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Headhunting is the practice of taking and preserving a person's head after killing the person. Headhunting was practised in historic times in parts of Oceania, South and Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa, and Mesoamerica, as well as among certain tribes of the Celts, the West Germanic tribes, the Vikings and Scythians of ancient Europe. It occurred in Europe until the 19th century in Montenegro, Croatia, and western parts of Herzegovina and to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Anglo-Scottish border regions.

Contemporary scholars generally agree that its primary function was ceremonial and that it was part of the process of structuring, reinforcing, and defending hierarchical relationships between communities and individuals. Some experts theorize that the practice stemmed from the belief that the head contained "soul matter" or life force, which could be harnessed through its capture.

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Headhunting has been practiced worldwide and may go back to Paleolithic times. In deposits of the Late Paleolithic Azilian culture found at Ofnet in Bavaria, carefully decapitated heads were buried separately from the bodies, indicating beliefs in the special sanctity or importance of the head.

In Europe the practice survived until the early 20th century in the Balkan Peninsula, where the taking of the head implied the transfer of the soul matter of the decapitated to the decapitator. The complete head was taken by Montenegrins as late as 1912, being carried by a lock of hair worn allegedly for that purpose. In the British Isles the practice continued approximately to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Scottish marches.

In Africa headhunting was known in Nigeria, where, as in Indonesia, it was associated with the fertility of the crops, with marriage, and with the victim’s obligation as a servant in the next world.

In Káfiristán (now Nūrestān) in eastern Afghanistan, headhunting was practiced until about the end of the 19th century. In the northeast of India, Assam was famous for headhunting, and indeed all the peoples living south of the Brahmaputra River—Garos, Khasis, Nagas, and Kukis—formerly were headhunters. Headhunting in Assam was normally carried on by parties of raiders who depended on surprise tactics to achieve their ends.

In Myanmar (Burma) several groups followed customs similar to those of the headhunting tribes of India. The Wa people observed a definite headhunting season, when the fertilizing soul matter was required for the growing crop, and wayfarers moved about at their peril. 
In Borneo, most of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, similar methods of headhunting were practiced. The practice was reported in the Philippines by Martín de Rada in 1577 and was abandoned formally by the Igorot and Kalinga peoples of Luzon only at the beginning of the 20th century. In Indonesia it extended through Ceram, where the Alfurs were headhunters, and to New Guinea, where headhunting was practiced by the Motu. In several areas of Indonesia, as in the Batak country and in the Tanimbar Islands, it seems to have been replaced by cannibalism.

Throughout Oceania headhunting tended to be obscured by cannibalism, but in many islands the importance attached to the head was unmistakable. In parts of Micronesia the head of the slain enemy was paraded about with dancing, which served as an excuse for raising a fee for the chief to defray public expenditure; later the head would be lent to another chief for the same purpose. In Melanesiathe head was often mummified and sometimes worn as a mask in order that the wearer might acquire the soul of the dead man. Similarly, it was reported that Aboriginal Australians believed that the spirit of a slain enemy entered the slayer. In New Zealand the heads of enemies were dried and preserved so that tattoo marks and the facial features were recognizable; this practice led to a development of headhunting when tattooed heads became desirable curios and the demand in Europe for Maoritrophies caused “pickled heads” to become a regular article of ships’ manifests.

In South America the heads were often preserved, as by the Jívaro, by removing the skull and packing the skin with hot sand, thus shrinking it to the size of the head of a small monkey but preserving the features intact. There, again, headhunting was probably associated with cannibalism in a ceremonial form.

Despite the prohibition of headhunting activities, scattered reports of such practices continued well into the mid-20th century.

The practice of headhunting

As a practice, headhunting has been the subject of intense discussion within the anthropological community as to its possible social roles, functions, and motivations. Contemporary scholars generally agree that its primary function was ceremonial, and that it was part of the process of structuring, reinforcing, and defending hierarchical relationships between communities and individuals. Some experts theorize that the practice stemmed from the belief that the head contained "soul matter" or life force, which could be harnessed through its capture. Themes that arise in anthropological writings about headhunting include mortification of the rival, ritual violence, cosmological balance, the display of manhood, cannibalism, and prestige.


The practice of making shrunken heads originally had religious significance; the heads were believed to harness the spirits of those enemies and compel them to serve the shrinker. The Shuar in Amazonian Ecuador and Peru practiced headhunting in order to make shrunken heads and use them for ritual purposes.

The Shuar believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:
  • Wakani - innate to humans thus surviving their death, later turning into vapor.
  • Arutam - literally "vision" or "power," protects humans from a violent death and assures their survival.
  • Muisak - vengeful spirit, which surfaces when an arutam spirit-carrying person is murdered.

To block the last spirit from using its powers, and even turn them into their friends, they severed their enemies' heads and made them into shrunken forms. This also served as a warning to any surviving enemies or would be attackers.

How it was done

Shrunken heads are known for their mandibular prognathism, facial distortion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifices of the shrinking process.The shrinking process primarily involved the desiccation of the skin. The skull was removed from the head: the maker would make an incision on the back of the neck and proceeded to remove all the skin and flesh from the cranium. Next, they sewed the eyelids shut and held the mouth together with splinters.
Fat from the flesh of the head was removed. The flesh was then boiled in water in which a number of herbs containing tannins were steeped, and then dried with hot rocks and sand, while being molded by the preparer to retain its human feature. The lips were sewn shut, and various decorative beads were added to the head.

The process to reduce the size of the heads was accompanied by a ritual, which culminated with la Fiesta de la Victoria (Spanish for "victory feast") celebrated by the entire community.

Trade in shrunken heads

Traditionally, about one head a year would be taken, and then only from another village. There was, however, much fear and violence within the tribe and the need to revenge any offense was taught to the very young. Christian missionaries sought to intervene in the process by teaching the people the concepts of grace and forgiveness, and they may well have had some positive effect in that regard.

There were many other cultural interventions, however, that increased the incidence in headhunting. Colonialists were fascinated by the process, and they created an economic demand for shrunken heads. A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadoriangovernments outlawed the traffic in heads.

Replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade and can be bought in airport shops such as those in Quito, Ecuador. These are made from leather and animal hides carved to resemble the originals. The presence or absence of nasal hair is one clue as to whether a shrunken head is authentic or a replica.

One of the largest collections of authentic shrunken heads is a display of seven heads in Seattle, Washington. It also includes the smallest shrunken head in the world, which is about the size of a tennis ball.
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