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headhunting Few if any customs have the ability to conjure up the image of the exotic more evocatively than headhunting and its compelling souvenir, the shrunken head. This well-documented activity, as opposed to other former behavioural symbols of the ‘primitive’ such as cannibalism or incest, has been discontinued due to Western contact, including colonial rule, and subsequently due to the activities of the independent state. As a result, and oddly enough, these relics of headhunting may now litter museums in our countries with greater abundance than in their native homelands. This Western interest in shrunken heads not only suggests cultural curiosity on our part, but also hints at cultural correspondences in the form of preserved body parts displayed as sacred relics, scientific remnants, and symbols of conquest. (In this context, some former colonies in Africa have had to request the return of the heads of historical figures involved in the resistance to colonialism from European museums where they have been on display.)

Despite the pervasive cultural impression of a generic exotic other, headhunting per se, as opposed to the world-wide distribution of trophy collecting as the result of combat, had a relatively limited cultural distribution. Taking heads, and their treatment for subsequent and often elaborate ritual attention, was limited in South-East Asia to scattered ethnic groups inhabiting parts of Indonesia (particularly Borneo), Malaysia, and the Philippines among the Ilongot. In Amazonian South America, the practice has been documented only for the Jivaro (also known as the Shuar) of south-eastern Ecuador, the Mundurucu of Central Brazil, and the nearby Tupi-Kagwahiv (also known as the Parintintin).

Anthropological attempts at interpreting the cultural significance of headhunting have been surprisingly limited. Explanatory efforts for the activity are characterized by projecting causation and meaning to the actors in question or alternately accounting for the function of the custom in a simplistic fashion. As a result, we learn from the literature that heads are taken for the sake of revenge or to garner supernatural power, and that it reduces the male population sufficiently enough to allow for polygyny. Such explanations may well be spurious. In attempting to gasp the significance of the custom it is best to adhere to what can be said with assurance.

In this context it should be noted — since it usually goes unmentioned — that the act of taking heads was restricted to adult males. However, it is clear from written accounts and museum collections that females, as well as children and the aged, could be the victims since they were presumed to offer the least threat to the headhunter. The reasons offered for engaging in the activity were varied, and usually explained by those involved in terms of a custom mandated by the ancestors. In addition, it has also been intimated that the taking of a head brought positive results to the community in the form of prosperity, fertility, and general well-being. On an individual level, the activity was rationalized in terms of the expiation of grief over the death of a loved one, revenge for a similar activity perpetrated by others, a mark of having achieved adulthood, or an attempt to impress a desirable female. The suggestion that headhunting in general was also a form of aggressive sacrifice has also been proposed, but this argument fails to correspond to the ethnographic facts for all implicated groups. Even the purported sine qua non of the headhunting complex, the subsequent ritual elaboration of the object, fails to garner universal inclusion, since among the Ilongot the perpetrator immediately disposed of the head where and when it was taken, in a moment of grief and rage.

The inability to isolate a set of consistent characteristics for headhunting, and the various interpretations offered by participants and external commentators alike, suggests parallels in other cultural settings. Thus, it may be best to consider headhunting as a particular cultural expression of a more widespread attempt at ritual communication through the use of human body parts. The fact that Western cultures also engage in the activity as broadly defined may well explain the relative lack of analytical detail on the subject.

W. Arens


Hoskins, J. (ed.) (1996). Headhunting and the social imagination in Southeast Asia. Stanford University Press, Stanford CA.