Head trophy taking


Trophy Taking: Americas: United States

Thus far in our exploration of Trophy-Taking across the globe we have focused upon the ANTHROPOLOGICAL OTHER. [Essentially the Exotic! The Mysterious! The Unknown! The dare I say it, the not-European Descendents!] But it is time to turn our attention upon ourselves, for like many of Earth’s cultures our culture too has participated in wartime Trophy-Taking. Interestingly [and not surprisingly] the same proximal and ultimate factors that underlie the practice in other cultures are at play.

Trophy-taking has an extremely long history in Europe and there are many accounts recorded in Roman antiquity of its occurrence. However, trophy-taking is not removed in history but is also a contemporary phenomenon. Modern warfare of the western world includes many instances of headhunting. A couple of examples includes the taking of heads in Bosnia by Serbian soldiers and of American Green Berets headhunting during the Vietnam War (Kuipers1997). The focus of our discussion though will be on an examination of American soldiers in the Pacific Theater of WW II.

WW II Soldier With SkullThe headhunting practices of WW II are little discussed in history books but its practice played a substantial part in the campaign against the Japanese. Its practice was so extensive that on the Mariana Islands almost 60% of the Japanese dead had had their heads removed. Even the military command expressed concern over the practices prolific nature and issued statements against headhunting [even if these statements were not enforced] (Harrison 2006).

There are two proximal explanations of note that explain the headhunting behavior. The first is suggested by the soldiers themselves; they explain trophy-taking and other behaviors as being the result of the battlefield conditions. In their words, the war made monsters out of everyone involved on all sides of the battle. The second explanation that has been offered is that headhunting was a component of combat fatigue; however, this explanation has been refuted as the majority of headhunting occurred after the battle by fresh soldiers cleaning up the dead not by those in the actual fight (Harrison 2006).

A more medial explanation is the complex interaction between the United States’ hunting culture and the dehumanization of the Japanese. At the time in the United States the image of the hunter was a strong male identity [to some extent it still is true today]. Even men who were not hunters were familiar with its symbolism of masculine qualities such as self-reliance and hardihood. Now prior to the war the Japanese were viewed by the populous as being subhuman. During the war this perception escalated and transformed into the complete dehumanization of the Japanese into animals (Harrison 2006). This dehumanization in conjunction with the hunteridentity resulted in the Japanese literally being hunted through the Pacific Theater as animals, not human enemies. It went so far that hunting licenses for killing the Japanese were Licenceissued among the soldiers and in the States. Overall these factors created an environment where headhunting would be acceptable.

There are also two ultimate explanations that can be offered to explain the headhunting. The first is economic, in that the skulls were seen as having monetary value. As such soldiers treated the heads as commodities that could be traded for rations within the war complex or even sent home for family members to sell as war momentoes (Harrison 2006). In effect the heads functioned under a similar capacity as they had during the colonial period in Polynesia [ discussed previously] as they supplied the owner with greater economic advantage. The second ultimate explanation ties into reproductive fitness. The soldiers would send heads home as not only a representation of their success in war but also as tangible expressions of their love towards their wives and love interests. They even functioned as a representation of the soldiers national loyalty (Harrison 2006). In effect the there was a perceived gain in reproductive status by acquiring skulls and sending them home.

Housewife W/ Japanese Skull - Featured in Time MagAn interesting point to make is that after the conclusion of the war the trophy heads began to be repatriated to Japan by the very veterans that had originally acquired them (Harrison 2006). This seems to be the direct result of the Japanese being re-humanized thus being equal to the veterans. In this light they were no longer inhuman animals and deserved to be treated as human. Overall this changing attitude reflects how the adaptive strategy of headhunting was no longer adaptive and therefore in some manner was abandoned.

The significance of our exploration into trophy-taking is quite profound. The practice of trophy-taking is indeed a prolific one and it occurs within all manner of societies, from the chiefdoms of Polynesia to the modern nations of the United States. It has been demonstrated that to ignore proximate explanations is to downplay the diversity of trophy-taking while to ignore ultimate explanations is to deny the panhuman nature of trophy-taking. In order to holistically understand the peculiar warfare practice of trophy-taking it is necessary to explore it within the entire SPECTRUM OF CAUSATION.

-Until Next Time

Almost Someone

[NOTE:  ALL cultures discussed within the Trophy Taking Mini Series are discussed within historical contexts and do not reflect the contemporary people affiliated with these cultural groups.]

Works Cited:

Harrison, Simon

2006 Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of Remembrance. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12: 817-836.


Trophy Taking: Oceania: Maoris of New Zealand

Ignoring the fact that it has been almost [looks at calendar… wow!] two months since the last post the steam on this topic has probably escaped into the universe.  No matter though, I shall persist and finish this topic even if it rips my brains out like a common zombie  [because there are uncommon ones.]

