head-hunting, practice of taking and preserving the head of a slain enemy. It has occurred throughout the world from ancient times into the 20th cent. In Europe, it flourished in the Balkans until the early 20th cent. The practice often has magico-religious motives. Head-hunting tribes usually believe that there is soul matter concentrated in the head; taking the head of an enemy not only adds to the totality of soul matter in one's community, it also weakens the power of the enemy. As a particularly gruesome symbol of victory, such trophies may also intimidate enemies and potential enemies. In addition, heads are secured as tokens of courage and manhood. In many societies, young men are allowed to marry only after they have taken their first head, and for each trophy they may wear a distinctive feather or special tattoo. In some parts of the world, notably among the natives of North America, the scalp alone was taken (see scalping), and the hair was often used in the making of amulets (see amulet). Heads may be mummified in various ways, as in New Guinea, where both skull and skin are preserved, or among the Jívaro of South America, where the skin alone is preserved to produce a so-called shrunken head. An increase in head-hunting and concomitant warfare is often associated with the penetration of Westerners who like to buy and collect these trophies. See also cannibalism.
See M. Harner, The Jivaro (1972).