Headhunting is the practice of taking a person's head after killing him or her. Headhunting was practiced during the pre-colonial era in parts of China, India, Nigeria, Nuristan, Myanmar, Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Micronesia, Melanesia, New Zealand, and the Amazon Basin, as well as among certain tribes of the Celts and Scythians of ancient Europe.

As a practice, headhunting has been the subject of intense discussion within the anthropological community as to its possible social roles, functions, and motivations. The term can be described as hunting someone down or taking part in a witch hunt. 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. Themes that arise in anthropological writings about headhunting include mortification of the rival, ritual violence, cosmological balance, the display of manhood, cannibalism, and prestige.

outheast Asia and Melanesia

Headhunting was practiced in many parts of Austronesian southeast Asia and Melanesia. Anthropological writings exist on the 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 were encompassed in the practice, and the taken heads were prized.

Kenneth George wrote about annual headhunting rituals that he observed among the Mappurondo religious minority, an upland tribe in the south-west 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.

In the past, Marind-anim were famed because of headhunting as well. [Nevermann 1957: 9] This was rooted in their belief system and linked to the name-giving of the newborn. [Nevermann 1957: 111] The skull was believed to contain a mana-like force. [Nevermann 1957: blurb] Headhunting was not motivated primarily by cannibalism, but the already killed person's flesh was consumed.Nevermann 1957: 13]

Around the 1930s, headhunting was suppressed among the Ilongot in the Philippines by the US authorities.

The Wa tribe, whose domain straddle the Burma-China border, were once known as the Wild Wa for their "savage" behavior. The Wa were, until 1970s, ferocious head hunters. [ [http://www.time.com/time/asia/covers/1101021216/story.html Soldiers of Fortune] , TIME Asia]

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.

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 head-hunting tradition of the Dayaks of old. [ [http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/natres/timber/2001/0301brno.htm Behind Ethnic War, Indonesia's Old Migration Policy] ]

The Korowai, a Papuan tribe in the southeast of Irian Jaya, live in tree houses, some nearly 40-metre high, presumably as protection against a tribe of neighbouring head-hunters, the Citak. [ [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/03/980309043026.htm Head-Hunters Drove Papuan Tribe Into Tree-Houses] ]

Some believe that Michael Rockefeller may have been taken by headhunters in western 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.


The Shuar in Ecuador and Peru, along the Amazon River, practiced headhunting in order to make shrunken heads for ritual use. The Shuar still produce replica heads which they sell to tourists, and there are still some splinter Shuar tribes that continue to practice headhunting.

New Zealand

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.


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 practiced amongst Chinese people.


Headhunting was a common practice among the Taiwanese aborigines. Almost every tribe except the Yami (Tao) practiced headhunting. Han Chinese settlers were often the victims of headhunting raids as they were considered by the Aborigines to be 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 ended around the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan.


When Charles II reclaimed the crown for his family, he exhumed the body of Oliver Cromwell, who had his father, Charles I, beheaded, and had Cromwell's head removed from the body and placed atop the Tower of London. After Henry VIII had Sir Thomas More executed, he ordered his head placed atop the Tower of London for a month, until More's daughter Margaret Roper retrieved it.

outh Asia

Head Hunting has been a practice among the Naga tribes of India and Myanmar. The practice was common into the 20th century and may still be practised in isolated Naga tribes of Burma. Many of the Naga warriors still bear the marks (tattos and others)of a successful head hunt.


The Celts of Europe practiced headhunting for an indeterminate religious reason. Ancient Romans and Greeks recorded the Celts habits of nailing heads of personal enemies to walls or dangling them from the necks of horses. [see e.g. Diodorus Siculus, [http://books.google.com/books?id=agd-eLVNRMMC&printsec=titlepage#PPA315,M1 5.2] ] Headhunting was still practiced 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 religious reasons for collecting heads was likely lost after the Celts' conversion to Christianity. Heads were also taken among the Germanic tribes and Iberians, but the purpose is unknown.

World War II

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 22 May 1944, published a photograph of a young woman posing with the autographed skull sent to her by her Navy boyfriend, causing significant public outcry. [Fussel 1990: 117] [Harrison 2006: 817ff] However, despite the voiced objections of private citizens, religious leaders and government officials, many Americans viewed the Japanese as lesser people, and many American soldiers did not consider abuse of Japanese bodies morally wrong. [Weingartner 1992: 67]

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War U.S. soldiers again engaged in the taking of "trophy skulls". [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/02/AR2007070201710_pf.html] , [http://george.loper.org/trends/2002/Mar/65.html]

See also

* Shrunken head
* Decapitation
* Tribal warfare
* Human sacrifice
* Trophy



* cite book
last= Fussell
first= Paul
authorlink= Paul Fussell
title= Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War
year= 1990
publisher= Oxford University Press
location= New York

* cite journal
first= Simon
title=Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of remembrance./Les Trophees De la Guerre Du Pacifique Des Cranes Comme Souvenirs Transgressifs
journal=Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

* The title means "Sons of the killing father. Stories about demons and headhunting, recorded in New Guinea".
* James J. Weingartner (1992) "Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941 – 1945" Pacific Historical Review

External links

* [http://www.lard.net/headhunters.html Encyclopedia Britannica entry 1996]
* [http://www.head-hunter.com/index.html Headhunting and headshrinking among the Shuar]

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