Reinstating the reinstated blog trajectory in 3,2,1

The next stop in Oceania is New Zealand with an analysis of the trophy taking practices of the Maoris [pronounced “may-or-e” at least as far as I understand it.]  The Maoris practiced headhunting within the context of larger engagements with enemy groups. Warriors fought in close combat with the goal of removing the heads of their enemies. Traditionally only the heads of chiefs and notable warriors were preserved and taken back to the home village for display. The preservation process was undertaken by a specialist who accompanied the warriors into battle. An interesting point is that deceased relative’s and ancestor’s  heads were also preserved, however, these were distinguished from the heads taken during warfare by the manner in which their lips were sown.  Enemies had their lips pulled apart while relatives had their lips sown shut (Orchiston 1967).

Similar to the Iban, the Maoris held that the heads reflected the warlike power of the men who returned with them and as such it afforded them a greater status within their community.  However, unlike the Iban, the Maoris also viewed headhunting as a mode of revenge. The headhunting raids functioned as a mode of retribution for wrongs committed by the enemy.  Furthermore, these collected heads also played a significant role in peace negotiations; in that peace could be brokered through the return of the taken heads from earlier battles ( Orchiston 1967). 

At the time of European contact the trophy heads became equated to the economic status of individuals by functioning as a tradable commodity. European explores and colonists would trade valuable goods, including muskets, for the heads. Maoris men would then experience a shift in status with their greater economic wealth. This wealth increase in turn increased the demand for heads which now not only included chiefs and prominent warriors but any finely tattooed enemy whose head could be retrieved. As a result of this economic boom warfare increased as it was a successful adaptation to improved access to resources (Orchiston 1967).

Now it is necessary to break these explanations down into our spectrum of causation. The attribution of social status given to men through the attainment of heads falls into the more proximate level of explanation, in that it is reflective of specific beliefs of the Maoris culture.  The  use of headhunting raids as a means to enact revenge retribution also falls into a proximate level of explanation.  The cycle of revenge retribution is directly associated with the particular historical relationships between the different Maoris populations.   The shift of the heads into an economic commodity due to European contact can be viewed as an ultimate level explanation as it is a direct function of greater economic and by relation subsistence forces.

However, the use of this ultimate explanation uncritically can be problematic. As even though it relates to more structuring pan-human processes, the explanation only explains why headhunting persisted and increased after European contact. It does not explain why the Maoris practiced headhunting in the first place.

That concludes [I believe] our discussion of Oceania and the next post [hopefully not far off] will shift gears to the Americas which will include a discussion of the historic scalping practices of the Plains Native Americans and the headhunting and shrinking practices of the Shuar. As with the Oceania we will continue to investigate these particular forms of trophy taking within the context of the proximate and ultimate explanations.

-Until Next Time

Almost Someone

[NOTE:  ALL cultures discussed within the Trophy Taking Mini Series are discussed within historical contexts and do not reflect the contemporary people affiliated with these cultural groups.]

Works Cited:

Orchiston, D. Wayne

1967    Preserved Human Heads of the New

Zealand Maoris. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 76:3: 297-329.

 Trophy Taking: Oceania: Iban of Borneo

Iban Hunter Reinstating Blog Trajectory:  Initializing In 3, 2, 1.

Our first stop on this whirlwind tour of Trophy Taking is the very large, the very diverse, and the very ocean surrounded [alas the Name!] region of Oceana.  This region has one of the most detailed ethnographic record [AKA History as recorded by the West] and as such provides an excellent amount of detail in regards to headhunting and the debate surrounding its Causation.

In this post we will limit our discussion [for the sake of post length] to the Iban of Borneo.  But never fear, for in the future we will continue exploring Oceana with the Maoris of New Zealand, and the Indigenous of the Solomon Islands.

The Iban of Borneo practice headhunting within the context of surprise raids on enemy villages.  The raiding party was made up of a massive group of men; even though they existed as a group they functioned as individuals.  Each man out to achieve their personal goal of acquiring an enemy head. The action of the raid typically involved an imbalance of power in favor of the aggressor and as a result could be extremely deadly and often resulted in the abandonment of the attacked village by the inhabitants. The enemy villages chosen for these attacks were always those villages considered to be foreign. So even though the Iban targeted relative villages for raids, those raids never incorporated the use of headhunting.  At the conclusion of the raid the heads were removed and brought home to display to the populous the proof of their victory (Benedict 1976; Vayda 1969).

The Iban themselves provided proximate explanations for their headhunting activity.  The first explanation was that the enemy heads Elderly Iban and Trophiesare desired as the human head is the center of life energy. It was believed that this could be harnessed by the Iban to prevent things such as famine, crop failure, and female infertility.  The heads were necessary to maintain the existence of positive events and prevent the occurrence of negative ones.  The second explanation was that headhunting is considered traditional by the ancestors (Vayda 1969). This concept was reinforced by myths and legends depicting awesome [in the original definition of the word] warriors who practiced headhunting (Davison 1991).

Ultimate explanations for headhunting among the Iban can be derived from the effects of the headhunting practices.  These can be defined as increased status which resulted in economic gain and increased reproductive fitness.  Enemy heads functioned as a marker of an individual’s achievement during the raid.  Individuals then who procured more heads were viewed as more prestigious by the community and in that manner the heads functioned as a vehicle for men to move along the social ladder (Davison 1991: Vayda 1969).  Greater status could be equated to greater power in the community which translates into increased economic status and reproductive fitness.  In other words, more prestigious men have greater access to resources and are therefore more attractive to females (Vayda 1969).

