Headhunting and Human Remains as Trophies

Dayak Headhunters circa 1927, via Wikimedia

Dayak Headhunters circa 1927, via Wikimedia

The practice of collecting human remains as trophies is not uncommon. The term trophy itself is defined as an object that denotes an individual’s merit or achievement, though the original root of the word stems from the Greek tropaion meaning objects captured from war to commemorate the event (This definition was added later to clarify the meaning of trophy, thanks to Liz Tideswell for pointing this out). Trophies can include heads, teeth, other bones, ears and even skin. In some senses, the collection of relics throughout history is a type of trophy collection, though with important religious meaning. Other practices of trophy collection are meant to be a form of dominance over the deceased and their group, or veneration of the deceased individual. Most commonly, we associate trophy taking with the attempt to show military prowess or power over others. Broadly then, we can divide trophies into two categories: trophies of veneration and trophies of dominance. Veneration includes remains from saints such as the medieval relic trade,  or skulls collected from ancestors such as is found in the Neolithic PPNB with the preservation and plastering over skulls of the deceased. Another example of veneration is the Tibetan reuse of bones of the deceased as skull cups, known as kapala.  Finally, you see the collection of the human remains of secular celebrities. For example, the bones of Rene Descartes are scattered across various museums and his skull was recently transferred to his childhood school, and the fingers of Galileo Galilei are in a science museum. 

A new study by Okumura and Siew (2013) examines the practice of headhunting and trophy collection as a form of dominance with important ritual and spiritual connotations. For many cultures, the most important trophy is the head, and its collection can be associated with war, religion, social prestige or cannibalism. The oldest known references to this practice of collecting skulls is found in the Bible, and the practice seems to have been continued up into the 20th century when skulls of deceased enemies were collected during World War Two. There are also numerous archaeological collections that show the presence of skull collection, such as the recent find in Mexico. Despite the presence of both archaeological and historical information, there is rarely a connection between the two that allows for a full interpretation. The collection examined by Okumura and Siew (2013) offers a unique opportunity to see the text and the bioarchaeological evidence.

Skull from Hose's collection of trophy skulls, via Okumura and Siew (2013)

Skull from Hose’s collection of trophy skulls, via Okumura and Siew (2013)

Okumura and Siew (2013) examine a collection of human skulls from Borneo. Borneo is a large island located in Southeast Asia. The non-Muslim inhabitants are collectively known as Dayak, however there are many subdivisions to this group. Headhunting among these individuals was fairly widespread until the early 20th century, when colonial rule ended headhunting. Prior to then, the purpose of headhunting was thought to relate to the satisfaction of needs, whether they be agricultural, spiritual, or religious. However, different groups revealed different motivations for the practice. The sample studied by Okumura and Siew (2013) includes crania collected by Charles Hose during the late 19th century, which were donated to Cambridge following his return. Having the skeletal collection and the text provides them the opportunity to compare and contrast the two lines of evidence. The sample consists of 112 individuals, 4o of which have both cranium and mandible, 40 with only the cranium, and 32 with only the mandible. Most skulls had a tag created by Hose, which included information on sex, region and ethnic group of the individual, both the one they belong to and the one that killed them. They were collected from a variety of tribes and it is therefore expected that they were prepared in a variety of ways.

Examination of the sample of trophy skulls revealed that there were 16 females and 39 males, all individuals except for two were adults, and most were between 20 and 30 years old. 67 of the 122 individuals had signs of cutmarks or trauma, and males had more evidence of sharp force trauma than females. Ethnographic accounts from Hose argue that the skin could be removed by cutting, creating these marks, and that sometimes children would ‘play fight’ with the skulls, adding to the marks. Only 50% of the skulls show clear evidence for decapitation, though it is likely this is because the wounds may be present on other bones not included. Further, the text argues that there was no standard method of decapitation. 67% show signs of burning, and 65% had perforations drilled into the top of the skull. Textual evidence from Hose revealed that the trophies were placed over a fire to aid in removal of the skin and brain, and after they finished processing were often hung from the rafters of the tribe’s main building.

Okumura and Siew (2013) note that the textual evidence strongly argues that these skulls were meant as a form of dominance over other groups, and given the archaeological evidence for cutmarks and trauma, they are able to support the text and conclude that these were headhunting trophies and not a form of ancestor veneration. While the two lines of evidence support the same conclusion, Okumura and Siew (2013) argue that it crucial that both be explored as independent lines of evidence and be used in a critical manner. Finally, they stress that this is an important part of the heritage of the Dayak people of Borneo, it is part of their history and they are proud of it. Despite the ban on headhunting, rituals associated with the practice continue. New studies need to continue to fight the negative interpretations of headhunting found in early historical accounts.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgOkumura and Siew (2013). An Osteological Study of Trophy Heads: Unveiling the Headhunting Practice in Borneo International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.1297

11 responses to “Headhunting and Human Remains as Trophies

  1. Redmond O’Hanlon, who travelled with Dayaks in the mid 1980s, records a discussion of contemporary attitudes to headhunting in his book ‘Into The Heart of Borneo”. He saw dried heads in the longhouses, but noted they were pretty old.

  2. Really interesting to see this goes back so far in time and across cultures. Suggest a strong genetic component in determining this social behaviour.

  3. Pingback: Human Remains as Trophies of War | Strange Remains·

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