Human and proud of it!

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Robert McKinley. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.031


Human and proud of it!

A structural treatment of headhunting rites and the social definition of enemies

Robert MCKINLEY, Michigan State University



Headhunting is one of those customs which was almost certain to attract a great deal of attention from early western observers because it fits so well with the western world’s fantasies regarding the savagery of primitive life. One is tempted to believe that the discovery of this custom was immediately welcomed by the various Euro-American colonial powers of the last two centuries as living proof that there were indeed genuine blood thirsty savages in their tropical possessions. Any lingering doubts on this point were easily dispelled by the mere price of admission to an occasional traveling circus where a “Wild Man of Borneo” was certain to appear among the side show attractions. And if headhunters they were, then quite clearly such wayward members of the human species were in sad need of the civilizing influences of both Christianity and mercantilism.

It was in this ethnocentric climate of missionizing zeal, colonial domination, and, I must add, with the decided advantage of superior fire power, that an adventurer like the first Rajah Brooke of Sarawak could be acclaimed as a champion [444]of civilization, the perfect hero for British school boys. Ultimately, he and other administrators like him did succeed in ending headhunting raids; although there were times, no doubt, when it would have been rather difficult to distinguish between such raids themselves and some of the punitive expeditions meant to stop them. By 1930 headhunting as an active pursuit survived in only a few corners of the entire region from Northeast India to Melanesia, a region in which it is quite possible that a third or more of the tribal groups had been practicing this type of warfare at the time of European contact.

Of current interest is the fact that though headhunting has been made obsolete as a mode of warfare, many groups continue to perform the rituals which were once associated with it. In many parts of Borneo head feasts are still held and the songs of ancient heroes are still sung. The only difference is that now the rites are performed over relics of the past, old skulls taken long ago rather than fresh ones from a recent raid. Some groups even use coconuts or wooden carvings as substitutes for trophy heads.

The original purpose of a head feast was to install or incorporate into a village the severed heads of enemies slain on a recent war raid. This chapter seeks to determine the underlying structure and meaning of some of these rituals. What symbolic messages did they carry? Why were they so often considered essential to tribal well-being? Finally, what is so special about the head itself in its role as a ritual symbol?

The following headings and comments provide a fairly close outline of the arguments contained in this chapter.

1. Introduction

2. Asking the right questions

3. Aims and assumptions
The central question of why enemy heads should be treated as ritual objects is raised. The answer cannot be derived until much later in the chapter, but the contention is made that such a derivation must be guided by a theory which claims that the meanings of all ritual symbols are largely social in nature.

4. The native view
While native theories of headhunting are essential to any analysis of the custom, we find that they give no direct answer to the original question of why enemy heads should be selected as ritual objects. Instead, headhunting myths point to other matters of religious concern. Important among these is an implicit equation between war raids and cosmic journeys.

5. Inferences from tribal cosmology
Since head hunts are mythically equated with cosmic journeys, a summary of Southeast Asian tribal cosmology is presented.

6. Implications of this cosmology
The cosmological remoteness of enemies which is almost always indicated in the myths is shown to be consistent with the relatively [445]great social and geographic distances between most headhunters and their enemies.

7. Headhunting ideology and three contradictions in tribal life
Headhunting ritual and ideology are seen as mechanisms used in maintaining the reality structures and the world views of certain tribal communities. They give the social world a greater plausibility in the face of the contradictions between (A) life and death, (B) familiar and foreign, and (C) human and non-human.

8. The ritual incorporation of the enemy as friend
A discussion of the reasons why headhunters are not content with only killing their enemies, but rather must bring home parts of them, is presented.

9. The choice of the head: Names, faces, and the social person
The central question of why the head is the part of the enemy which, more than any other, should be selected for ritual treatment is answered. Briefly, heads contain the face, and the face signifies the social personhood of the enemy, now transformed and established as a ritual friend.

10. Headhunting rites and the social definition of enemies
Friends and enemies are defined sociologically in terms of the locus of social personhood, and not solely in terms of group affiliation. The headhunting rites are able to shift the enemy’s locus of personhood from external to internal, thus making him more like a friend.

11. Life and death and the internal/external opposition
Among many Bornean groups a successful headhunt was regarded as a necessary prerequisite to the rituals which ended a period of mourning. This connection between headhunting and mourning is explained in terms of the arguments about social personhood developed in the previous section.

12. Conclusion

Asking the right questions

In reflecting upon colonialism and the historical currents which eventually led to the demise of headhunting, we are reminded that for the first westerners who speculated about this custom there was no reason to see anything more in headhunting than a vivid confirmation of their own worst suspicions regarding life in tribal societies. The earliest writers looked for depraved motivations behind the treachery and violence of headhunting raids. A somewhat more sympathetic view was presented by those who had been inspired by the animistic school of primitive religion. These writers often claimed that headhunting was conceived as a way of capturing the soul force of an enemy and placing it in the service of one’s own people. For the animistic school, headhunting was at least rational, although still misguided. In a sense it was another example of the savage’s inherent propensity to place moral folly on top of erroneous thought.[446]

Perhaps the most revealing discussion showing the discrepancy between the meaning of headhunting for the western observer and its meaning to some of the people who actually practiced it was presented by William Henry Furness (1902: 59) in his account of a visit with a Kayan chief on the Baram River. The following dialogue may read contrived, but I submit it as an indicator of the picture we might get if a fuller testimony were available:

“O Sabilah (Blood-brother) why is it that all you people of Kalamantan kill each other and hang up these heads? In the land I come from such a thing is never known; I fear that it would be ill-spoken of there, indeed perhaps, thought quite horrible. What does Aban Avit think of it?” He turned to me in utter, absolute surprise, at first with eyes half closed, as doubting that he heard aright, and letting the smoke curl slowly out of his mouth for a moment, he then replied, with unwonted vehemence: — “No, Tuan! No the custom is not horrible. It is an ancient custom, a good, beneficient custom, bequeathed to us by our fathers and our fathers’ fathers; it brings us blessings, plentiful harvests, and keeps off sickness, and pains. Those who were once our enemies, hereby become our guardians, our friends, our benefactors.” “But,” I interrupted, “how does Aban Avit know that these dried heads do all this? Don’t you make it an excuse just because you like to shed blood and to kill?” “Ah, Tuan, you whitemen had no great Chief, like Tokong, to show you what was right; haven’t you ever heard the story of Tokong and his people?” (Furness 1902: 59)

Furness continues to tell the story of Tokong and his people. It is a story in which the hero Tokong is advised by a frog to cut off the heads of his enemies. At first Tokong finds this a very repulsive idea and does not heed the frog’s advice. As a consequence, although Tokong’s men are successful in battle, their village suffers badly from famine, disease, and infertility. Finally, he decides to obey the frog, and sure enough, the crops in the fields undergo a miraculous growth, house shingles refurbish themselves, the people themselves look younger and healthier, babies are conceived, and, most remarkable of all, canoes paddle themselves and rice pounders work under their own power. The interesting point about the story is its emphasis on the fact that killing one’s enemies is not enough. It is the acquisition of the heads and not victory alone which offers mystical benefits.

While the present chapter is in no way intended as an apology for headhunting, it does insist that ritual symbols as well as native theories about them be allowed to speak for themselves in order that we might better interpret their social relevance. The conclusion to be derived below is that, in a sense, Aban Avit was right in what he said in the dialogue quoted above. He was able to tell something about headhunting which has nearly always eluded foreign observers. He saw that the ritual treatment of the heads was a community’s way of saying to itself: “Those who were once our enemies, hereby become our guardians, our friends, our benefactors.”

The methods which I have used in supporting this conclusion may seem overly comparative for a study which purports to be a structural analysis of a single system of meanings. I have drawn upon myths and rituals from a number of separate ethnographic contexts. In defense of this method I can say two things. First, most of my examples come from Southeast Asia or Oceania, where, prior to the [447]formation of the state on the mainland (around 200 ad) and in the Indonesian islands (around 350 ad), the custom of headhunting may have had a near continuous distribution. So within this broad region I may actually be dealing with a single tradition. Second, I think it is necessary when studying a single, though widespread ritual form, such as that of incorporating enemy heads into a community, that we pay full attention to as many variations as possible. Since all the variations are attempts to deal with the same ritual problem (in this case the problem of making the external enemy an internal friend), it takes many versions to show us the full dimensions of the problem itself. In this way I have approached headhunting ritual and myth in much the same way as Lévi-Strauss (1969) approaches mythology in general; that is, by examining many variations of a single form, and without claiming that any one version is the “true” form. Since the problems dealt with in mythology often are among the most contradictory aspects of our existence, they are not easily resolved by any single version of the myths about them, nor by a few symbolic mediations. Rather such problems seem to call for many repeated assaults of meaning. In fact such problems can never be entirely disposed of by myth. They can, however, be pushed around a bit here and there, and thus they can be placed in more convenient positions vis-à-vis the particular meaning system of any given society.

Since the central problem of a myth must be worked out through variations, it is the variations which, upon analysis, can often give us the clearest picture of the structure of the myth. I would say that this is sometimes as true for ritual as it is for myth. I believe that headhunting ritual is such a case. Headhunting, as a complex of myth and ritual, seems to be much concerned with how to manage the existential limits of the social world. This concern involves symbolic modes of placing the secure inner world of community life in an acceptable relation to such unending contradictions as those between life and death, familiar and foreign, culture and nature, and friend and enemy. Naturally, no single version of the ritual complex in question has achieved a total resolution of these problems. But by examining a number of attempted solutions, I believe we are better able to discern some pattern to the problem itself.

Aims and assumptions

In her book Natural symbols, Mary Douglas states the following assumption:

Symbols are the only means of communication. They are the only means of expressing value; the main instruments of thought, the only regulators of experience. For any communication to take place, the symbols must be structured. For communication about religion to take place, the structure of the symbols must be able to express something relevant to the social order. (1970: 38)

This is a strong declaration of the importance of symbols in human affairs. It is an equally strong statement about the social relevance of religious symbols. It claims that religious symbols are so structured as to convey significant messages about social relations.

[448]Implicit in all this is the notion that ritual symbols are not selected in an arbitrary way, but that they are chosen for their symbolic appropriateness to the ritual contexts in which they are employed. There is some irony in this because the primary symbol which allows humans to communicate their ideas to one another is the “word” that is based on man’s unique capacity arbitrarily to bestow meaning onto clusters of sound produced by the organs of speech. So the word, which is the primary symbol, is based on a very arbitrary link between concepts and sound structures. Yet ritual symbols, which are in a sense secondary symbols, are based on direct links between concepts themselves and therefore stand in a much less arbitrary relationship to each other. Said in another way there is always more logic to metaphor than there is to nominalism. There should always be some logic to the structural links which join a number of ritual symbols into a meaningful statement about human experience with social reality. A structural analysis of ritual symbols aims at uncovering this logic and then exploring the social relevance of the statements made by a particular rite or ceremony.

Ritual symbols can be expressed either verbally or non-verbally, and as actions or objects. Quite often concrete representations which we can for convenience call “ritual objects” are able to convey the ideas to be expressed by a certain rite in a far more powerful way than could words alone. There are probably many kinds of socially relevant meanings which would have no impact on people if stated in a prosaic speech, but which can have a profound effect when expressed through the metaphorical idiom of concrete ritual symbols.

Because of this some serious attention must be paid to the various physical objects, whether products of nature or man-made artifacts, which are made to take on the role of ritual symbols. Since such physical objects have fixed properties and certain typical relationships with other objects and events, they quickly develop standing relationships with the everyday system of meanings and categories held by a society. Therefore all familiar physical objects are a bit like concepts themselves in that their selection as ritual symbols is not made on an arbitrary basis but in terms of the ritual or symbolic appropriateness of the meanings already assigned to or associated with them in everyday life. If these meanings are especially appropriate to the message and structure of a given ritual context then it is likely that the object will be incorporated as a ritual symbol.