Beyond increases in an individual’s access to resources, the practice of headhunting also functioned to provide greater access to resources at the community level. As mentioned above, the raids often resulted in the abandonment of enemy villages which in turn opened up arable land for Iban colonization, while simultaneously reducing the number of Iban competitors (Vayda 1969).

TrophyAnother interesting point that supports these ultimate explanations for headhunting is in how the practice eventual changed within Iban society. Today headhunting is as can be imagined no longer conducted, but it is still esteemed in memory.  Along with Colonial pressures to end headhunting there seems to be an association between the reduction of headhunting and an increase in both generation cycle and number of women (Austin 1981). Essentially the headhunting strategy was adaptive as it provided opportunities for greater reproductive fitness, however, when men lived longer and there were more women this adaptive strategy was no longer necessary to supply that edge to reproductive fitness and it fell out of practice.

As discussed in the introduction the explanation for the headhunting practice of the Iban of Borneo includes both proximate and ultimate levels of causation and it is with both of these that we gather a clearer picture of this fascinating wartime strategy.

Questions? Comments?  Post them below.  Next week the Maoris of New Zealand.

Until Next Time

-Almost Someone

[NOTE:  ALL cultures discussed within the Trophy Taking Mini Series are discussed within historical contexts and do not reflect the contemporary people affiliated with these cultural groups.]

Works Cited:

Austin, Robert Frederic

1981    Iban Migration: Patterns of Mobility and Employment in the 20th Century. University Microfilms International

Benedict, Sandin

1976    Iban Way of Life: A Translation from Tusun Pandiau. Borneo Literature Bureau, Kuching.

Davison, Julian Sutlive, Vinson H.

1991    The Children of NISING: Images of Headhunting and Male Sexuality in Iban Ritual and Oral Literature. In Female and Male in Borneo: Contributions and Challenges to Gender Studies, edited by Vinson H., 34-36. Williamsburg, VA.

Vayda, Andrew P.

1969    The Study of the Causes of War, with Special Reference to Head-Hunting Raids in Borneo. Ethnohistory 16:3: 211-224.


Introduction to Trophy-Taking Mini Series

Perseus Slaying Medusa

Perseus Slaying Medusa

As interesting as anthropological theory [I mean it is fascinating!] I have decided to forgo posting more theory synthesis [I know, I know…. But there is just so many other topics to talk about!]  Because of the cancelation of theory paper posting I have decided to do a more formal [informal ?  — no midormal] mini-series of posts [like the television ones without film… and music… and actors] on the fascinating topic of trophy-taking!

I know right! What could be more exciting than that?!  So to start we need some definitions.

Trophy taking is defined [according to anthropologists] as the removal of biological trophies from victims of warfare.  It is related to, but not equated with, similar practices conducted upon the dead for veneration purposes found among some cultures.  The defining feature being, these trophies were acquired from enemies during the course of war [It’s intense [Like Camping]].

To provide some perspective, the phenomenon is wide-spread throughout the planet.  It is expansive in both space and time.  AKA it occurs in many cultures and at many different periods throughout human history.  [AKA- KA it occurs EVERYEHWERE!]

Now as can be imagined [or not imagined] trophy-taking comes in many forms. Two of the most prominent types are headhunting and scalping [others being removal of eyes, ears, skin, penises, toes – the list goes on.]  We will be focusing on these two forms for two reasons. First headhunting and scalping have been well documented and discussed in the anthropological literature. Second, and most importantly these two forms of trophy-taking have strong cross-cultural occurrence which makes them ideal for answering the big question. [Your probably wondering what that is — well be patient it’s on the next line!]

The big question for trophy taking is why does it occur? What are the causes of trophy-taking?

The answers lie upon a SPECTRUM OF CAUSATION.  [Announcer Voice Activated]  In One Corner We Have PROXIMATE LEVLES Of CAUSATION!  He Represents Causation Explanations that Reflect the Specific History and Beliefs of a Given Culture.  In the Other Corner We Have ULTIMATE LEVELS OF CAUSATION!  He Represents Causation Explanations that Reflect Cross-Cultural Panhuman Similarities! [End Announcer Voice]

During this exploration of trophy-taking we will look at both ends of this SPECTURM OF CAUSATION in order to gain a more holistic understanding [Because Holism is important—and don’t forget it!] of this fascinating warfare phenomenon.

In the next posts we will explore a number of cultures found within three geographic regions; Oceana [which includes the southern portion of Indochina], the Americas, and Europe [due to the cultural relatedness will include the contemporary United States.]  The cultures to be explored are, the Iban of Borneo, the Maoris of New Zealand, the Indigenous people of the Solomon Islands, Plains Native Americans of North America, Shuar of South America, Early Historic Europeans, and WWII Era United States.

Can’t Wait!

Until Next Time

-Almost Someone

[P.S.  AKA – Also Known As Above the Knee Amputation.] 



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