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November 2, 2011

Headhunting: A Tradition Long Gone Part 3

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – “What happens when they bring the skulls home from a raid,” was the question I had been seeking an answer. A couple of days ago, I came across a volume published in 1963 that held several early accounts of head hunting.


My previous writings for were supported by the book; but these are the first first-hand accounts I have come across. I will search for more.


The first, written in 1909, relates the longhouse is immediately decorated before the “warriors” are allowed to enter. Mats are spread out and cloth hung from the roof. “Suddenly a war whoop sounds,” a ladder is lowered (all long houses are built on posts) and the men climb into the house.


The women begin a song in honor of the “heroes.” Those who did not participate in getting a head become very worked up and rush to the canoes to go off and try to find one.


Meanwhile a freshly butchered pig has been lain on the veranda and all the men step into the blood and then onto a stone. This signifies health and long life.


Then the women take over. They dance like the insane, speaking to the head. Then they stuff special rice into all the orifices singing that they hope they enjoyed the food. Finally, they collapse into an exhausted heap.


A milder account, written by a different author, holds the head is placed in a bamboo “receptacle” at the bottom of the ladder leading to the house. The wife, dressed in her best finery, wraps the head in a blanket and places it onto a plate. A chicken is then immediately killed. A feast begins and lasts for three days and nights. The head is paraded through the rooms. It is then hung over a fire and smoked.


A third observation says that the men are not permitted to enter the village until the next morning following a successful hunt. The heads are staked on a pole.


The women then come down the next morning, dressed in her best cloth, remove the head and return home. The women begin to chant and sing. The “warriors” step into some water and then onto a stone to climb into the house. His back is then rubbed with cooking oil and the first-timer on a hunt has his neck adorned by a piece of wire.


Feasting, singing and dancing continue throughout the night. The warrior(s), who acquired the head, are not supposed to sleep for seven days and nights but usually can’t make it past day two.


The next morning, the heads are placed in a shallow basket and placed on the veranda. Four women then begin a fiendish dance in which they face each other, two to two, and dance back and forth, swinging the heads. At times the heads are asked what in a dream foretold their death, was it being carried off by a crocodile or being bitten by a snake? After the women finish their dance, the men dance the same steps.


The ceremony following the head-taking seems to be a celebration of manhood and appeasing the spirits as an afterthought. The skulls do not seem to become venerated until much later, perchance after they have been smoked and converted to a deity by a head man.


The above accounts seem plausible except they don’t mention toddy, a rice wine being part of the feast. In all other celebrations, past and current, toddy is imbibed liberally to the point of intoxication. Guests usually must partake with the revelers as not to bring dishonor, even today.


In my opinion, the first account seems to have been recorded by a hung-over individual seeing the past through a jittery alcohol haze while paddling furiously away from the longhouse. The other two seem to ring true.


“The Sea Dyaks and other Races of Sarawak” (contributions to The Sarawak Gazette between 1888 and 1930) Kuching: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1963


For other articles on Malaysian Borneo, see Tom’s website at


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