Thus it is that religions are always forced to borrow systematically from the mundane world of familiar objects for the symbolic hardware with which they portray the sacred. If we follow van Baal (1971: 1–8) in defining religion as a concern with “a non-empirical reality” then it is clear that religion is dependent upon the selective use of items from empirical reality now transposed as ritual objects and symbols to express its non-empirical conceptual content. Human history has seen ritual treatment accorded to a very wide and heterogeneous assortment of things, any one of which would appear fairly mundane when viewed in isolation. No extremes of iconoclasm can escape this paradox of the need for concrete ritual symbols in religions. It is essential that such symbols be borrowed from the mundane sphere, and it is by the logic of symbolic appropriateness that the selections are made.

This chapter will present an analysis of the symbolic appropriateness of one such concrete symbol, namely the human head, as it occurred in certain ritual contexts which were either directly or indirectly related to headhunting warfare. It will [449]also deal with the social relevance of the meanings conveyed by these rites. Most of all this presentation will focus on what these rites had to say about the social definition of enemies. The leading idea throughout the discussion will be that in the concrete symbol of the head a categorical enemy as a special type of social person can be ritually converted into a friend.

The native view

Until the first decades of the twentieth century many of the tribal peoples of Borneo, as well as those in other parts of Southeast Asia and Oceania, viewed the severed heads of their slain enemies as important ritual symbols. In fact a great deal of religious efficacy was attributed to these symbols. Large public feasts were held to celebrate their installation into the community, and it was believed that their presence would somehow increase fertility and generally improve the health and well-being of the group that acquired them. Of course there were a number of significant variations on this over-all theme. But the one important fact to remember about the institutional complex referred to as headhunting is that not only did groups practicing this custom feel that it was beneficial to the well-being of their communities, they believed it was essential.

So we must ask, what does the head symbol mean—particularly the enemy head? Additionally, what was the underlying structure of the rituals surrounding the head? Finally, and most crucially of all; how did the head “express something relevant to the social order” of the tribal societies which practiced this custom?

Knowledge of native theories regarding this custom is essential if we are to answer any of these three questions. Fortunately the literature on the many peoples who used to be active headhunters contains quite a number of native statements on the matter. More importantly, where large bodies of tribal mythology have been transcribed and translated we come across charter myths that “explain” the origin of the custom and indicate some of its benefits. In these charter myths it is typical for a spiritual being or culture hero to instruct ancestral members of the tribe in the proper and most effective ways of conducting warfare. The secret of using omens and charms may be taught, including the method of cutting off the head. Then this hero teaches them how to prepare the head and how best to conduct the elaborate ceremonies connected with its arrival in the village. Even in myths which are not explicit charters telling of the first introduction of headhunting to the tribe, there are long tales of the heroic deeds of legendary warriors who journey far and wide in taking heads and who succeed in winning secret magical powers away from the spirits and demons of many fabulous and unearthly realms. Such tales as these often outline by example the way in which the head feast should be celebrated.

These myths, because of their structure and intimate relation to the tribal cosmology as a whole, must be viewed as our best source of insight into the full meaning of the custom. Usually they go much deeper and are far more revealing than the standard off-the-cuff explanations, which many informants gave to the first western observers to come on the scene. For instance they teach one that the headhunting expedition can be equated with journeys to and from other worlds—especially the [450]sky world and the underworld, but also in a more general sense the “after world” or place of the dead.

For some excellent examples of stories built on this theme consider the following:

  1. The Iban story of “Klieng’s War Raid to the Sky” (Perham 1896: 311–25). In this tale the hero Klieng is able through his great courage, cunning, and magic to wage war “in the halved deep heavens.” His opponent is the cruel Tedai who has captured the parents of the beautiful Kumang, whom Klieng seeks to marry. To reach the heavens he must first go to the horizon where he receives help from the wind spirit, Hantu Ribut. Also his men use the beak of a hornbill and the wing feathers of a hawk to move up into the sky vault. Klieng succeeds in rescuing Kumang’s parents. He then returns to earth, and marries Kumang. Klieng was such a great headhunter that he boasts: “Every month I get a seed of the nibong palm [i.e., an enemy head].”

  2. The Iban myth of Siu (Gomes 1911: 278–300). In this tale a young hero becomes lost from his companions while hunting birds with his blow pipe. Wandering deep through the forest and then crossing some hills, he comes to the vast longhouse of the supreme sky deity, Singalang Burong. He is represented on earth as a species of kite. Siu marries the deity’s youngest daughter, and they return to earth. They have a son, Seragunting.

    Later, after a quarrel in which Siu commits an offense against birds, his divine wife leaves him to return to her village in the sky. Both Siu and Seragunting set out to follow her. In one version of the myth they wear feather garments to get to the heavens. During their visit to the upper-world, Singalang Burong teaches young Seragunting about warfare, bird omens, and padi planting. Seragunting gets practice by joining the bird deities in their war raids against enemies who live on the horizon (Howell 1963: 97). He then returns to earth with his newly acquired knowledge.

  3. The Land Dayak myth of Kichapi (Geddes 1957). As a small boy, Kichapi was already mature and skilled enough to go out hunting. However, he gets lost in the forest and is raised by a pair of giant ogres. While staying in their realm he eats only raw food. Next he is sent to a powerful female shaman of the upperworld who chops him up and cooks him. Skimming off the fat and ugly parts, she remakes him into a very handsome young man. Although he is now the perfect man, the old shaman gives him an orangutan skin to wear as a disguise in the presence of humans.

    The ogres then escort him to the second-year swidden fields on the outskirts of the village where Gumiloh, a wise and beautiful girl, lives. She and her village are at this time in mourning over the death of her father whose head had been taken by Minyawi, their most feared enemy. Although Kichapi is still dressed as an orangutan and has the terrifying ogres as companions, Gumiloh has the wisdom to calmly and politely invite them into the village. Kichapi now has his first cooked food after a year of wandering in the non-human realm.

    As a guest Kichapi participates in the daily life of Gumiloh’s village. But in addition he also makes a journey to the under-world where he makes love to the daughter of the treacherous dragon king. He gets her to help him steal secret [451]magical charms from her father. Now he is ready to lead the war raid to avenge Gumiloh’s father. The enemy, Minyawi, so it seems, was somewhat under the protection of the under-world dragon. Of course Kichapi is successful; he recovers the father’s head, cuts off Minyawi’s, reveals his own true identity, confronts several other fearsome adversaries, and finally returns to marry Gumiloh and unite her village with his village of birth. Together they celebrate a huge head feast.

  4. The Baree-speaking Toradja myth of Tambuja (Downs 1955: 47–49). This hero avenges the death of his parents at the hands of a remote enemy from across the sea. In some versions this enemy is located in the upper-world or is called “The King of the Horizon.” So the Toradja headhunting hero must also journey to other worlds. He follows the rainbow to reach the sky and may then be thrown down into the underworld where he takes the heads of the enemy’s ghosts. Meanwhile the severed head itself speaks to the warrior telling him what to do with it for the head feast. A special feature of the Toradja myth seems to be that in certain tales the daughter of the enemy is given the power to become small and conceal herself in a flute carried along with the head. From here she gives betel nut to the father. Then her presence is revealed to the warrior, and, after the head feast is properly celebrated, they marry.

  5. The two Ifugao myths:Virgin BirthandSelf-Beheaded” (Barton 1955: 46–96). Both these myths are about the headhunting hero, Balitok, who encounters and gains control over the under-world ghoul “Self-Beheaded.” In the “Virgin Birth” story Balitok is conceived when a male sky deity named Mayingat descends through the upstream region to the central region of earth. He impregnates Balitok’s mother by giving her some betel to chew. At that time Balitok’s mother is an unmarried young woman who has a reputation for being choosy for she refuses all suitors and lovers. Her pregnancy raises a lot of talk about how she must prefer men of distant regions, enemies no doubt. After Balitok is born, he is raised by his maternal grandfather. They have no other kin, so young Balitok takes a great deal of ridicule from other boys who like to compete with him. One day in anger he kills one of these rivals. The kin of the dead boy want revenge, and Balitok and his grandfather are quite vulnerable alone. At this point Balitok’s divine father steps in to rescue him by teaching him how to use magic prior to warfare. In particular he learns the dances and types of omen-taking which must be done prior to a headhunt. With this help Balitok prevails.

    In the myth of the Self-Beheaded, Balitok realizes that his enemies in another village are preparing to make war on him. So he journeys to the bottom of the lake of the downstream region seeking some strong sorcery to aim at these enemies. In the under-world he meets the stump-necked ghoul, Self-Beheaded. As long as Balitok will give raw food to Self-Beheaded this unpleasant creature will work for him against his enemies. A key fact to relate to this myth is that the Ifugao held special rites over the beheaded corpses of their own villagers fallen in ambush. Their spirits are implored to seek revenge against the outsiders who brought about their untimely deaths. Meanwhile, the victors would try to counteract this rite by imploring the heads, themselves, to turn their anger against their own former kin. Thus, Balitok’s rapport with Self-Beheaded seems [452]to represent a general ability to subvert the war magic of his enemies. In another Balitok myth, Wigan, the major sky deity and the patron of headhunters, teaches Balitok to hold preparatory headhunting rites to ensure the ability to overcome the loss of a dead relative through a successful revenge attack (Barton 1955: 207–09).

  6. The Marind-anim pig totem myths (van Baal 1966: 211–12; 395–405). Nazr is the central figure in one of the Marind myths of the origin of headhunting. He was a totem (dema) of the pig clan and could exist as either a wild boar or a man. (The wild pig, by the way, is viewed by these people as strong and courageous.) During the day he appeared to his covillagers as a man. But at night he would go into their sago groves as a pig and devour their food. One night his pig-self was trapped and later eaten in a big feast. Nazr himself, though, continued on to become a great wanderer confronting various demons.

    Unlike the previous Indonesian headhunting heroes, he did not go to the upper-world or under-world during the mythic era. Instead a powerful female spirit named Sobra came down to him from the upper-world to be his wife. She also taught him to hunt heads. He would build large war canoes to carry him on journeys for this purpose. His travels took him to all the most distant geographic areas known to the Marind. These areas were inhabited by people regarded as semi-human and who were therefore also regarded as fair game for headhunting.

    In some of the mythic journeys of the Marind totemic figures we find that events occur which are thought to be responsible for present geographic features. For example, one island off the New Guinea coast is thought to be the severed head of a mythical being. Allegedly it was this violent act which cut the island off from the mainland. Its original place was along the eastern limits of the Marind warring zone. From there it drifted west, following the course of the sun. The totem beings, themselves, now live in the under-world. At night they follow the course of the “night-time sun” moving from the west to east.

    The sun apparently is associated with the head as a symbol. The acquisition of heads from the extreme east and west regions is viewed as a way of reestablishing, on a cosmic level, the living community’s sacred ties with these original beings. Thus a headhunt is a suitable corollary to the large initiation and renewal ceremonies held in the village. At these ceremonies the totemic beings reappear as masked dancers to reenact the creation drama, the primeval events which even now have the power to make new men. Both the reappearance of the original beings and the creation of new men at initiation and name-giving have, in fact, been made dependent upon the acquisition of enemy heads from foreign lands.

There are many more myths and tales involving headhunters which could be presented. But I stop with these six because they are sufficient to make clear the point that in native mythologies there is a close parallel between the headhunting expeditions of the legendary heroes and transits back and forth between distant and unseen, even unearthly, parts of the universe. Since the singing and recital of these tales normally accompanies the rituals which celebrate or, as in the case of the Ifugao, help to bring about a successful headhunt, we can safely conclude that this [453]parallel in myth between the headhunting expedition and journeys to other worlds is meant to be extended to the contemporary deeds of living warriors.

