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October 19, 2011

Headhunting: A Tradition Long Gone

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Borneo was known for its headhunters. Its legacy can still be found in longhouses and museums where skulls usually in a rattan basket, hung from the ceiling.


I had always been curious about this cultural anomaly. I could not fathom why a group of people sitting around a fire, or in a longhouse, would suddenly get the urge to go out and get a head or two. A very grisly hobby of time past indeed.


My three years off and on study began during a particularly heavy monsoon season. The skies opened for about three months and I spent most of my time in the small libraries around Kuching.


I read the earliest accounts of the British colonists who described the Ulu people, anyone who was not Malay or Chinese, as savages. Their fear, probably bolstered by many gin and tonics, was greatly exaggerated. Most probably they related to their superiors the difficulty of outstation life and that they deserved more money. These reports were then sensationalized by the London press and passed on to worldwide newspapers.


The next groups to study the headhunters were the “doctorate in anthropology” seekers from around the world. They usually spent three months in the forest trying to make sense of the many oral legends passed down through the generations. Many are now still being recorded.


These theses and dissertations were, and still are, written in a language which, not being an anthropologist, was difficult to understand. However, I had the time to decipher their tables, graphs and to translate their English into a more understandable form.


Their major problem was that they based their research on the work done by the early British writers who had other motives for their writings. I cannot discount all of them, but I must weed through each one and try to decipher what could possibly be true from my background.


The next problem was they relied on translations. They would find someone who could speak English or Malay and then walk into the forest and meet these people. If the person said it “It’s hotter than hell” the translation may come back as “It’s warm,” a huge difference.


Missionaries also played a role in the research. By virtue of their white skin and European features, the people would tell them, reinforced by the translators, what they thought they wanted to hear. And what they thought they wanted to hear was head hunting never, ever, occurred despite the numerous skulls around. The missionaries had told them headhunting was bad because they got the stories from the inebriated British.


After reading everything I could find, plus talking (I speak Malay) to the people whose ancestors were at least one generation ago involved, I have come up with my own theory. My theory is changeable and I could be wrong in places.


I began by looking at these hunters and gathers on why they would take valuable time from securing food to all of a sudden stopping to hunt heads. They were not cannibals. There was no advantage to bringing home a head. There was no deity I could find that they worshiped that required such carnage.


The reason for headhunting was mate selection. As each generation came to reproduction age, the most desirable female demanded a show of strength from the male. Therefore, the taking of a head and presenting it to her demonstrated his ability to take care of her.


The male who brought back the best head got the best girl and on down. The raiding parties, so exaggerated by the British, happened once in a generation. The heads were then given to the older ladies who cleaned them and placed them in a basket. Because of the scarcity, these trophies became venerated.


More next time.


…Life is good


For other article on Borneo, see Tom’s blog at


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