picture courtesy of Janes Oceania


We come now to one of the most recognised head hunting people in the modern world, the Nagas. Radically different from the better known Indian ethnic groups and closely related to the Chin and Kachin people of Burma, the Naga tribes live in the mountains of north-east India. Head-hunting was an important practice to them, for the sucess of their crops depended on a sprinkling of blood from a stranger over the fields. Head taking was also vital to ensure the health of the community and the wealth of the village as a whole.

Once certain tattoos showed the wearer had taken an enemy's head. Costumes and ornaments of hair, fur, shells, teeth, cane, ivory, carved wood and monkeys' skulls were worn not only for aesthetic effect, but possessed great power in their own right. The taking of heads and or the giving of mithun feasts earned individual Nagas the right to wear distinctive and powerful ornaments, which in turn gave them higher status within the tribe.

Early nagas in all their tribal finery

Early Nagas of the Tangkhul tribe. Photo by R.G. Woodthorpe, c.1873-1875

Cultural changes came with British rule and Christian missionaries and head-hunting was outlawed in late 19th Century, although it was not until the early 20th century that the practice finally ceased. Because much of the power in ornaments was associated with head taking, the Nagas largely lost interest in their traditional ornaments towards the mid 20th century. However scholars and collectors of tribal art recognise the jewellery and bead work of the Naga tribes as the most beautiful and elaborate ornamentation of any of the extant tribal cultures. There are now very few authentic items to be found in Nagaland itself, although many fakes are being made in New Delhi and Nepal to satisfy an ever-growing market for the unusual and exotic. Needless to say the value of authentic Naga pieces continues to grow as the world shrinks ever smaller in size, and as the purpose behind their construction is lost to living memory.

Naga head taking baskets - photo by Kip Winsett

Since head taking has been outlawed, Nagas attach monkey skulls to their "head taking" baskets instead of human skulls.  Photo by Kip Winsett

head hunting days of old in nagaland

A Naga warrior proudly displays his family's trophies.  Photo by Walter Callet


References and Further Reading

Tags: Bontoc, Dayak, Headhunting, Jivaro, Naga, Ourouan, Tribal Customs


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