Further evidence for this extension, at least among the Bornean groups, seems to be present in the fact that the formal war dress of a successful headhunter included feathered war jackets and head dresses with the tail feathers of the hornbill or the argus pheasant. In some cases helmets with hornbill beaks were attached to them (see Roth 1896: Vol. 2, Chapter XX). The living warrior dresses with some of the same items that helped carry Kleing and his men to the sky.

Other favored items such as tiger and leopard teeth used as ear ornaments and the skins of various jungle animals worn as jackets appear to follow the theme of the Land Dayak hero Kichapi. Kichapi became identified with the wild by wearing an orangutan skin as a disguise and thereby gained some control over the wild forces of the non-human world. It is implicit in the choice of the natural ornaments which adorn the costume of the ideal headhunter that he is a man who can reach beyond the world of everyday life in his home village. He can go beyond and bring back some of the secrets and powers which belong to other spheres of the universe. In the war costume this belief is implicit, while in the myths it is explicit.

This major fact of the native theory of headhunting is of great importance. It informs us that headhunting bears the same relationship to tribal cosmology as does shamanism. The shaman likewise makes transcendent journeys from one realm to the next whenever he or she seeks to track down and lure back the fleeting soul of a person weakened by illness. But in the case of the shaman, it is more obvious that this is a religious act. For the shaman goes into a trance and is visited by spirits. To accompany this trance experience, the shaman recites long chants which narrate the eventful journey of his or her own soul or spirit guide as it goes through the far away realms and into the beyond. The highly subjective and mystical nature of the shaman’s journey causes us to recognize almost immediately its religious character. On the other hand, the objective and empirical nature of the living headhunter’s journey tends to obscure the fact that it too has this same religious character, when viewed from the perspective of native mythology.

At first we are tempted to say that the shaman is a religious practitioner, because his journeys are purely symbolic; while the headhunter appears only as a warrior, because his expeditions are real (in an empirical sense), However, when a head has been taken and a head feast is held, we find that the headhunt is ritually re-enacted. Chants are sung long into the night inviting the deities and the ancestors to be present for the festivities. It is hoped they will bring blessings. Myths are then told which link the recent headhunt with those more fabulous ones of the past. At this point the empirical gap between the warrior and the religious practitioner begins to narrow. Ultimately, we must recognize that this parallel between the shaman and the headhunter is a firm one. In a sense the headhunter is but a shaman on the march.

This is so much the case that we find stories such as the Kenyah Dayak tale of the warrior Balan Nyaring’s expedition to Alo Malau, the Kenyah after-world located along a great river in the sky (Galvin 1970). He went there because his young wife, Bungan Lisu Lasuan, had died from loss of blood after pricking herself with a needle during a period when all work such as sewing and embroidery was taboo. She had taken up her needle work in violation of the taboo, which is why her accident had such dire consequences. It was Balan Nyaring’s aim to go to the land of [454]the dead to rescue her spirit and bring her back to life. To do this he had to climb to the heavens on stairs. He fashioned these by shooting blow gun darts into the sky vault so that each dart stuck into the butt of the one that preceded it. Once into Alo Malau, Balan Nyaring successfully did battle with the warriors of that region and cut off their heads. The fascinating thing about this story is that in this case of someone who had died, it took a headhunter to do the work of a shaman, namely to recover another person’s spirit or soul. We might note that this link between headhunting and concern with the dead, which is so apparent in the present example, goes very deep. Often it appears in the requirement that heads be taken in order to avenge deaths or to end mourning periods. This matter will be explored later.

To summarize what has been developed so far, the native mythologies which deal with headhunting make one major point. It is that the headhunter stands in somewhat the same relationship to tribal cosmology as does the shaman. This parallel is brought out in several ways. Perhaps the most evident is that there is a strong resemblance between the chants sung in curing ceremonies to recover the patient’s soul, at burial feasts to send the spirit of a dead person on to the after-world (see Sandin 1966), and at head feasts and other ceremonies related to warfare. In all these three examples transcosmic or intercosmic journeys are narrated, whether the journey be that of a shaman’s spirit, the souls of the dead, or the immortal gods coming to a feast.

Inferences from tribal cosmology

Unfortunately, however, to know that headhunting is integrated with the tribal cosmology in a way similar to shamanism does not answer our original question of why the enemy head has been selected as an appropriate symbol for certain ritual purposes. What else can the native theory tell one about this topic?

Perhaps the next question should be: if headhunters are given such an important place in tribal cosmology, what is the nature of the cosmologies of the tribes which practice headhunting? Although the answer to this question will not give us any immediate answer to our other question about the symbolic appropriateness of the enemy head, it could help. More direct answers will have to be postponed until we know more about the native view of the ritual context of headhunting, even if that view never states exactly why enemy heads should belong to that context. Ultimately our explanation may have to come from outside the native system. But until we have learned something of the content and structure of that system from the inside we will not know even what we are explaining.

For this reason a brief sketch is inserted of what seems to be the common outline of the tribal cosmologies of the Southeast Asian hill peoples. Many, but certainly not all, were headhunters until relatively recent times. The termination dates for headhunting in Southeast Asia fall in the period from 1840–1930. For our present purposes, and at the risk of passing over some highly significant differences in detail among the many distinct cultures of this region, this sketch is a very general one. The basic structure is taken from Barton’s characterization of Ifugao cosmology (1946) and Jensen’s summary of the world view of Iban culture (1966a). For illustrative purposes a composite version of these two cases is treated as being representative of the “ideal type” for the region as a whole.

[455]Basically these cosmologies place one’s own village, which is located along a river, at the center of the universe (See Figure 1).

Barton (1946: 10–11) calls this the “known world.” It is the earth and its inhabitants, who are one’s own fellow villagers, who are the only true “earth dwellers,” which is what the word Ifugao means. This ethnocentric view which places one’s own tribe in the center of the universe is fairly common in the primitive world. But certain elaborations such as the importance of the riverine location of the “tribal village” are particularly Southeast Asian in character. The river serves to orient the relations between the village and the various outside worlds so that there is an upstream region and a downstream region. From the upstream region, which may imply a mountain as well, the immortal deities and culture heroes come and go between the earth and the upper-world either in or “above” the sky.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Southeast Asian tribal cosmology. 1) Known earth—the home country; 2) Upstream region; 3) Downstream region; 4) UpperworId—home of bird and sky deities; 5) Underworld—home of serpents, dragons and agricultural deities. A great river connects all regions. Boats with feathered serpent motives (hornbill/naga) often are pictured as carrying the souls of the dead around to all regions. Coffins are built with this same representation. Burial and other ritual poles, often featuring a hornbill effigy on the top (as pictured here), are erected to provide access to the upperworld. The upstream and the downstream regions are shown in Figure 1 in positions that would be equivalent to east and west, respectively, provided the village were oriented to the courses of the sun as well as to the course of the great river. At times these themes are merged.

[456]The Infugao envision this upper-world area as having many layers, while the Bornean groups tend to concentrate on the notion that a great river runs through it with many branches along which are settled the deities, the ancestors, and even some foreign people known to live very far away. The Ifugao believe that the spirits of the dead make only a brief sojourn to the upper-world. They then are made to retire on an intermediate hill or in the downstream region. The Bornean groups, on the other hand, tend to view the duration of the departed soul’s stay in the upperworld as permanent.

As the upstream region leads to the sky, so the downstream region leads to the under-world. The latter usually is entered through a deep point in a river confluence or through the bottom of a deep lake.

The five main regions in the universe are listed in Table 1 with the Ifugao terms and with the apparent meanings attached to the common Malayo-Polynesian roots in these words, as suggested by Barton (1946: 10-11; and 1930: 122).

Table 1. Five main regions of the universe
Table 1

The connection between the root meanings of the terms and the regions which bear them as names is obvious in all but one case. It is not immediately apparent why the sky world should have something to do with “killing” or “being killed.” Barton (1930: 122) suggests that likely this name is given the sky world because the immortal beings of the region are thought to require many sacrifices of chickens and pigs. In Ifugao bunu means sacrifice in particular. Of course we cannot be certain of this. The use of this term may be linked with many other ideas. For example, the sky is a place visited by the dead even if they do not remain there for long. Another more intriguing possibility is that the sky is also the place of the deities who are the “patrons” of headhunting. In fact among the Tinguan, another group in northern Luzon, the term Kabunian is not the name for a place in the universe but rather the name of their leading sky-dwelling god, who was a great fighter and “the patron of headhunters” (DeRaedt 1964: 312).

Regardless of the reason for calling the sky world by a term meaning “killing,” “killed,” or “killer,” it is interesting to note that among the five regions it is the only one named in an indirect or “euphemistic” way. It is almost an epithet, when compared with the transparent meanings of the terms for the other regions. This suggests that the focus on the sky world in this cosmological system has been so important as to trigger more intense emotional reactions than has been the case with the other four domains. Thus, while this is a cosmology which definitely involves a complementary opposition between the upper-world and the under-world, [457]attention seems to be more strongly focused on the former. Warfare and shamanism especially are believed to have their divine sponsors and originators in the heavens, while the gods who control agriculture seem to reside in the under-world. The under-world, seen perhaps as a great interior (dalum), is also accorded some importance with regard to human fertility. Understandably, it seems that the necessity of creative interaction between upper-world and under-world receives greater stress with respect to this matter than with respect to any of the others so far mentioned.

The Iban view of the world is roughly the same as that described for the Ifugao. However, there is less concern about demarcating specific upstream and downstream regions on earth as mediators to the regions above and below. Instead the horizon and a pair of mythical gates to the sky and the under-worlds are more prominent. An outstanding feature of the Iban cosmology is that all of the main upper-world deities are birds. At least they normally appear to men as birds. But in their own home, which is a great longhouse in the sky world, they exist as humans.

One of these birds is clearly supreme over the others. He is Singalang Burong, the brahminy kite. The seven other most prominent birds are his sons-in-law. These birds act as his messengers to mankind, for they are the omen birds. They are able to give warnings and convey other messages of vital importance to men and women on earth. I might add that this notion of son-in-law relationships as a means of mediation between gods and men carries over into all aspects of Iban folklore. For example, the male culture heroes often marry the daughters of the gods whom they meet in other realms and from whom they receive special charms or perhaps instruction in important rituals and customs. This theme appears in the kinship terminology where the word menantu, meaning “sonor daughter-in-law” looks suspiciously like the verbal Prefix men, plus antu, or “spirit being.” So a childin-law is one who has formed new and potentially good or useful relations between unrelated people who were previously antu-like strangers to each other.

Omens, whether sounded or shown by birds, deer, or other creatures, are all regarded as divine messages. Of course, they are considered important to warfare and nearly all other pursuits. Singalang Burong himself is most directly concerned with success in warfare. It was he who taught the Iban to celebrate the head feast which is called Gawai Burong, “Bird Feast” or alternatively Gawai Kenyalang, “Hornbill Feast.” The Iban do not view the hornbill as an omen bird, and so the prominence of this bird, in the form of beautifully carved effigies, at the head feast has remained an obscure point in Iban religion. However, we must remember that hornbill beaks are said to have adorned the battle helmets of the great legendary warriors in their journeys to the sky. Certain other Bornean groups (Scharer 1963 on the Ngaju) have viewed the hornbill as a cosmic bird who nests in the tree of life, and then again as a psychopomp who escorts souls and religious offerings to all corners of the universe.

Beneath the Iban earth is the realm of a powerful and mysterious ruler who can control the growth of forests and command all the animals on earth to do his bidding. He probably is a dragon, or Naga, king, that is, an under-world serpent. He holds many charms and secrets of life giving power in his rich domain beneath the earth. Humans encroach on his domain when they burn swidden fields. So he [458]must be placated with offerings. But these cannot be given directly to him. They are given to his favored son-in-law, Pulang Gana.

An Iban culture hero, this same Pulang Gana, now perhaps a god, married a daughter of this chief of the under-world. He acquired a knowledge of all the rules that the Iban should observe in planting rice. In fact he made the rules up himself since his father-in-law gave him complete control over agriculture. Pulang Gana continues to live in the under-world. He is called up to earth, mainly for the Gawai Batu, or “Wet-stone Feast” at the beginning of the agricultural year. He expects certain offerings of food, and he does not want people to harm worms when clearing or burning the fields. Worms and serpents appear to be under-world symbols in logical opposition to the bird deities of the upper-world. In some accounts, Pulang Gana himself is said to have been born with no arms or legs.

The frog that in this case is a somewhat transitional, under-world animal deserves mention. When Pulang Gana comes to earth the last zone of the underworld passed through on the way to the door to the earth is inhabited by frogs (Jensen 1966a: 29). A crayfish-like spirit actually guards the door. I mention the position of the frog in Iban cosmology, although he is a minor figure, because this animal appears again in other headhunting myths and also on the ancient bronze drums of Southeast Asia which I believe express these same cosmological themes. The frog teaches the Kayan that taking heads brings fertility.

The Iban dead go to the sky world where they are reunited with their own ancestors, the culture heroes, and the gods. Large death feasts are held. But the ancestors as such do not continually demand sacrifices, as seems to be the case with some groups in northern Luzon (see DeRaedt 1964).

Implications of this cosmology

We have presented a picture of the Southeast Asian tribal view of the universe, with the living community at its center yet oriented on a cosmic scale to other realms by means of a far-reaching river. Distant realms are also pictured as lying past the forests and hills of one’s own river valley and therefore across the watershed and into the next river basin. Implicit in this whole frame of reference is the notion that other human communities are slightly beyond the pale. They are in the realm where spirits dwell and therefore cannot be viewed as humans on the same basis as the members of one’s own community. Whenever one ventures into the territories of such complete strangers, a certain amount of direct physical risk is involved. But at the same time, there can be an even greater fear that in these places one is exposed to serious dangers of a more mystical nature. The inhabitants of these places are similar to the spirits residing in other strange and wild places. It should be added that it is from this same zone that the heads of enemies should be taken. It might happen that a man kills another man from his own tribe who happens to be a bitter personal enemy. But the head of such an internal enemy should never be taken after the killing. Ideally, it is only those enemies who are from far outside the home community whose heads should be sought.

One of the important implications of tribal cosmology, in terms of the actual relationships involved in headhunting warfare, is that it ascribes to the enemy, [459]i.e ., to the target groups of headhunting raids, a remote cosmological locus. For the headhunter, the ideal enemy should come from one of the theoretically nonhuman spheres posited by the cosmology. In particular it seems that actual living enemies are felt to be harbored in the more intermediate spheres, e.g., in the upstream region, the downstream region, the places towards the horizon, through the deep haunted forests, and across watersheds. They are not in the worlds believed to lie above or below the earth’s surface. As yet, however, the details of this cosmology are not completely clear. What is clear is that a cosmological view which treats enemies as being fairly remote should have some bearing on the way in which real live enemies are selected. Later this chapter will indicate that this remote locus assigned to the enemy by the cosmology is, for the most part, actually born out also in spatial and social terms. Most headhunters, often traveling by canoe, actually do make most of their war raids in relatively distant areas.

Our immediate concern now is with how such activities look when viewed from the standpoint of native cosmology. What we have discovered is that by their ethnocentrism these systems of belief pose a profound contradiction. For they insist that human enemies must come from non-human spheres of the universe. It is as if the actual humanity of the living strangers—people who in Iban are called orang bukai, “people negated” or “people who are not people,” posed a clear threat to one’s self and to the entire belief system of one’s own society. This is most acutely the case because it was through the original ethnocentric assertion of the exclusive humanity of one’s own people, as being the only true earth dwellers, that the strangers first came to be classified as non-humans. By strangers is implied a relationship between separate tribal communities who have few common bonds or shared activities other than possible opposition in warfare. They, nonetheless, are aware of each other’s existence and mutually acknowledge this on some terms. No doubt the strangers were a problem to begin with, because of their peculiar ways. These would tend to point out the relativity of one’s own culture’s assumptions about how people should live. But after discounting them as not being real people, they should not go turning things around by asserting their humanity. The catch is that the only thing they have to do to accomplish this assertion is to be.

Therefore, we have the following predicament:

– One’s own humanity depends on the classification of strangers as being sub-human or non-human. That is, this classification depends on downgrading or negating their humanity;

– Yet they are in fact human beings;

– Therefore, any potential recognition of their humanity, whether it comes through their own assertion of human qualities or in other ways, clearly is a threat to one’s own humanity.

In other words, the enemy poses a phenomenological threat. His actual human existence in the non-human cosmological zone is more than this ideological system can take. It completely upsets and contradicts the view of reality which proclaims the exclusive humanity status of one’s own people. As suggested earlier, the idea that one’s own group has a complete monopoly on human status has come about as an attempted resolution of other important contradictions in tribal life, especially [460]those brought on by the fact of cultural relativity. (See Berger and Luckmann 1967; and Berger 1967: 29–51; for interesting treatments of the phenomenological bases of xenophobia.) What exists is a chain of social contradictions and a series of successive attempts at their ideological reconciliation. The question of defining and then deciding what to do with remote strangers comes at the end of this chain. It is therefore crucial in a cumulative sense. The problem, however, is that the policy of defining these strangers as being non-human raises a new contradiction of its own: for the non-human is really human. It is this final contradiction which headhunting and headhunting rites seek to overcome.

This chain of successive contradictions is fairly intricate, so at the risk of seeming repetitious I will retrace some points in the hope of unraveling the cumulative effects of defining remote strangers as semi-human and as categorical enemies. For an immediate overall understanding of the development of the ideological system involved, the best clue is to regard it as growing out of the social process which Peter Berger has aptly termed “reality maintenance.” (See Figure 2 ).

Headhunting ideology and three contradictions in tribal life

The cultural understandings that make up any society’s view of the way society itself and the world in general are put together and given order and meaning are always man-made. Nonetheless the members of a society, especially if it is a small scale and homogeneous one, tend to treat this human product, i.e., their total culture, as though it were real in a more permanent sense. This is Contradiction One. In order to maintain the plausibility of this basic assumption about the permanence of one’s own cultural world, in the face of disturbing evidence to the contrary, ideologies are formed which tend to “explain” and incorporate these disturbing facts. Somehow they must be fitted into the existing system.

Such challenges to the permanent validity of your society’s understanding of what makes life meaningful come both from within and from outside the society itself. Internally the regular occurrences of misfortune and death come to trouble the waters of a smooth running community life. These events call into question all of the meanings and goals that go to make up what, under more everyday perceptions, seems to be a very full and well established way of life. They must be accommodated in such a way as to reinstate the more comforting assumption that one’s way of life does have a lasting and universal validity. So to meet this particular challenge cosmological theories are designed which anchor one’s social world to the more permanent structures of the natural world: the sky and the earth; east and west; the land and the sea; animal species; etc. Such a universe can even provide a place for both the living and the dead. This we might call Reconciliation One.

That this first reconciliation does indeed make a claim for the universal validity of one’s own way of life is eminently clear in the macrocosm/microcosm view of the universe which I have described for the Southeast Asian tribes. For if one’s own village can be viewed as occupying the center of the universe, being at the same time perfectly oriented toward all of the main coordinates of the latter, then it follows that one’s own way of life has been totalized to the point where it should be accorded the same finality as the sky and earth, the rivers and mountains.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Headhunting as reality maintenance: The dialectic moments in the development of the ideological basis of headhunting. The slanting arrows show the dialectic interaction between human activity and the products of that activity. This dialectic is explained as follows:
  1. A society forms a system of cultural understandings to which it then attributes a reality status above and beyond its basic existence as a human product. This is the social formation and objectivation of one’s way of life.
  2. Contradiction One. Death, misfortune and other events come to contradict the claims to absolute validity and meaning made for one’s culture.
  3. Reconciliation One. A cosmological system is designed so the social world can be anchored to the more permanent structures of nature. The dead are given their place in this cosmos.
  4. Contradiction Two. Other peoples with noticeably different cultures present another contradiction to the presumed universal validity of one’s society’s way of life.
  5. Reconciliation Two. The inconvenient strangers are made into a “non-human” pseudospecies, thereby neutralizing the effects of their strange ways of lfie.
  6. Contradiction Three. The “non-human” strangers actually are human and keep asserting their common humanity with one’s own group.
  7. Reconciliation Three. Whatever it is that may be human about the remote stranger, especially his existence as a “social person,” is symbolically incorporated into one’s own group. This is done through the rituals of headhunting which make the former enemy into a friend.

Reconciliation Two (E) is linked to Reconciliation One (C) by the fact that in Reconciliation One, one’s own society is placed in the center of the universe. The cosmization of society has laid the foundation for the unique position of one’s own group which is later stated in terms of the “non-human” status of strangers. There are also direct links between Reconciliation Three (G), headhunting, and concern with the problem of death, Contradiction One (B). These links will be discussed later in this chapter.

The small tribal society, having shorn up its own world of social reality by reference to the more permanent totality of nature, now faces another challenge. This new challenge to the absolute validity of its own way of life comes from outside the tribe itself. It comes in the form of other human communities living noticeably different ways of life. These people seem almost like some different species. Worst of all, while they do not observe the principles and customs that compose one’s own way of life, they seem nonetheless to be getting on well—if not, in fact, thriving. This [462]comes as a critique of the assumed broad validity of one’s own way of life, i.e., it is Contradiction Two.

This new challenge is met by viewing the foreign communities as only pseudohumans or perhaps pseudo-species of their own type. The Marind-anim headhunters of southern New Guinea have a special term for all non-Marind peoples of New Guinea. This word means something like “semi-human objects of headhunts.” The Mundurucú headhunters of Brazil had a similar system for dividing humankind into real people and a pseudo-species to be hunted. Southeast Asian hill tribes, however, tend to leave this non-human or semi-human classification of strangers somewhat more implicit in the cosmology itself. Nevertheless, this classificatory scheme resolves the problem of the inconvenient strangers. We can refer to it as Reconciliation Two.

So far the contradictions pointed out as well as their ideological resolutions have been of a general sort. They appear in most tribal societies, those whose members are headhunters as well as non-headhunters. But we are now coming to points which seem to be of much greater concern to headhunting tribes than to other peoples—Contradiction Three: the supposed “non-humans” are really human.

But before examining this final contradiction, it is necessary to make some suggestion why the concerns and contradictions examined in this account take a more acute form among headhunters than they do among other tribal peoples. In Southeast Asia this situation seems to be related to the pronounced riverine settlement pattern of most of the headhunting tribes. Often the favored location for a village is along rivers navigable by canoe. This settlement pattern dates back to at least the village farming stage of the Southeast Asian neolithic, beginning around 6000 BC (Solheim 1972). At that time no state-organized societies existed in the region. River-based tribal communities of swidden cultivators, growing root crops and sago at first and later dry rice as well, were able to occupy the middle and lower reaches of the great river systems, including those which later came to serve as the heartlands for the historic Southeast Asian kingdoms.

These kingdoms were economically based on wet-rice cultivation and international trade, After the formation of the state in the region, around 200 BC to 200 AD, riverine swidden cultivation continued on as a way of life primarily in the “hill regions” that were beyond the control of the state-organized societies of the plains. Headhunting and the ideological complex of which it is a part seem to have developed as far back in time as the early period of riverine village agriculture in Southeast Asia—perhaps older.

The reason why a riverine settlement pattern has been so conducive to the development of this ideological complex is explained by various factors. It leads to the formation of tribal groups on the basis of unity within a small river basin or, in the case of large rivers, unity among the people of a particular river section. One result is that geographic accessibility and social distance tend to conform closely to each other. Gaps in each region normally coincide with the geographic barriers separating river systems or subsystems one from another.

Since marriage everywhere is influenced by proximity, a tendency develops for most marriages to occur within the river-based tribal group (see Freeman 1970; Toichi Mabuchi 1966). Under these conditions, both the geographic remoteness of other tribes as well as the relatively slow pace of the material encroachments made [463]by any one tribe into the domain of another, tend to accentuate the plausibility of the cosmological system outlined here. Headhunting tribes seldom, if ever, find themselves in the position of many tribal groups in the New Guinea highlands who say that they marry the same people whom they fight (Meggitt 1964). The enemies of headhunting groups are in all respects more remote. They do not come showing their strength to contend rights in land. Nor do they stand accused of using marriage as a pretense to steal one’s body dirt to work a pointed sorcery against the members of one’s own group. They are too remote for this deed. They live in the counter-spheres of the universe and they are less human than sorcerers.

The riverine settlement pattern promotes these illusions. The inter-tribal distance and the geographic, rather than human, barriers imposed by this pattern partly permit a concentration on the enemy as an existential problem independent of direct material concerns. The use of canoe transport on the relatively large river systems adds to the practical possibility of making forays into distant enemy territories and then fleeing in hasty retreat with the heads taken. In the highlands of northeast India and northern Luzon, where such river navigation is not always possible, the returning war parties put sharp bamboo spikes in the path of their retreat to slow the enemy’s counterattack. Where a quick getaway by canoe is possible these spikes on the trail are not so important.

The use of canoes on large river systems is also instrumental to allowing a small tribal society, with no great chiefs or kings, to envision the possibility of laying claim to, if not actually exploiting, an environmental domain which is spatially greater in scope than the hamlets the tribe can actually “occupy” during given agricultural cycles. The gathering of wild sago in delta areas seems to create a similar situation if the necessary canoes are available. In this manner there are pressures both for river basin unity and for keeping other groups at a distance.

Returning now to the third contradiction, we find that it emerges as a direct result of Reconciliation Two. In Reconciliation Two strangers are regarded as a semi-human or non-human pseudo-species. This mode of classifying those who do not observe one’s own customs and who do not marry with one’s own people is a way of defending the integrity of one’s culture. But if the strangers should start appearing too human, this presents a new challenge to one’s own way of life. This challenge is as deep as the earlier one presented by their original act of living such an aberrant way of life. This is Contradiction Three. It occurs because the supposed non-humans of Reconciliation Two are actually members of the species Homo sapiens. As a result they keep doing things which would remind the most xenophobic observers of their common humanity. For example, there are such possibilities as intermarriage at some future time or of learning a smattering of each other’s languages. However, except in mythology and in dreams, men and women never have these kinds of exchanges and encounters with members of any other species than their own. At first the foreigner’s culture was upsetting. His humanity now has become the central problem. It is this third contradiction which headhunting seeks to reconcile.

By now the seriousness of the problem can be sensed. The nonhuman classification of the remote stranger has become the linchpin in an ideological system which seeks to reconcile a series of successive contradictions inherent in tribal life. Should this pin become loose then this philosophy of ethnocentrism could recoil on itself.

[464]What makes this situation more precarious is that all that the stranger needs to do to bring about this crisis is to assert his own humanity. This he can do by merely existing. The remote stranger nonetheless poses a threat even without committing any acts of aggression and without being in direct competition with one’s own people over women, riches, land or other natural resources. The threat is that he too may be human. If he is human, then by the wisdom of the ethnocentric philosophy previously outlined, one’s own community loses its special place in the world. The reality status of one’s culture would again be in question. Since the stranger poses an existential threat, he should be killed. Murphy (1957: 1026) has written, in regard to headhunting among the Mundurucú, who would go on expeditions of over a thousand miles to take heads: “the enemy tribes caused the Mundurucú to go to war simply by existing.” It can now be seen why this is so. For by existing the enemy or remote stranger contradicts an entire ideological system.

The crucial point, so it appears, is that it is not enough for headhunters to kill their enemies. They must take their heads and bring them home. This is what makes them headhunters.

The ritual incorporation of the enemy as friend

Apparently death is not sufficient to remove the phenomenological threat posed by the humanness of the enemy. Something more must be done. A part of his body must be brought to one’s community. Many parts may be brought home: hands, whole limbs, scrota, genitalia and the like, but most of all the head. Before we discuss why the head in particular receives such special treatment we must ask why killing the enemy is not enough. Why bring any part of his body home for public ceremonial treatment?

Some might say that this is done to provide conclusive evidence of the victor’s own prowess in warfare. These reasons seem obvious at first. Certainly they have had much to do with the way in which war trophies have been collected and appreciated by all societies who practiced warfare in one form or another. But still these answers do not satisfy the question being asked. What is now asked is, in essence, how does bringing back a part of the enemy’s body speak to or help to reconcile the third contradiction that has been posed, i.e., that between the enemy’s actual humanness and the belief that one’s own humanity depends on classifying remote strangers cum enemies as being non-human? All headhunting tribes have beliefs and customs that go beyond trophy collecting. They treat the severed enemy head as a mystically efficacious ritual symbol and not as another secular trophy.

The best clue to this puzzle is that headhunters, for the most part, treat the trophy heads brought to their communities in a very friendly way. They feed them and keep the fire warm for them on cold nights. Usually the rituals for installing the heads in the community involve the offering of food, wine, and betel, so that a symbolism of friendliness marks their reception. This treatment of heads is common in Borneo and is familiar to those who have read the ethnography of that region.

In Northeast India and the Philippines similar practices associated with head trophies occur. A few examples are presented below.[465]

1. Konyak Nagas. Fürer-Haimendorf (1969: 95) reports that whenever the heads of enemies were taken, “They were carefully preserved and fed with rice beer at all feasts.”

2. Land Dayaks. Geddes (1954a: 21) writes that in the Land Dayak head ceremony, “a woman skilled in the necessary ritual placed the head on her knees and chanted to it, in words calculated to destroy the will of its spirit to retaliate upon the village for the outrage which had been done to it. Other women might repeat the procedure, after which all the men and women present took it in turns to dance with the head held in their hands, this being apparently to please the head with the honor paid to it and partly to please themselves and the ancestors with the spectacle.”

Later on food offerings were made to the spirit of the head. When the festival finally ended “the head was taken to be hung up in the headhouse. By this time the malice of its spirit should have been rendered inactive, but it seems that sometimes it was considered a precaution to give it daily offerings of food for up to nine months to make certain that it [the malice] would not revive.” Once in the headhouse the heads are somewhat ignored but “As a sign of respect they may occasionally be tidied, and hung by fresh strings.”

3. Iban. Gomes (1911: 213) says that at the major Iban head feast “Some human heads are placed in large brass dishes in the public hall of the Dayak house, and to these offerings of food and drink are made. Some of this food is stuffed into the mouths of these heads, and the rest is placed before them.” Both Howell (1963: 104–05) and Dunn (1906: 408) point out that there is a mocking element in this as well as a friendship theme. But however ambivalent, good treatment is essential. Howell asserts that there is a belief among the Iban that “unless they give the head something to eat its ghost will eat them.” More expressive of ritual incorporation are the verses, sung by the women of the longhouse, in which they claim to care for the newly-acquired heads much as they do for a new born infant. Dunn (1906: 424–25) gives these as follows:

What! O Goddess dwelling in the head waters of Tapang Betenong.
Why? O Senawai, will these heads not cease to weep so loud and bitterly.
Have I not rocked them in the two-roped swings?
And sung to them like the sweet-voiced Manang Lambong?
Have I not nursed them in blankets of choicest pattern?
Yet they cease not to weep so bitterly?

4. Kayan. Hose and McDougall (1912: 20–23) report that the heads brought into a Kayan longhouse are believed to provide a habitation for certain spirits or Toh. Regular attention must be paid to the heads or the Toh might get angry and cause some misfortune. “Barak [rice wine] is offered to the heads by pouring it into small bamboo cups suspended beside them; and a bit of fat pork is pushed into the mouth of each. The heads, or rather the Toh associated with them, are supposed to eat and drink these offerings.” Also “The fire beneath the heads is always kept alight in order that they shall be warm, and dry, and comfortable.” A curious fact is that if a Kayan community had collected too many heads, the [466]obligation to make these offerings could become a nuisance. At times a group would abandon an old longhouse, heads and all, sneaking away under the distraction of a fire which prevented the head spirits from following. Then the process could be resumed again.

5. Ifugao. Barton (1930: 167–96) gives a full account of how the Ifugao treat the enemy head differently at different points in the ritual series held for a fresh head. After taking the head they roll it around to shake out a “Deceiver spirit” which previously had been made to enter the victim and make him vulnerable to attack. When the head enters into the village, lime is rubbed in its eyes. This abuse is done to express the wish that neither the head nor its surviving kindred will look towards the actual slayers in seeking revenge. The friendship theme comes later when the head is about to be buried. Later it will be unearthed when the skull is dry. It is addressed as follows: “Hark thee, hark thee, Head! Thou art taken down, but do not take us down. Take down thy father and mother and all they kindred. Let them serve to avenge thee in order that thou have companions. Take down Sickness and Famine and Sorcery, and even the evil-bringing deities of the Downstream region and of the Upstream region. For you have become one of us; you have become familiar with us.” And again, “Thou art buried, Head, so that thou wilt become one of us” (Barton 1930: 192).

It is clear in these examples that the special treatment accorded the head has something to do with the ritual incorporation of the enemy himself, or, alternatively, some alien spirit into one’s own group. Although there is some ambivalence shown at different points in the ceremonies, the symbolism involved clearly suggests that this incorporation is thought to take place on a friendly basis.

On the other hand, not all headhunters show such special and hospitable treatment of the heads. For instance, the groups in southern New Guinea, particularly, the Marind-anim, while they do decorate newly acquired heads in an elaborate way, make no such fuss about showing them any great hospitality. The heads are not regarded as being sacred by these groups. But these groups do something that is most remarkable. They name their own children after the victims killed in the headhunt (see Vertenten 1923; van der Kroef 1952; and van Baal 1966). In this way their reception of a part of the slain enemy into their own social world is the most intimate of all. They give as their stated purpose for a headhunt the procurement of new names for their young children.

All known headhunting groups in Southeast Asia and Oceania tend to do something with the head (or with the name associated with the head) which symbolizes the incorporation of the former enemy as a new member of one’s own society. The enemy becomes a friend, and often a good friend. As a vehicle for spirits, the enemy’s head brings fertility and many other mystical benefits. The only variation is that for the New Guinea groups the head is used only as a vehicle for the enemy’s name and not for a spiritual being or force. But its name is fully accepted as a member of one’s own group through the custom of naming children after slain enemies. So the New Guinea case is really not an exception. Indeed, it furnishes our sharpest and most revealing expression of this strong underlying theme. Not only is the enemy incorporated, but the next generation of one’s own people cannot emerge without this union. This implies a profound dependence upon “the enemy.”

[467]It is these acts of ritual incorporation that ultimately reconcile the final contradiction confronting the hyper-ethnocentric headhunting peoples. Headhunting, followed by the ritual incorporation of the enemy, supplies Reconciliation Three in the process previously outlined. How this resolution is accomplished can be understood better if we borrow Mary Douglas’ (1966: 48) notion that ritual peril can be defined as being “matter out of place.” Any perceived contradiction in the way one’s culture structures reality can create such a ritual state of danger. Headhunters are confronted with a very special form of matter out of place, namely humanness. What they require is a concrete symbol of a human so they can put it “back in place.” The severed head seems to fit this purpose.

This perspective presents a new way of viewing the contradiction presented by the cosmologically remote stranger. He is supposed to be “non-human.” But the apparently inescapable and empirical fact of his humanity keeps putting humanness where it should not be. This is why something has to be brought back and, in one way or another, made a member of one’s own society. Otherwise headhunting would be pointless for it is impossible to kill a phenomenological threat. Since this threat cannot be directly removed, a means must be found of giving it a proper place in one’s own favored view of reality. In the case of the headhunter’s enemy, this is done by making sure that if something about him is human, that part can belong to one’s own society and no longer be out of place.

We now have come to a position in this analysis where the reasons for headhunting rituals are understandable. As Mary Douglas expresses in the quotation beginning this chapter, we now know that these rites “express something relevant to the social order” of the tribal societies that perform them. They bring the inconvenient humanness of the theoretically nonhuman enemy “back” into society where it belongs. By so doing they rescue an entire ideological system from being destroyed by its own inherent contradictions. But for this ritual conversion of an enemy into a friend to occur some ritual object representing him must be made available for incorporation.

The choice of the head: Names, faces, and the social person

The ritual context in which the severed human head is used as a central ritual symbol is a rite which incorporates the humanness of a categorically non-human enemy into one’s own group. But what makes the head the part of the human body symbolically the most appropriate for conveying this ritual message about social relations with remote strangers? Would not cannibalism and subsequent disposal of the skeletal remains serve as well for symbolic incorporation? This would be a literal incorporation. Apparently cannibalism is not sufficient. One possible reason why it is not is that such a policy of digestion and discard would leave no tangible remains that could continue to represent the old enemy as a new friend.

In the Land Dayak myth of Kichapi, which is their charter myth for the head feasts, there is an incident which seems to underline the futility of cannibalism as opposed to headhunting. The two giants who adopted Kichapi, when he is lost in the forest, wanted to keep him in their house in a cave. “The giant and his wife said to each other that they must make sure he could not escape. They agreed that [468]the best of all ways to make sure was to eat him. So the husband swallowed him. But Silanting Kuning [Kichapi, by his childhood name] immediately slipped right through his body. Then the giantess tried but he slipped right through her. The giant tried again, with the same result. Seven times the husband tried and seven times the wife tried, but neither could keep him inside his or her stomach. Having failed, they began to like him” (Geddes 1957: 82).

Incidentally, while Kichapi, as the hero of this myth, is pictured as a young boy miraculously transformed into a great warrior, it is quite possible that he actually is a head as much as a headhunter. For example, while in the forests he is always carried by the giants on their backs. When he comes to Gumiloh’s village, her reception of him, as opposed to that by the men of her village—he is fed from her dish although he appears as an orangutan—suggests the proper reception for a fresh head. Kichapi also has a peculiar preference for sleeping in the rafters of the headhouse where captured heads are hung. The failure of the giants to keep him in their cave by cannibalism is significant.

If cannibalism will not work, why not bring home body parts other than the head? As already mentioned other body parts are carried home as souvenirs but no major cults form around them. The collection of scalps by Indians in North America was more a reflection of war deeds than the incorporation of enemies as mystical friends. There are, in fact, many societies which took heads in this way. For them the head trophy was a mere adjunct to warfare, not one of its main objects. The head was not the focal symbol of a religious system. The Kwakiutl and the Maori fit this pattern. Peoples with this practice may be viewed as “head takers” not full headhunters.

At the level of individual trophies used for the purpose of counting coup, it seems that almost any body part will do—depending, of course, on each culture’s pornography of violence. Yet when it comes to the ritual purpose of reconciling some of the contradictions discussed in this chapter, only heads will do. There appears to be something about the head which causes it to be selected for. It is not a case of all the other body parts being selected against. The choice of the head must have been a positive one based on its symbolic appropriateness and not a negative one based on default with respect to the symbolic values of all the other body parts. What is appropriate about the head?

The answer comes by reconsidering the Marind-anim custom of naming their children after slain enemies. In brief, any last utterance of the enemy can be taken as his “name,” and several men on a single successful expedition are privileged to pass on the newly acquired name to their separate children and sister’s children.

This custom forces one to ask a slightly different question about the symbolic valence of heads: “Why is a head like a name?” The answer is that it contains the face, and both names and faces are overt symbols of the individual as a social person. Both express the uniqueness of the individual in a form that can be presented to society. Names and faces express individuality at the social level and social being at the individual level. In the case of names, this is why many cultures such as our own refer to personal names or nicknames as, “handles.” They are the handles that give society-at-large access to the individual person—they create for the individual a social personhood. To have a name is to be a social person. Likewise to have a [469]recognized face is to be drawn into social relationships as one’s personal self and not as an anonymous (in the literal sense) occupant of an official social position.

Personal names and recognized faces are truly the most intimate expressions of social identity. While they present us to society, they also present us as our own unique selves and not some stereotyped social category. This is so in spite of the fact that many societies permit a number of people to have the same personal name. For special usages tend to grow up around the sharing of names. In many cultures people who are namesakes to each other are viewed as sharing in each other’s social identities. They will extend kinship terms to each other’s relatives on the understanding that as social persons they are inter-changeable or somehow the same.

The uniqueness of each person’s face has much to do with the value of the face as a symbol of the individual as a social person. No doubt an added factor is that in direct social interaction (called “face-to-face” interaction) it is the face which can with the least amount of movement be the most expressive of human thoughts and feelings (Simmel 1965).

Interestingly, the face is not technically a true anatomical unit. It is not a single organ of the body and not the center for other organs. The entire head is used to house the distinct sensory and other organs, some of which appear on the face. In defining the face it must be viewed as an outward configuration composed of certain more distinct anatomical referents, e.g., eyes, nose, mouth, etc. Most of these referents are located on the frontal portion of the head. There is room for disagreement in this topic. What about the ears, hair-line, cheeks, and chin? In some cultures a face would not be considered the face of a true social person unless it were tattooed or ornamented. In summary, there are cultural as well as anatomical referents in the total configuration of the face.

One must conclude, therefore, that the face is more a sociological than an anatomical concept. In social situations it is through the face, more than other body regions, that individual identity and expressivity are recognized and conveyed. The best we can do in defining the face is to assert that it is a head-located configuration of both anatomical and cultural referents. All these facts converge to make the face, and the head to which it belongs, the most likely concrete symbol of the total social person.

The overriding importance of the face, as a symbol of social personhood, appears repetitively in art and drama. For example, houses, canoes, and other manmade objects that are given proper and perhaps “personal” names in southern New Guinea have faces either carved or painted on them. Throughout the world performers must wear masks in ritual dramas. Masks are more able to separate the everyday identity of the performer from his assumed identity as the character portrayed in the drama than are shoes, sleeves, gloves, jackets, or the like. Indeed, the concept of the social person is so linked with an appreciation of the face that the English word for person comes from the Latin persona, for “mask.” In conclusion, it is common experience for specific names and familiar faces to serve as the bridge between a unique individual taken in isolation and that same unique individual treated as a social person. In like manner, names in general and unknown or stylized faces can be taken as symbols of the social person as a generalized concept.

[470]Headhunters take a head for the sake of its face. Obtaining the face allows them to deal with their enemy as a generalized social person. In this form it is meaningful ritually to convert such a person from an enemy to a friend. The head, which must include the face is a concrete symbol of the social person as names are verbal symbols of this same concept. As ritual symbols these two parallel symbols are highly appropriate to the ritual context where they are used. They were not chosen in an arbitrary way. The head (and face) has the capacity to represent what is most human about the supposedly non-human enemy. As a social person the enemy can clearly and meaningfully be brought in from without and made a friend. In this way his problematic humanness is properly put “back” where it belongs.

Headhunting rites and the social definition of enemies

The general meaning of the headhunting rites and the symbolism of the head has been explained. The next step is to examine the structural relationships among the concepts symbolized in the incorporation rites for the head. One main insight is that the heads are equivalent to names and that both names and heads are equivalent to the generalized notion of the social person. The next question must be what kinds of social persons are there? Since the head is involved in the symbolic conversion of one kind of social person into another, there must be at least two general kinds involved.

These two general types of social persons I call internal social and external social persons. These terms obviously correspond to the notions of friend as opposed to enemy or “we” as opposed to “they.” However, internal and external social persons are used to emphasize the formal and topological properties of these social concepts rather than the fact of their bearing on such organizational matters as group affiliation per se. In fact, this formal treatment will demonstrate that such concepts as friendship or enmity are compound notions not resting solely on the matter of group affiliation.

There is a topological side to these two concepts. They imply social distances and a formal relationship to the status of being either within or without the implicit margins of social units. Being within the bounds of a particular social margin is not necessarily the same as belonging to a particular social group. The reasons for this stalemate will soon become apparent. For now one must accept, as a working understanding, that the relativity of the relationship between friends and enemies, or “our people” versus “strangers,” can usefully be conceived as one between insiders and outsiders.

This conceptualization helps rephrase with greater precision what, in the most general sense, is the underlying structural form of all headhunting rituals. It is to convert an external social person into an internal social person. Stated in this way the logical balance of what is attempted in these rites is clearer. The concepts of internal versus external have the same logical property of such binary oppositions as black and white and day and night. “In and out” is of the same order as these other paired concepts but with the added advantage that it seems to fit the quality of certain kinds of social relationships. In short, the notion of internal social person as against external social person presents a topological and formal expression of what is otherwise [471]viewed only according to the dimension of “own” versus “other.” The in/out opposition is the second dimension of group affiliation. Its neat logical structure quickly tells why other peoples or categorical strangers and enemies are viewed almost as “counter people.” The imagery of strangers and spiritual beings as being upside down and backwards in what they do takes on a greater meaning than that which usually is made so immediately apparent by the symbolic inversions themselves.

There are four logically possible types of social person if one takes the social dimension of group affiliation and combines it with the social dimension of topological locus, whether internal or external, with respect to social margins. These four types are indicated in Table 2.

Table 2.
Table 2

Figure 3 shows these same four types in a two-by-two presentation. Social persons of Type 1, own and internal, are easy to recognize as being represented by one’s own people or “friends.” Social persons of Type 4 are also familiar as enemies or strangers. Our usual understanding of “we” as opposed to “they” involves the two compound types: 1, own and internal; and 4, other and external, respectively.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Four logically possible types of social problems.2

[472]It is the logical Types 2 and 3 that are more difficult to fill with our ordinary sociological categories of people. But Type 2, own and external, can be filled if one looks to religious beliefs. Ancestral spirits, for example, are members of one’s own group, although death has made them external to the everyday social world. The spirit helper of a shaman might also fit logically into this type. For most cultures, however, the dead of one’s own group are the prime representatives of Type 2. Type 3, other and internal, is more outside the range of our normal sociological vocabulary than is Type 2. But for headhunters, the incorporated head-name-face of a former enemy fills this logical type. In other words if it is possible for enemies to be other and external social persons and for ancestors to be own and external social persons, why should the newly incorporated symbol of the enemy as a general social person not be viewed as other but internal social person? So for headhunters all of the logical possibilities are represented.

Life and death and the internal/external opposition

In the world of tribal societies, the imagery of external social persons as being “counter people” is no where more vividly expressed than in the conception of the afterworld or the place of the dead. There day is night, and night is day. Although the content of “life” for the departed soul is much like that for the living, its structure is reversed or inverted. A single example will suffice to show how the dead are viewed as external or counter people dwelling in a counter world. The Rengma Nagas have a story about why the dead had to be separated from the living. It relates how the dead observe gennas (ritual periods) of rest when there is a taboo on working the field, in an opposite way from the living (Mills 1937: 271):

At the beginning of time day and night were the same, and the dead lived in the same world as the living and worked at the same time. But since the dead and the living were in different villages, their gennas, when they abstained from work in the fields, fell on different days. Often when the living were observing a genna day the dead used to go to their deserted fields and pick things, and so break the genna, and the living did the same thing to the dead. This led to so many quarrels that God divided time into day and night, and gave the day to the living in which to work, and the night to the dead. And he moved the dead to another world, too, for when the dead and the living lived in the same world they were so numerous that there was a danger of there not being enough land to jhum [swidden agriculture].

The dead, even if they once belonged to one’s own group, are external social persons dwelling in a counter world. Significantly, this means they have something in common with strangers and potential enemies who are alive but also on the outside of one’s everyday world.

This observation takes one a long way to understanding the link between headhunting and death. We have the common belief among the Bornean tribes that the acquisition of a fresh enemy head was a necessary prerequisite to end the period of mourning for the dead or to hold a public “death feast” which marked the [473]final arrival of the dead person’s soul into the afterworld. This ritual requirement was necessary if the movement from one reality sphere into another were to be balanced.

Earlier interpretations based on theories of the desire for revenge at the loss of a relative, or on the animistic notion that the soul of the headhunting victim would in the afterworld become a servant to the dead of the victor’s group, seem superficial in terms of their failure to grasp the deeper structure of the native theory. The only extent to which the victim becomes the servant of the victor, or of the victor’s own deceased relatives, is that he can help one make the journey to the afterworld. It is the matter of balancing movement or transition through reality spheres which is crucial, not the acquisition of servants in the afterlife itself—although that notion may be a pleasing embellishment on the deeper theme. On this topic, the following notation is offered for the Naga of Manipur.

Our forefathers have told us that when a man dies in fight, he is clad in his war-dress. If he does not die in fight, he is not so clad.

When he who kills him dies, the man who was killed comes to him [the killer] and tells him to carry his basket. “I will not carry it,” says the conquerer, “for I defeated you in your life-time.” They fight about this. “You did not defeat me” says the other. Says the conqueror, “If you deny, rub your face and see.” Then he rubs his face, and find marks of a dao [bladed spear] on it. “It is true,” he says, “my friend, you defeated me. I will carry the basket,” so he does so. (Hodson 1911: 195)

So in a single stroke the ritual of headhunting reconciles all the major contradictions of human existence in the tribal world. It balances out life and death at the same time it makes enemies friends. In Figure 3 line a to b shows the movement from life to death (Contradiction One). People of one’s own group, although still retaining their group affiliation as ancestral spirits, become external social persons when they die. This movement is balanced or reversed by the movement shown by line d to c where an enemy who is both an external social person and someone with an “other” group affiliation is made into an internal social person.

The group affiliation of trophy heads remains problematic. It seems that a tugof-war goes on between the head-losers and the headtakers for the loyalty and good will of the ancestral soul of the slain person (see Beyer and Barton’s 1911 description of “head losers” mourning rites among the Ifugao). This may explain why one’s own people who die by violence often are buried in a separate and out-of-the way place.

In line d to c headhunting reconciles the contradiction between life and death. The loss of one’s own people is made up for in the acquisition of a new internal social person.

Line ad of Figure 3 represents the contradiction among the living between one’s own people and their culture and other peoples with strange other cultures. The movement from c to d reconciles this contradiction by making the stranger cum enemy who is at first an external social person into an internal one.


This chapter has provided some new answers to the following questions: 1) What kind of statement about the social order of a tribal society is made by and through headhunting ritual?; and 2) Why has the severed human head been selected as the most apt symbol for expressing certain of the key meanings contained in that ritual statement? These answers are now summarized and some of their broader implications are explored.

The major statement made by and through headhunting rituals can be phrased as a searching concern with the limits of the social world. To celebrate a head feast is to declare that much of what is alien and threatening—what lurks beyond the edges of a tribal life-world—can be successfully absorbed by the tribe. It can be placed in a more friendly relationship with other things, things which belong to the more familiar inner zones of hearth and home. This is an important claim for a society to make. It assures a people that their way of life need not be surrendered to all that is foreign and hostile to its basic tenets. As a shaman’s trance traditionally succeeds in bringing the external forces of nature and the spirit world into a closer, less threatening relation with the inner spheres of community life, so the rituals of headhunting lessen the threat posed by human (or “semi-human”) outsiders.

More specifically, the rituals of headhunting serve to incorporate into one’s own social world the remote stranger or enemy. The rite makes an external social person into an internal one, an enemy into a friend. In addition, and this is crucial to this analysis, the rite restores the stranger’s misplaced humanity to one’s own community, the only place where true human qualities belong. Whatever the particular history of raiding and vengeance may be in a given locale, one main crime of the enemy is that he is so strikingly human yet he lives in a region that has been zoned as non-human. He resides in an area which is regarded as hostile to the ordinary tenets of one’s own way of life. A relocation of the enemy’s humanity is a needed correction.

The head is chosen as the most apt symbol for these rites because it contains the face, which, in a manner akin to the social value of personal names, is the most concrete symbol of social personhood. Social personhood, in turn, is the enemy’s most human attribute, and is therefore the attribute which must be claimed for one’s own community. Some headhunters appropriate this attribute in the form of the head itself, while others do so in the form of the personal name which belonged to the living enemy. In either case, something is done which places the symbolic personhood of the enemy in one’s own community. The rituals offer some resolution of the recurring problem of the misplaced humanity of strangers.

Beyond these conclusions, some more general comments are in order now. The material causes and consequences of headhunting warfare have been slighted. Vayda (1961: 346–58) argues that Iban warfare was a mechanism for territorial expansion; the history of the Iban seems to support him. However, warfare and headhunting are not identical. Headhunting implies some degree of warfare, but warfare does not necessarily imply ritual treatment of heads. Only the meaning of the cult of enemy heads has been explained in this chapter. And this is independent of the intensity of material conflict going on in any given region at any given time.

[475]How this complex of meaning relates to other matters cannot be fully considered in this account. It is suggested that the relations between the head cult, on the one hand, and the material conditions of warfare, on the other, are not as obvious as they may first appear. Nor are they as obvious as would be the case if the cult of trophy heads could be reduced to a functional legitimation of warfare and killing, functioning, ultimately, in the interests of material competition or population dispersal. In fact, what seems most typical is that the material conditions existing between headhunters and their enemies are ones of great physical distance to begin with and of little or no direct environmental competition. What competition does exist is usually indirect or gradual. It is over reserves of land (and other resources) which would not be used intensively by either group until the future. I have called this condition a slow pace of material encroachment. Nor does it seem that the head cult, with its concomitant raiding pattern, is primarily responsible for promoting the relatively great distances between groups which characterize this condition. The cult is a response to these conditions of distribution and settlement, not a promoter of them. The slow pace of material encroachment brings about a situation in which the enemy can be perceived as an existential threat long before he can be viewed as a direct material threat.

This seems to be the way that the institution of headhunting, and the elaborate traditions surrounding it, evolved. In any given case, however, the raiding that goes with headhunting can take on other seemingly adaptive functions as envisioned by Vayda. At times these adaptive functions will be expansionary, as in the case of the Iban; at other times they will be more defensive, as in the case of the Marind-anim of West Irian. While raiding far and wide and incorporating many captives into their very sizeable home villages, they did surprisingly little in the way of taking over the vacated territories of the groups whom they had victimized. Instead, their reputation as treacherous warriors helped only in securing a firmer hold on the favored coastal zone which they already occupied.

In terms of its possible adaptive values, headhunting often has served more this second or generally defensive function than it has expansion. One reason is that the ritual complex continues to add greatly to a strong sense of community life, without much active raiding. This tends to promote rather large and cohesive village formations that would produce a defensive advantage. Under most conditions of primitive warfare a significantly large and cohesive village cannot easily be dislodged from its preferred area. Such a group is too capable of effective retaliation to be made a regular target of raiding by other groups.

When it comes to tracing the emic, or culturally meaningful, connections between the head cult and the material conditions of warfare, one should not place too much weight on any of these possible adaptive advantages, whether defensive or expansionary. They are, in a sense, only specialized applications of the cult, not its source. The basic issue is identifying the general condition of a slow pace of material encroachment as the material condition which most encourages a contemplation of the enemy as being primarily an existential threat. From a recognition of this condition one is led immediately to consider the kinds of moral and philosophical questions which the head cult seeks to resolve regardless of the current intensity of warfare. It is this insight alone which enables one to appreciate the separate importance of elaborate head rituals, independent of killing per se.

[476]The most telling point about headhunting is that killing alone is insufficient to do away with the phenomenological threat posed by the headhunter’s categorical enemy. He, or his most human qualities, must be brought into the fold to further totalize the headhunter’s society as the only human realm. Some might say that in picking out remote enemies the headhunting societies are externalizing violence. But this is a pessimistic view. It assumes that as humans we all carry a heavy internal load of hostility and aggression. It implies that if we do not find an external object as an outlet for innate aggressive tendencies, we will all stew in our collective juices.

But headhunters have a different theory. While at times aggressive and proud, they do not rationalize the act of killing the enemy in terms of some biological necessity to externalize violence. For them that would be intellectual child’s play. They claim the converse: they are internalizing friendship; they are winning souls for humanity. Regarded philosophically, the mission of the headhunter was a worthwhile one.

It is sad but true that with respect to warfare the moral philosophy of the headhunter is superior to our own. This is sad because we are capable of causing more destruction and death than were headhunters. Our methods of warfare allow us to forget that our enemies have faces and names. Although the headhunter on a raid was a treacherous and indiscriminate killer of men, women and children, there were at least some human as well as technological limits to the brutality of the system in which he acted. His wars were waged in the mystical upstream and downstream regions against people who could provide links with the eternal powers of the gods and ancestors. Our wars can be fought on electronic battlefields with the same strategies commonly used to eliminate vermin.

If there was something wrong in the humanistic moral philosophy that led headhunters to conduct their raids, it is mainly that it had a severe sociological handicap. Their joy about being human always had a narrow social base. Outsiders could be fitted into this scheme only through violence. As with most peoples the humanism of the headhunters fell short of encompassing the brotherhood of man.

Appendix: An exchange between Jan van Baal and the author on the topic of headhunting

Out of a deep admiration for Jan van Baal’s ethnography of southern New Guinea and for his illuminating reappraisal of the anthropology of religion (van Baal 1971), in March of 1978, quite out of the blue, I sent him a copy of “Human and proud of it!.” I took the liberty of expanding on a point about the Marind-anim, for whom he was the authority. My hand printed notes covered the bottoms of six consecutive pages. This Marind-anim example had become important to my argument because it was the best documented example of the practice of naming children after an enemy whose head had been taken. Justus M. van der Kroef had written quite tellingly in 1952 about this same practice among the nearby Asmat people, but van Baal’s monumental ethnography of the Marind-anim in 1966, simply called Dema, made him the authority. Since names, heads, and faces all seemed to be overt symbols of social personhood, this allowed me to advance the claim that headunting always seemed to be a ritual means of making an external social person, an “enemy,” into an internal social person, a “friend.”

[477]van Baal kindly replied to me in a carefully thought out letter of seven long single-spaced pages. In it he gave credit to my analysis for at last adding something new to our understanding of headhunting, but he wanted to correct some errors and express some general disagreement about whether or not headhunting could be understood purely in terms of ritual. He thought I had ignored the emotional side of headhunting, which he felt involved much aggression, anger, and classic assertions of masculine pride. He also responded to my hand printed notes. These supplementary notes are as follows:

There is much more to this example [of Marind-anim child naming]. The Marind-anim give names to many things, some of which express a series of differences in degrees of social distance. For example, children, pigs, dogs, and canoes are all named. In this series it is clear that children are the closest and most loved; pigs are fond pets; dogs are less loved and are mainly used for hunting; canoes may be a matter of pride but they also take people far away. In myths canoes turn into serpents when they reach the limits of the known world. Thus we have the following series of named things from near to remote:

Near – children – pigs – dogs – canoes – Remote

The names given to the members of this series derive from another one, which also expresses degrees of social distance. The dema, or totem beings, are the prototypical Marind-anim. They reside directly under one’s village and represent the cosmological home base of the Marindanim. Next come the names of places in friendly territory. Then come the names of places in enemy territory. Finally, there are the names of enemies themselves. Thus the order here is as follows:

Near – dema beings – friendly places – enemy places – enemies – Remote

The naming system actually reverses this pattern of order so that near things from the first series are named after far things from the second series, as follows:

Things named

Near – children – pigs – dogs – canoes – Remote

Sources of names

Remote – enemies – enemy places – friendly places – dema beings – Near

By use of names, what goes out in one series is brought back in in the other. The systematic nature of this alignment verifies that names taken form enemy heads are used to bring the enemy into a closer relation with the home group.

I now present the opening of van Baal’s letter to me:

Dear Professor McKinley,

Your heart warming letter of March the 12th caught me in one of my earliest interests in anthropology. Headhunting was the subject which, in youthful over-confidence, I had chosen as the subject for my doctoral [478]thesis. Old De Josselin de Jong, my teacher, directed my attention to the New Guinea data. I soon foundered on the Marind-anim as presented in the then available literature. The result was a dissertation on Marindanim religion and society which appeared in 1934. It did not solve the Marind-anim problem, let alone that of headhunting. Its major merit was that it soon became instrumental in my being appointed controleur in the Marind-anim region, an appointment which revived my interest in this remarkable culture that, thirty years later, led to my book Dema.

By then my interest in headhunting had faded away, though not completely. I think it was kept alive by the Japanese who were my custodians during the war. They proved themselves fond of beheading; they practiced it on a couple of my comrades. Heads apparently were important to the Japanese. As a matter of fact the head is an important symbol almost everywhere. Your association of the head with face and persona is enlightening. The head also played a role in European culture which almost certainly cannot be due to the story of David and Goliath. Beheading was the honourable form of capital punishment. Sometimes the head is regarded as a trophy. So, for example, in the old medieval song of Lord Halewyn, who was killed by a young lady when he tried to assault her. The girl certainly could take care of herself. She took his head and brought it home, and the story ends with an interesting clause which, in translation, runs as follows: “Then there was a great banquet, and Halewyn’s head on the table set.”

The problem of headhunting is that here the capture of the head is not a more less accidental booty won by an act of warfare, but the explicit aim of the act. Headhunting is an institutionalized form of warfare which is not primarily motivated by revenge, hatred or greed, but by ritual ends or—other possibility—by a lust for prestige or aggression which adopted ritual forms. In your theory the ritual ends prevail.

Here is where van Baal and I were in complete agreement. Headhunting is more than just beheading or execution; more than just incidental trophy collection. It is “an institutionalized form of warfare” where “the capture of the head” is “the explicit aim of the act.” Where we differed was on the degree to which “the ritual ends prevail.” If the ritual ends prevailed, then headhunting was an institutionalized form of religion as much as it was an institutionalized form of warfare. On this we for some time disagreed. Only much later, and much to my surprise, did van Baal come around to my point of view on this, and he did so in print.

In his letter, van Baal raised four serious objections to my analysis. First, he saw “a certain disbalance between cause and effect.” He asked, “Is dissatisfaction with cultural incongruity (the humanity of a peripheral group qualified as not really human) a sufficient ground for purposive manslaughter?” He doubted this. He further thought that “once it has been agreed that the strangers are nonor semihuman, there is no sufficient ground for their rehumanization.” My answer to this was that the phenomenology of xenophobia, as I had analyzed it, always ran up against the possibility of people living at a distance becoming, in certain contexts, mutually aware of signs of their common humanity. I thought it was this kind of awareness that was addressed by headhunting. He still saw the final step in my series of “reconciliations of contradictions” in Figure 3 of my article—i.e., “Headhunting as Reality Maintenance”—as one too many.

[479]van Baal’s second objection was that although the Marind-anim fit my model of headhunting peoples (usually) traveling fairly great distances to attack enemies and take their heads, they were in fact exceptional in this regard. Some surrounding peoples in southern New Guinea, who also took heads, raided peoples who were much closer to them. Knowing this, he saw a weakness in my general argument. He did say that fighting near-by peoples was common throughout New Guinea, but these neighboring coastal groups had combined that general pattern with the distinctive regional pattern of headhunting. I thanked van Baal for this additional information but went on to say that even if this were true, it still seemed to be the case that most headhunting peoples drew a moral distinction between enemies whose heads could, and in all likelihood should, be taken and other enemies or opponents whose heads should not be taken should a killing occur. So with this familiar distinction in mind, I said that that actual distances between headhunters and their targeted enemies were probably more relative than my model implied. I also pointed out that my model owed a great deal to Mabuchi Toichi’s 1968 account of spheres of geographical knowledge and sociopolitical organization among aboriginal peoples of Taiwan. He identified people’s home group spheres, their main in-law groups, then the in-laws of their in-laws, then a much less familiar hear-sayzone, and then, finally, complete strangers (who were not viewed as truly human). Most Taiwan aboriginals took heads from people in the hear-say-zone or in the dangerous-to-enter complete stranger zone.

van Baal’s third objection had to do with the Marind-anim practice of naming children after enemies. Here he corrected my hand printed notes. He said while the overall pattern seemed substantive and true, I was in error about the dema beings as residing beneath one’s village. He corrected me by saying, “Their places of retirement may be far away.” I admitted that I had misunderstood this because of over interpreting the primordial sense of who the dema are in Marind-cosmology. Curiously, van Baal said that the enemy names bestowed on children were rarely used by people. Such names were reserved for formal occasions such as initiations where they were invoked “to remind the community of the killer’s prowess.” So the incorporation of the victim in the child “never becomes apparent.” I still regarded incorporation as a tacit meaning to this custom, though apparently under-emphasized by the Marind-anim. I cited van der Kroef ’s (1952) account of the Asmat who actually went so far as to attempt to build on relations between the child named for a victim and the victim’s surviving relatives. This was viewed as a potential ground for cross-tribal alliances, to be drawn upon in future wars against people further afield. Here the conversion of enemies to friends through headhunting could become literal.

van Baal also said that, in addition to naming children after slain enemies, the Marind-anim also fully assimilated captives brought back from war raids. He said that this implied that they did not, in fact, regard enemies as non-human. They could be fully embraced as fellow humans. I saw no contradiction in this since, in the adoption of captives, kinship is allowed to transcend and more or less erase political and ethnic differences. I had written about a similar tendency of the Iban of Borneo to assimilate former enemies (McKinley 1978).

van Baal’s fourth objection was his most fundamental. It was based on his view that aggression, not ritual, was at the base of headhunting. He said, “Taking all [480]things together I hold it impossible to explain New Guinea headhunting by a theory which does not account for the aggressiveness that is basic to it.” He said that my argument about the ritual goal of winning symbolic friends could just as well “be explained as a later rationalization of an existing practice.” But he then went on to say that his objections to my theory saddled him “with the task to explain this aggressiveness.” He attempted to do this not by calling upon innate instincts, but through a critical concern with the place of males in technologically simpler societies. Here it is women who do most of the productive work and also have the most to do with children, fertility, and so much else of real importance. Men, with time on their hands, “try to prove their mettle by making rituals and war.” So many cultures construct manliness as deadliness. Headhunting was a great achievement from this standpoint. It glorified the work of war as highly ritualized and added much sexual and fertility symbolism to boot.

While I never thought van Baal’s theory of headhunting and my own were mutually exclusive, I have always thought that my own explained much that previously had not been explained. I regard his explanation as an important reminder that headhunting was always a violent institution and violence means aggression. So, from that standpoint, there was real merit to van Baal’s explanation. But on a comparative basis there was much more to headhunting than aggression and male pride. There were religious and cosmological implications. These showed up in my comparative treatment of the problem.

When van Baal’s book Man’s quest for partnership: The anthropological foundations of ethics and religion came out in 1981, he expressed again his disagreement with my ritual interpretation: “Although McKinley (1976) ... recently arrived at a ... ritual-centered conclusion” about headhunting, “I have not been persuaded that the ritual aspects of headhunting are so preponderant that the aggressive and military aspects can be considered secondary.”

However, within a year of these comments, I received in the mail a copy of Jan Verschueren’ description of Yei-nan culture edited by van Baal (1982). Verscheuren had been a Roman Catholic missionary in southern Irian from 1931 to 1970. He had left an ethnographic manuscript on the Yei-nan and their rituals. The Yei-nan are neighbors of the Marind-anim. They share many aspects of culture, including, in former times, headhunting. van Baal had edited Verschueren’s manuscript and provided a much expanded and typically judicious commentary of his own. When I opened the book, I found an inscription from van Baal on the title page. It read: “To Dr. Robert McKinley and on page 102 an apology from the author. J. van Baal.” Turning to page 102, I found this statement:

The Yei-nan data (which was perfectly new to me) have now strengthened me in this supposition [of the importance of fertility symbolism in war rituals], even to the extent that I now feel I should have given McKinley’s view that headhunting is primarily a religious rite more thought in my book of 1981.

This was a very generous gesture on van Baal’s part. I am still greatly moved by it.

In returning to the original article, I know there are some flaws in it with regard to etymological arguments and some other details, all of which van Baal pointed out in his original letter to me. But I am perhaps even more convinced now than [481]ever before of the general validity of the original argument. I must thank the editors of HAU for bringing me back to take a fresh look at “Human and proud of it!”—warts and all. I can remember when I was first working on the paper, talking to friends, and pointing out that I had reached the point where headhunting had come to seem to me so logical as a system of beliefs, that I had more trouble trying to explain why some people were not headhunters than why other people were. Headhunting is a topic still very much worthy of further investigation. For example, see the interesting and important contributions in the 1996 volume edited by Janet Hoskins (Hoskins 1996). Headhunting probably existed in Southeast Asia for about 6000 years, which is a much longer run than those institutions we so presumptuously call “world religions.”


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Robert MCKINLEY received his PhD in anthropology in 1975 from the University of Michigan. His primary reseach has been on child transfers and siblingship within a Malay community in Malaysia. He has concentrated his work on kinship, ritual, religion, and social theory. Since 1973, he hast taught at Michigan State University, first in anthropology and presently in religious studies. He has been a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Malaya, a visiting lecturer at the National University of Singapore, and at the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book about pre-state societies called Stone age world system: Why humans were in global networks from day one (whenever that was!). That will be followed by works on anthropology as a fourth way of knowing, the diversity of religious views among hunter-gatherers, the structure of human volition, and a long term perspective on Malay culture.

Robert McKinley
Department of Religious Studies
Michigan State University
732 Wells Hall
East Lansing, Michigan 48824, USA


Editors’ note: This article is a reprint of McKinley, Robert. 1976. “Human and proud of it! A structural treatment of headhunting rites and the social definition of enemies.” In Studies in Borneo societies: Social process and anthropological explanation, edited by G. N. Appell, 92–126. DeKalb, IL: The Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. The appendix, containing reflections on a debate between J. van Baal and the author, was written for publication in HAU. We are grateful to the author for permission to reprint this article.

2. 1. Movement a → b equals life to death, while movement d → c equals external to internal (enemy to friend). Diagonal line a — d is the living contradiction between own and other cultures.